Despite last year’s expose, a WPSI-EIA investigation found that trade in tiger skins flourishes in China and Tibet, thanks to official connivance and Indian suppliers Mihir Srivastava
The tiger heads inexorably to extinction - thanks to apathetic Indian authorities and the unabated demand for tiger skin and body parts from China. Any hope that the WPSI-EIA’s (Wildlife Protection Society of India-Environmental Investigation Agency) exposé last year of the flourishing trade in tiger skin in Tibet would lead to efforts to check this menace have come to naught. A follow-up investigation by the two agencies engaged in conservation work found that the nefarious trade continues to flourish with the active support of Chinese officials.
Tiger skins are being bought and sold right under the noses of Chinese officialdom and it is doing nothing about it. “According to reliable local sources, up to half the people wearing tiger skins this year at the Litang festival in Sichuan province of China were the government officials,” says Nick Mole, who was a part of the investigation team. The investigation report, titled Skinning the Cat, states, “… they (locals) had been encouraged to wear skins at the behest of the local officials who, directed by the superiors, are keen to promote an image of Tibetans prospering economically and culturally”.
Tibetans and Chinese draped in tiger skins could well go down as the most potent symbol of the “eminent extinction of Indian wild tigers” as some experts put it. At the Litang Festival this year, the team came across a tent constructed out of at least 100 tiger skins. To make this tent would have required the annihilation of the tiger population of two Corbett-like national parks.
While it was claimed that the skins were very old, tiger expert Nitin Desai, who was part of the investigation team and closely examined the tent, feels otherwise: “There is no way you can preserve the tent made out of tiger skin for centuries as they claimed. It was fairly evident that some of the skin were fresh.” Local Chinese authorities maintain this tent, and it is repaired by replacing old tiger skin with new. The repairing is done under the supervision of government officials. The tent was showcased at the Litang festival by the Litang Cultural Tourism Board, a government agency.
Last year’s investigation irrefutably established that Tibet is a big market for tiger skin. This year, investigators retraced their steps to assess the impact of last year’s expose. The investigations lasted six weeks, during which the team visited the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Sichuan and Gansu provinces, major and remote markets, and horse festivals where the skins were being sold and openly worn. Last year, the team recorded 50 tiger-skin and 200 leopard-skin chupas (skin robe) in the four festivals they went to. This year, there was sizable fall in the number of people wearing chupas.
“In all, I would say, the outcome is both bad and good,” says Mole. Good because last year’s spirited appeal by the Dalai Lama not to wear tiger skin has shown results. The ensuing public awareness campaign has also met with success. In an organised event in February this year, people gathered at many places to consign tiger skins to bone-fires. However, Mole clarified, the event had nothing to do with government enforcement or action.
The bad news is that while the sale of tiger skins is not very overt, it is still easy to find them. The awareness campaign has had an impact on one segment of the customer, but the skin trade has remained dynamic all this while. As a result there were more fresh tiger and leopard skins available for sale this year in markets in Tibet than in 2005. “The visibility has decreased but the trade has not decreased,” says Belinda Wright, Executive Director, WPSI.
New buyers of tiger skin from China have entered the market, primarily using it for interior decoration and as a status symbol. “A local trader informed us that a business entity purchased 60 tiger skin pieces as a goodwill gift for employees,” says Mole. The report quotes a trader saying: “80 per cent of the customers are from mainland China, while others are government and army officials.”
“It is a matter of great concern because the market has expanded beyond Tibet and enforcement is inadequate,” says Wright.
“The temporary lull was accompanied by fall in the prices of the tiger skin which encouraged the traders here to stockpile tiger skins,” says Desai. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for them as the fall in prices roped in a number of Chinese and foreign buyers. “This effectively means disaster, there are now two billion potential customers for tiger skin,” says Wright.
The tiger skin business here is neither underground nor inaccessible. While the leopard skins were often kept in shops, tiger skins were usually kept at home or in business premises. There was also evidence of trade networks and supply chains, with traders sharing skins, pooling resources and hoarding stockpiles from which other traders, often from out of town, would select skins.
The lack of enforcement was obvious. “We went there as tourists and took pictures and videos. Rarely did we have to use undercover cameras, and had no difficulty in finding tiger skins,” says Mole. Traders were aware of the illegality of their business but were equally assured that there would be no disruption by local authorities. One trader told investigators that enforcement had slacked off in the last two years. Another claimed that he could move around in the market with a tiger skin in his bag.
Tiger body parts have traditionally been in great demand for use as ingredients in Chinese medicine. The traditional Chinese medicine lobby has categorically stated that they support the development of alternatives which do not use tiger bones and body parts. There have been reports indicating that Chinese medicine practitioners have in fact identified alternatives. “This is done to sound good and pave way to enter the international market,” says an expert in Chinese affairs who does not want to be named. “Despite this there is a lobby within the Chinese Government that wants Chinese medicine to use tiger parts,” says Wright.
Most skins found by the team in Tibet and China were of Indian origin. Many traders said that they source tiger skins from India. “Some of them showed us the mobile numbers of their contacts in Delhi,” says Mole. Some had visited Delhi and some were going to visit soon. “There was no indication whatsoever that they had any difficulty in smuggling skins from India,” adds Mole.
Traders are not bothered by the illegality of the trade and their business is certainly not underground. “Basically, the traders are careful,” says Mole. “I just had to tell them that I was a tourist and was looking for something unique to this place and I was shown tiger skins. Tiger skins were not so much on display but tiger parts like claws and pug were showcased on the shelves.”
Skins are trafficked in small consignments of one or two across the mountain passes, unlike in past when they were transported in bulk. “There are as many as 83 porous transits points along the Indo-Nepal border,” says Desai. “This can only be checked if there is political will to put in place professional enforcement response.”
Desai examined the skins closely to ascertain their Indian origin. “The processing and tanning of the skin tells the entire story,” he says. Tanning or curing of skins was done in typical Indian style. Most of the skins had been dried by the stretch-drain technique (where the skin is stretched on a wooded frame with the help nails and dried). The tiger skins were tanned in the typical Indian way, by applying turmeric, curd and vinegar to them.
“Some of the skins we found there were rolled, the other were folded in the typical Indian way that reminded me of the tiger skin seized in Kanpur. Injury marks around the neckline indicate the cut-wire snare, a method gaining popularity which asphyxiates tigers to death,” says Desai.
“Hunting is the only vocation for a few tribes in India. They travel far and wide to poach,” says Desai. Two hundred and sixty individuals from 13 villages in Katni, Madhya Pradesh and 100 poachers, mostly tribals from hunting communities in Rajasthan and Haryana, have been known to travel to as far as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in search of tigers.
They are the cogs of the organised poaching network. Desai says that organised gangs often approach small time poachers for skin when there is a shortage. “You don’t have to commit any crime, you get cash for informing the contact person that there is a tiger in the vicinity,” says Wright.
Comparing the two investigations carried out by the WPSI-EIA team, Mole says: “The most frustrating aspect is that nothing has changed in the last one year. If you cannot deal with it as an environmental issue, at least deal with it as an illegal international trade, like drug trafficking.” Holding a fresh tiger skin just brings one thought to Mole’s mind. “Why I am here? Why is there the need for me to be here?” Wright explains the experience differently: “I have spent my entire life in tiger conservation. I can now safely say that I have seen more dead tigers in last couple of years than live ones in all my life.”
“There are two adverse consequences of making a report like this,” says Wright. “The organised poachers would know how little we know about the trade, about them and would in some way feel encouraged. Secondly, it could be taken in the wrong way by government agencies in India, as was the case last year. They shut the door at us. It is still shut.”
Wright is at pains to emphasise that the report aims to provide the facts and nothing else. “We present these facts in the most humble fashion. If there is a solution to this crisis, we want to be part of the solution. We are not here to bash any government. We are here to present facts; we are here to present the crisis.”
She cautions the governments of Nepal, India and China. “In this world of uncertainties, the consequence of taking no action is very clear - a world without Panthera tigris