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Fur Flies Over Tiger Plight

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2006/02/18; February 18, 2006.]

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 6000 ($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 extinction.

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 wildlife reserves.

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 Chinese law.

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 themselves.

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 robes.

"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."

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