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.