By Justin Huggler
New Zealand Herald
18 February 2006
TIBET - A rich and unusual smoke has been drifting into the Tibetan skies as
people emerge from their homes and burn animal skins.
Onlookers have gathered to watch as Tibetans burned tiger skins worth as
much as ?000 ($15,500) in the streets.
Many have given up their chubas, traditional robes adorned with tiger skins
that can cost the equivalent of two years' wages for the average Tibetan,
and watched happily as they went up in smoke.
In one town, it is said you can see the smoking remains of tiger skins and
other furs along the roadside.
These scenes are part of a major environmental drive among Tibetans that
could be decisive in whether the tiger survives in the wild, or is driven to
They come after the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile,
called on his people to stop the trade in wild animal skins because, almost
unnoticed by the outside world, Tibet has become the world's leading market
for contraband tiger skins.
Environmentalists now believe the Tibetan skin trade is as influential as
Chinese medicine in driving the demand for tigers.
The market for the skins in Tibet has ravaged the wild tiger population in
India. Environmentalists have warned the tiger is on the verge of extinction
after it emerged last year that large numbers have disappeared from India's
And news has come that tigers are missing from yet another Indian reserve,
this time Buxa, in West Bengal. Some Indian wildlife experts warn there may
be as few as 1200 tigers left in India.
Shops in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, openly display tiger skins, despite the
international ban on the trade, and the fact that it is illegal under
Environmentalists have proved a direct link between the disappearing tigers
of India and the skins on display in Tibet.
And so the Dalai Lama stepped in. Last month, thousands of Tibetans streamed
into India. Around 7000 were allowed entry by the Chinese authorities but
thousands more went without permission, braving an arduous trek across the
Himalayas in the harshest winter conditions, struggling through Nepal, which
is in the grip of civil war, and then travelling for hundreds of kilometres
to south India.
They were there for the Kalachakra, one of the most important festivals of
the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. Because this year's was the 30th Kalachakra
the present Dalai Lama has presided at, and because it was being held at the
site of the original Kalachakra centuries ago, exceptionally large numbers
of Tibetans made the journey.
The Dalai Lama seized the opportunity to deliver a stark message to the vast
crowds from inside Tibet. Wearing animal skins and furs was against
Buddhism. He said he had been "ashamed" at photos showing Tibetans wearing
robes covered with tiger skins.
"When you go back to your respective places, remember what I said earlier
and never use, sell, or buy wild animals, their products or derivatives," he
told the crowds.
Observers at the festival said they had rarely seen the Dalai Lama so
passionate. His words clearly hit home: many Tibetans who were there said
they would burn their fur-trimmed robes as soon as they returned home.
On January 31, two weeks after the end of the festival, the first report
came of someone burning furs. The movement quickly snowballed, and there
have been incidents of fur burning across the country.
Traditional Tibetan chubas are also lined with leopard, otter and fox fur,
and there have been instances of all of them being burned.
Reports say that over the past two weeks the price of tiger skins and other
furs has dropped drastically.
"It is testimony to the extraordinary influence the Dalai Lama has on
Tibetans in Tibet," says Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for
Tibet. "It shows the importance of his direct communication for Tibetans."
The growing controversy over the skins has provoked intense debate on the
internet chatrooms that have become the main centres of discussion between
Tibetans inside Tibet and those living in exile
"It is disgusting that Tibetans are involved in [this] heinous business,"
wrote one person on www.phayul.com. "Thanks to all Tibetans inside and
outside Tibet who are working day in day out to increase the awareness on
how sinful it is to use animal skins," wrote another.
The development has been welcomed by conservationists. Debbie Banks from the
Environmental Investigation Agency, the international campaigning
organisation that exposes environmental crime, said: "While it is heartening
to see former consumers cast off and burn their tiger and leopard skins, we
also need to see the Chinese and Indian Governments take action.
"They must invest in professional enforcement and co-operate with each other
to crack down on the criminal networks controlling the trafficking of skins.
This illegal trade is the biggest threat to the survival of India's wild
tigers and if no action is taken, it will mark the end of the tiger."
Judy Mills of the Campaign against Tiger Trafficking called the effort "an
organised response to an organised crime".
Undercover investigations by Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection
Society of India (WSPI) revealed the extent of the tiger skin trade in
Tibet, and her photographs of Tibetans wearing tiger skins shocked many.
"News of the disastrous consequences of the skin trade and His Holiness the
Dalai Lama's condemnation of the use of skins appear to be spreading across
the Tibetan region," she said.
Just 100 years ago, there were 100,000 tigers in the world. Today, the
number left in the wild is between 5000 and 7000, but those figures were
compiled seven years ago from figures supplied by governments which have
since been discredited.
Wildlife organisations now fear the real number may be closer to 3000.
India has the last sizeable population of tigers in the wild, accounting for
more than 60 per cent of the world's tigers.
But the alarm was sounded after it was found last year that tigers were
disappearing from India's forest reserves at an alarming rate. At a wildlife
reserve called Sariska, the authorities were forced to admit that all the
tigers had vanished.
In the controversy that followed, it became clear that tigers were missing
from reserves all over India. Now Buxa tiger reserve can account for only
four of the 27 it is supposed to have.
One of India's most respected tiger experts said the country would be lucky
to have 1200 tigers left. In most cases, the disappearance of the tigers is
the direct result of highly organised poaching.
The underfunded wildlife authority does not have the strength or the
finances to mount effective patrols. In some cases, there have been
allegations that poachers may have bribed wardens to turn a blind eye.
The link between the market for tiger skins in Tibet and poaching in India
first emerged in 2000, after Indian police seized a crate of skins being
smuggled out of the country. Inside, they found the skins had been
identified with Tibetan markings.
The ensuing investigation revealed that the illegal trade in tiger skins is
a highly sophisticated operation. Tibetan merchants travel to India to view
the skins of tigers killed by the poachers. They choose the ones they want
but they do not take the risk of transporting them across the border
The skins are marked to show which merchant they are headed for, and are
transported to Tibet via Nepal, where the lawlessness caused by the civil
war makes it easy for them to slip through.
Last year, a team from WSPI went to Tibet undercover to investigate the
extent of the trade. What they found shocked them. Tiger and leopard skins
were openly on display in Lhasa's Barkhor shopping area. The shopkeepers
openly told the investigators that the skins had come from India.
One tourist who contacted the wildlife organisation spoke of seeing an
entire crate of leopard skins.
Trading in the skins of tigers and other endangered species is illegal under
Chinese law, but there is no enforcement in Tibet.
Environmentalists say the craze for the robes has been driven by a
different, urban section of Tibetan society. Most Tibetans are poor, but in
the cities there is growing wealth, which has fuelled a fashion for the
"This newfound trend has less to do with old customs than with new money,"
said Dawa Tsering, head of WWF China's Tibet programme.
Environmental investigators found it was not only Tibetans who bought the
skins. Chinese people were travelling to Tibet to buy tiger skins to
decorate their homes.
Lhasa is known as the place to get a tiger or leopard skin on the black
market, and the environmentalists were told that Europeans came to the city
to buy skins, even though being caught returning with one to a European
country could result in trouble.
For the Dalai Lama, who has been committed to environmental causes for many
years, and who has lived in India since he fled the Chinese occupation of
Tibet, the photographs of Tibetans wearing the skins proved too much.
He has spoken out against wearing furs before, but at this year's festival
he was direct in his condemnation.
Although it appears that it is the Dalai Lama alone who has the moral
authority to turn Tibetans so dramatically against the animal skins, his
involvement is causing trouble with the Chinese authorities, who continue to
regard the the exiled spiritual leader as a threat, despite his calls in
recent years for rapprochement.
Most of the burnings so far have been spontaneous, but environmentalists
were planning a large organised gathering to burn more. It was not clear
whether the event would go ahead, after the Chinese local authorities called
an urgent meeting on the "Dalai clique".
Tseten Gyal, a Tibetan involved in organising the gathering, has been
questioned by state security agents, despite saying that he is only trying
to protect the environment, and is not involved in political activities.
"The Chinese have spoken of the importance of environmental protection and
that is what the Dalai Lama's message addresses," says Saunders of the
International Campaign for Tibet.
"Although this may be of concern to local authorities, I'm sure the main
Chinese authorities understand that he is expressing the same environmental
concerns they have addressed."