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Following the Tiger's Trail

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2006/02/02; February 2, 2006.]

Update - Special Report
31 January 2006, ISSN: Pending

At a news conference held in New Delhi on 22 September 2005, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), and the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) produced spectacular images of Tibetans in Tibet dressed in near-complete tiger skin s and informed the world’s media that the skins of tigers and other endangered big cats were openly on sale in the markets of Lhasa. The footage and pictures amassed by the environmental activists in Tibetan regions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were widely reported around the world. These reports present a picture of "growing wealth" among Tibetans, whose "fashion demands" have created a market that will lead to the extinction of tigers in the wild in India. Research by TibetInfoNet presented in this Special Report suggests that this international reception is simplistic and does not accurately describe the reality on the ground. This report explains the context of the trade and its dynamics, and argues that, despite official prohibition, PRC authorities actively promote the wearing of tiger skins for propaganda and commercial purposes. Tibetinfonet follows the trail of the tiger skins from national parks in India to rural festivals in eastern Tibet, and shows that the major players within the trade are Tibetans on the fringes of the exile communities in Nepal and India, and organisations protected by the Chinese authorities because of past or current political services provided to the regime. We identify some of these groups and show that unless the PRC authorities review their governance and policies towards Tibetans, it is doubtful whether the Indian tiger has any chance of survival.

Official estimates put the population of tigers in the wild in India at 3,500, but many commentators believe that this is an optimistic figure. Whereas figures remain contested, there is a clear consensus among environmentalists that the tiger’s situation is precarious and that the greatest threat they face is being poached to feed the demand for tiger ski ns and body parts in the PRC. Following the press conference in Delhi, international reports unanimously stated that "huge seizures of tiger, leopard and otter skins in India and Nepal indicate the existence of highly organised criminal networks behind the skin trade". However, these reports fall short of providing actual details about these networks. Information received by TibetInfoNet provides a comprehensive overview of the trade, its structure and the groups of people involved in it.

The Geography of the Trade - Uneven Success of Seizures

The route taken by thi s macabre trade starts in the vicinity of any of 27 Indian national parks where tigers live. They are hunted by local poachers and dismembered in situ before following different routes north.

-- Coming from parks in south and central India or Bengal, tiger products usually travel through Calcutta before being moved to Siliguri, at the foot of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalaya.

-- If they are coming from other parts of India, particularly Rajasthan, they generally go directly to Delhi. From these two hubs, Siliguri, and Delhi, the tiger products continue their journey into Tibet via one of three different routes:

-- The eastern route starts in Siliguri and continues either into the Darjeeling-Sikkim mountains or into Arunachal Pradesh and then across the Indo-Tibetan border.

-- The central route goes either from Siliguri or Delhi to Nepal(1), and from then to Tibet (see below).

-- The western route starts in Delhi and heads to the western Himala ya, where it enters Tibet either at the Dharchula-pass, close to where the borders of Nepal, Tibet and India meet in Uttaranchal, or in Ladakh.

The open border policy between India and Nepal has historically made the route via Nepal the most convenient. Once in Nepal, the tiger products are generally stored in Baudha, the most important ethnic Himalayan enclave in the Kathmandu valley. Exploiting relationships with corrupt members of the Nepalese security forces, the traders then smuggle the tiger products into Tibet, either through the main entry point at Khasa on the Sino-Nepalese Friendship Highway, or through the region of Mustang (Tib: Lo) in western Nepal(2).

The choice of route is based on the prevailing situation at the border with Tibet. The vast area between Siliguri in the east, Delhi in the west and the Nepal border in the north, is therefore the most important transit corridor for the trade in tiger parts in south Asia. Effective policing of this area is very difficult because of the sheer density of the human population here, the scale and intricacy of the road networks and the frequency with which tiger products, along with other illicit goods, are smuggled. Nevertheless, it is here that a great number of seizures are made.

In contrast, only two seizures have been made in Tibet itself. This is surprising for two reasons. On one hand, on this side of the border, the trade routes all converge at Lhasa following, as a glimpse at the map will show, the few existing roads suitable for motor vehicles. These roads run through barren landscapes, making effective monitoring much easier here than in northern India and Nepal. On the other hand, this border region also has the highest concentration of security forces in all Tibet, for obvious strategic reasons, but also in order to stop Tibetans escaping to India and Nepal. This indicates the existence of a particularly conducive environment for the trade on that side of the border(3).

Operators of the Trade: 1. Couriers and Traders

The trade and transportation of tiger products is dominated by a network made up of three groups of people: the couriers, who take the products to the hubs or close to the borders; traders, who organise the day-to-day traffic and smuggle the products across the borders (and are also involved in local selling in Tibet) and; syndicates, which regulate the trade, provide cover and generally smooth relationships with the authorities in Tibet. These syndicates are also responsible for running depots and distributing the tiger products to Tibetan and non-Tibetan destinations and easily make the greatest share from the profits of this trade.

Incidental arrests and local observations in India and Nepal reveal that the couriers generally work on an occasional basis. The majority of them are Nepalis, typically Manangis, Sherpas etc, but occasionally some Indians and Tibetan refugees also participate. Their role is restricted to smuggling smaller amounts of the contraband, and they are usually opportunistic in their methods of concealment, packing vehicle tyres, thermos flasks and other similar items.

These couriers are hired, briefed and their itineraries arranged by the traders and if the size of the haul warrants it, they will personally take control of its transport. Most of the trade rs appear to be of eastern Tibetan origin and many of them own different properties in south Delhi, within the Majnukatila area, (a Tibetan colony in north Delhi outside the jurisdiction of the exile Tibetan administration,) and in Baudha, where the contraband is temporarily stored. The traders often travel to Tibet where they are involved in various enterprises (import-export, tourism, transport etc.) and maintain warm relationships with the authorities. After bribing corrupt Indian and Nepali customs personnel, and with the implicit knowledge of the authorities on the PRC side of the border, they lead small teams who bring the contraband into the TAR. Once there, the goods are distributed to shops or continue on to further hubs in the PRC.

There is a history of political tension between most of these traders and the Tibetan exile authorities in Dharamsala, and many of them belong to organisations that are in conflict with Dharamsala. They carry Indian, or often Nepali, passports instead of the standard refugee documents, and although they are linked to the Tibetan exile society through businesses (money lending, transport, guesthouses etc.), they live at its outer margins and are widely feared by the majority because of their links to the Indian underworld. Although these men are specialists in the illegal trafficking of wildlife, they are also often involved in other cross-border trade, and while some of it may nominally be legal, many are implicated, for instance, in the illegal trade in antiques and artefacts and in supplying false Nepali and Indian travel documents. They are not involved in any cross-border drugs trade, whose proscript ion in the PRC is strictly enforced, though they are likely to be involved in drugs trafficking within India and Nepal.

Tashi Tsering, alias "Tsewang" is a representative example of these traders. In the early 1990s, a haul of skins and other illegal items were seized from his house in Majnukatila but he managed to escape and shift his activities to Nepal. He shot to notoriety in 1999 however, when Indian police seized one of their biggest hauls ever of wildlife skins in Ghaziabad, near Delhi. Large numbers of tiger, leopard and otter skins, in transit to Siliguri in West Bengal, were found to have been systemically numbered in a way that suggested they were part of a larger consignment but each also bore Tashi Tsering’s signature. A year later, in Siliguri, Tashi Tsering’s signature turned up again in a further consignment, but once again he evaded capture, with the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) allegedly missing him by just a few minutes.

On 03 April 2002, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant ("red corner notice’) against Tashi Tsering on charges of conspiracy and violation of the provisions of India’s Wildlife Protection Act, forcing him to go underground. However, he was soon back in Delhi using the alias "Tsewang’ where he continued his activities. A seizure on 06 April 2005, in Delhi, resulted in the arrest of one of his accomplices and in September 2005, Interpol issued a further notice in the name of "Tsewang" but he remained at large. A major breakthrough came when investigators from Indian and Nepali NGOs, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN), established that "Tsewang’ and Tashi Tsering were the same person, and then obtained a photograph, which made his identification possible. He evaded capture again in November 2005, when three truckloads of skins were seized and a group of people arrested in a remote area on the Nepal-Tibet border by Nepali army personnel.

His arrest finally came on 11 December 2005 in Baudha and was made possible by a massive surveillance operation staged by WTI and WCN and supported by Indian and Nepali security personnel. Tashi Tsering is now likely to face 15 years imprisonment. Although he is Tibetan by origin, Tashi Tsering is a Nepalese citizen and maintained excellent political connections in Nepal and Tib et, and is known to have been associated with a syndicate located in Nagchu, (see below). Whether as Tashi Tsering or as "Tsewang" he was feared by Tibetans in both India and Nepal, due to his contacts with Indian gangsters and corrupt Nepali security forces.

Operators of the Trade 2: The Syndicates

Two particular syndicates in Tibet can be identified as major players in the wildlife trade, both of which operate under the cover of companies run by prominent Tibetans. One is the Nagchu Import-Export Corporation (Chin: Naqu Tangla Waimao) based in Nagchu in the north of the TAR, but with offices in Hong Kong and Lhasa; and the other is the Dokham Cultural & Welfare Charitable Trust, registered in Chengdu, Sichuan, but with its operational headquarters in Hong Kong and offices in Kathmandu and Bangkok.

The Nagchu Import-Export Corporation is run by Nagchu Tsewang, the brother of Ragdi (Chin: Raidi). As former Party Executive Deputy Secretary of the TAR, and former Chairman of the TAR People's Congress, Ragdi was the highest ranking Tibetan within the Communist hierarchy in Tibet for many years until May 2003 when he was promoted to vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and left for Beijing. Despite his departure, he is known to have left behind a powerful oligarchy composed of his friends and relatives. Ragdi, who led a faction of Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, rose to the height of power during the 1980s and his position was strengthened during Hu Jintao’s tenure as Party Secretary of the TAR. Nagchu Import-Export Corporation is a joint-venture company, with both the TAR and the PRC central government involved and has a diverse portfolio of interests that include shares in the ABC bus to Kathmandu. Some years ago, the company found itself unable to repay a bank loan and would have become bankrupt had it had not been bailed out by central bank funds and government grants.

The Dokham Cultural & Welfare Charitable Trust was founded by Jigme Thinley, also known as Khatok Shingkyong Lama, one of the most colourful personalities in recent Tibetan history, both in exile and in Tibet. Shingkyong Lama first came to prominence in connection with a case of embezzlement involving the Kathok Lime Industry (a Tibetan co-operative enterprise formed in the early days of exile at Satgaon, near Bir Tibetan settlement in Himachal Pradesh, India). He went on to become a vocal critic of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile authorities, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), in Dharamsala, as well as a radical leader of the ’13 Settlements’ (Tib: Tsogka Choksum). "13 Settlements’ was a coalition of 13 Tibetan camps populated mainly by refugees from eastern Tibet who had, from the mid-1960s on, refused to accept the authority of Dharamsala due to the prevalence of Central Tibetans and the predominance of the Gelupa school of Buddhism within the CTA. The coalition was partly funded by the now defunct Commission for Mongol and Tibetan Affairs in Taiwan(4).

In August 1982, Shingkyong Lama made his first trip to Tibet, where he praised the achievements of the Chinese authorities. Less than a year later, when returning from a second trip he was arrested in Barabisi, Nepal, with two truckloads of antique statues, gold and other illicit valuables, brought from Tibet, but he was released soon after. In early 1984, he returned to Tibet permanently to an enthusiastic reception from the Chinese authorities. He took up residence in Chengdu, Sichuan, in accommodation provided by the United Front Department (Chin: Tong Zhan Bu; the organ of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in charge of "unifying’ non-party ethnic and religious organisations), an organization with which he entertained a particularly intimate relationship. At times, he even became a member of the provincial People’s Congress. He is the holder of a red diplomatic PR C passport, and is allegedly accompanied by four bodyguards whenever he appears in public. Shingkyong Lama is also alleged to have operated covert activities for the Chinese military intelligence, despite maintaining close relations with members of the Commission for Mongol and Tibetan Affairs in Taiwan. He and his family were also involved in taking Thinley Thaye Dorje, the boy who claims the throne of the Karma-Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, to India. This action set him against Urgyen Thinley, who was recognised by the Dalai Lama as the official Karmapa. Finally, in 1997 he was involved in publishing and distributing the booklet "Mongoose Canine’ which was harshly critical of the Dalai Lama. Because of his anti-Dalai Lama activities, his close relationship with the Chinese authorities, and his related commercial activities, and a partial physical disability, Shingkyong Lama has been popularly known in Tibet as "The Limping Lama in the Political Trade’ (Tib: chabsi tsongp a lama kang jog).

Until the late 1990s, Shingkyong Lama was a frequent visitor to Kathmandu where he held meetings with other anti-Dalai Lama associations in his brother’s house in Baudha. He also formed the Derge Welfare Trust, based in Chengdu, but with offices in Hong Kong, Kathmandu and southern India, which involved in the smuggling of wildlife products and antiques. The head office of the Dokham Cultural & Welfare Charitable Trust in Hong Kong (Chonqing Mansion, Kowloon) is under the control of Sangye Kyab, Shingkyong Lama’s younger brother. It is from this office that funds from antique and wildlife operations are channelled to the trust’s operatives in India and Nepal. Sangye Kyab is a former member of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), known as "Establishment 22’ , an elite regiment of the Indian army composed largely of Tibetans. Sangye Kyab is believed to have taken up the day to day running of the organisation due to Shingkyong Lama’s ill-health, which if unconfirmed reports can be believed, may have recently led to his death.

TibetInfoNet is in possession of a list of ten traders involved in illegal wildlife trafficking, all of whom are associated with at least one of the two syndicates mentioned above. Like Tashi Tsering, these traders are wealthy businessmen and have clear links to south Asian mafias. They live mainly in properties in Baudha, and most of them have been arrested at some point but were later released thanks to bribes and the help of prominent lawyers.

For both the traders, and the syndicates in whose networks they operate, smuggling tiger skins is only one of many inter-related criminal activities. There is a direct connection between this and the internationally banned trade in shatoosh, the wool of the Tibetan antelope, also known as the chiru, and selected as one of the mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For many years, shatoosh from Tibet has been traded for tiger products from India which were taken to China via Tibet. The rate was set at two bags of chiru wool for one bag of tiger bones, but with the increasing importance of the cash economy in Tibet, this system of trade is less significant now. The traffic in tiger products follows the same route through passes in Ladakh as the shatoosh trade, whose routes were established by their proximity to the chiru’s habitat in th e Tibetan Changtang region to the west, and the availability of skilled Kashmiri weavers to the east. Since the recent tightening up of control over the shatoosh trade, particularly in India, other routes have been more commonly used recently. The syndicates now mostly take it from Tibet by road to Xinjiang, where Kazakhstani aircraft transport it to various Central Asian republics. It is then moved to Pakistan, then Delhi, before reaching its final destination in Srinagar, the capital of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. A combination of court cases and negotiations led by the Indian authorities and Indian NGOs, aimed at known Kashmiri buyers, appears to have led to a recent reduction in the trade in shatoosh. This, however, may be a possible factor in explaining the current resurgence of the tiger trade as an alternative income source.

'Prosperity' and the Reinvention of Traditions

Tibetans have always traditionally used animal skins, in particular those belonging to leopards and otters, to trim their festive garments, but large numbers of skins, or whole skins, were mainly the privilege of chieftains and were worn as a mark of their rank and wealth. In Tibet, the tiger symbolised physical, military or spiritual power rather than simply just wealth or social position. Consequently, tiger skins were primarily used for military uniforms (as aprons or capes, for example) or related items, or, very occasionally, in religious or folk religious contexts(5). Also, aristocrats and chieftains claiming descent from generals of the Tibetan empire in early history, or from King Gesar, the mythical hero of the Tibetan national epic, used items decorated with real tiger skins or woven imitations, in particular rugs. The use of tiger skins for garments was rare and, where it was used, it was only to trim the edge of garments. Garments made completely of tiger skins, or those made of complete skins, like those in WPSI and EIA’s pictures were exceptional.

The international media’s response to WPSI and EIA’s findings have focussed on "dramatic new findings", and directly link the danger of extinction of the Indian tiger to an allegedly rapidly growing "new Tibetan trend for skins" in the "bustling bazaars of Tibet". The growth of the market is attributed to the "newly monied classes" in "a richer Tibet and China", as well as to "affluent Tibetans" and a "newfound prosperity" in Tibet.

Despite official prohibition in the early 1990s in the PRC, the skins of several endangered species have been freely available on markets since the reopening of the southern Tibetan borders in the 1980s. The lack of awareness among Tibetans in Tibet about the risk of extinction of the big cats is indisputable, just as is the fact that even a small increase in the demand for their skins could seriously jeopardize the tigers’ survival in India.

According to Belinda Wright, the executive director of WPS I, in Tibetan areas there is a "thriving market, which may explain the increased poaching of tigers in India" but in the absence of any official or unofficial figures, it remains difficult to measure trends within this market. Also, without denying the importance of the domestic market, the extent to which local Tibetans are buying traditional garments trimmed with fur, rather than tourists creating a demand for "authentic’ Tibetan clothing, as souvenirs, need to be examined. It is no coincidence that Lhasa, the centre of tourism, appears to be the largest market for these products while Tibetans, such as those in EIA/WPSI’s images, using tiger skins live mainly in rural areas.

In any case, attributing an increase in the trade to "fashion’ and economic progress in Tibet is inaccurate. Ignoring official propaganda, all available independent analysis based on official Chinese statistics indicates that economic growth in Tibet is almost exclusively fuelled by government subsidies that benefit primarily non-Tibetan investors and workers. Any benefits trickling down to Tibetans reach only a very thin layer of mainly urban dwellers, and very few indeed amongst the rural population(6). In the TAR, about 85% of Tibetans still live in rural areas in great poverty, and any suggestions that new affluence among average Tibetans has triggered the mass-consumption of tiger skins hardly seems convincing.

With its title "Festivals in the Tibet Autonomous Region are taking a toll on tigers, leopards and otters in India", the Delhi-based Statesman, provi des the key to a more appropriate understanding of the circumstances surrounding the use of tiger skins in today’s Tibet. It reflects the fact that WPSI and EIA’s investigations focused on festivals held in different parts of rural Tibet. What deserves more consideration however, is that in recent years such festivals have evolved from popular fairs to events patronised and orchestrated by state authorities, featuring a sanitized and sexed up version of Tibetan culture, with the primary aim of showcasing a wealthy and "modern" but also markedly "exotic" Tibet. On the one hand, dance presentations that were once improvised, make way for choreographed shows by state-sponsored and "developed’ government dance troupes. On the other hand, ceremonial displays of "traditional’ garments, or, more accurately, kitsch versions of them, have lately become an essential element of such festivals. Rural Tibetans that participate in such displays are encouraged to compete for the title of the most (at times, grotesquely) impressive among them and receive awards presented by party representatives. Researchers in Tibet observe that people lavishly dress up for such shows in a way that is unheard of for more traditional occasions, such as new year festivals (Losar), which are celebrated in more intimate surrounding, far from public attention. Precisely because of their traditional scarcity, garments adorned with real tiger skins are in high demand among organisers. Debbie Banks from EIA mentions that officials exhort festival participants to wear tiger and other skins. Another source from Tibet witnessed officials scolding Tibetan dancers who had turned up without enough tiger furs with the admonishment: "Do you want our county to look poorer than its neighbours?"

It is in this process of state sponsored re-invention of Tibetan culture that the use of tiger and other skins at festivals is rapidly spreading across the whole Tibetan plateau. In reaction to this tendency and referring directly to the images circulated by WPSI and EIA, the Dalai Lama, during the Kalachakra ceremony recently held in southern India, expressed concerns about the superficiality of "wearing expensive jewels and cloths brocaded by animal skins". The extent to which secular festivals in Tibet have become alternative showcases of Tibetan culture, slowly supplanting monasteries and religious festivals, for two decades the main tourist attractions, is hinted at by the fact that a single Google search with the key words "Tibet’ and "festivals’ returns 2,500,000 entries.

Apart from these rural festivals, official state functions also provide a platform for similar displays of "reformed’ traditions. An Indian high official who attended the official ceremonies for the 40th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region held in Lhasa on 01 September 2005 is quoted as remarking: "All this is very impressive, but I wonder why dead Indian tigers have to dance to the glory of the People’s Republic of China".

Following official efforts to display an image of an increasingly wealthy Tibet where traditional culture, or rather its most visible and "exotic’ aspects, are not only respected but even actively promoted, freely available publications and websites disseminate the most impressive scenes from such festivals in China and abroad. VCDs, common in Tib et and among Tibetans in India and Nepal, present an even more vivid picture, apparently contradicting conventional images of dull poverty. Apart from the obvious political propaganda effect, this policy is aimed at attracting tourists to Tibet, particularly Chinese tourists for whom such depictions of baroque Tibetans, living close to nature and wearing the skins of the most dangerous "beasts" respond to popular expectations of the thrilling archaic and "exotic other’.

PR and Environmental Protection - Is the Tiger the Winner?

Although it is clearly too early to ass ess the level of awareness generated by the results of WPSI and EIA’s investigations, a discussion of the response triggered since September 2005 allows at least a preliminary analysis of the possible impact on both Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, and on effective protection for the tiger.

The first reaction came from the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) China section even before WPSI and EIA’s information reached the public. Just after both organisations completed their field research, a "Silk Road CITES(7) Enforcement Seminar’ was held between 22 and 26 August 2005 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in the PRC. On the morning of 24 August, during the seminar, Debbie Banks from EIA gave a presentation based on the findings of the investigations. In a report which reached the international community on 25 August but which appears to have been issued on the same day, WWF-China expressed its "concern over the increasing role of the Tibetan market in the trade of tiger and Asian leopard skins" and linked it to a "trend for clothing made with tiger and leopard skins" which "has now become fashionable in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet". Dawa Tsering, head of WWF China's Tibet Programme, is quoted as saying "I believe that with the right tools and information, Tibetans will weigh this issue between fashion, culture and conservation and be part of the solution". The reference to new, emerging Tibetan "fashions’ as apparently the prime mover of the trade in tiger skins is conspicuous in its similarity to the international media reaction to the press conference in Delhi a month later. This is surprising, coming as it does from the only international environmental organisation with a permanent presence in the TAR since 1998, and from which more in-depth kn owledge of the conditions of the trade on the ground, as described in this Special Report, could be expected. On the other hand, it is consistent with what appears to be WWF-China's public relations policy, namely to emphasise the role of the public in environmental destruction, but conspicuously avoid directly querying the authorities’ responsibilities. WWF-China's website for example, describes the "key threats" to the environment in Tibet (which consistent with Chinese policy, means only the TAR not the Tibetan Plateau as a whole) on one hand as "conflicts between wildlife conservation and livestock raising", "Illegal hunting of wildlife", traditional practices in agriculture and firewood collection, "poor grazing practices" and even "making incense", i.e. environmental issues linked to traditional livelihoods. On the other hand, the construction of roads, the development of mining, and construction in general, which shape the face of today’s Tibet, are only mentioned in a cursor y way. Also, the "demands by Tibet's fast-growing human population" appear misleading, since no mention is given of the significant flow of temporary and permanent migrants from mainland China. While this careful approach may widen the scope of WWF-China's many environmental projects, unanimously acclaimed by international environmental experts, its limitations are evident in issues such as the tiger trade, given the role of the authorities outlined in this Special Report. With that, WWF-China, though an independent organisation, falls far behind even the stunningly self-critical statements issued occasionally by the highest authorities in Beijing on environmental problems. In fact, it appears much closer to patterns common in China's state-controlled press(8). On 26 September 2005, just four days after the press conference in Delhi, the PRC proposed to curb the illegal trade by establishing "tiger farms", where domestic tigers could be bred in order to satisfy the on-going domesti c market in tiger products. Organisations like TRAFFIC and WWF international have vehemently rejected the idea, arguing that any legal trade in tiger products would provide cover for the illegal trade, but WWF-China has remained silent over the issue.

Notwithstanding WWF-China's public statements, the Chinese press remained quiet on the findings of EIA and WPSI's investigations. Despite some more balanced statements such as EIA’s Debbie Bank’s suggestion: "In China, we need to see (…) targeted enforcement against smugglers and dealers", the message received and then conveyed by mainstream international media has unilaterally stigmatised Tibetan environmental conduct, generated by alleged economic progress. This inaccurate perception is clearly a result of the pictorial evidenc e provided by WPSI and EIA, but quotes from the press conference in Delhi, flatly attributing the blame to Tibetans, also appear to have played an important role. Outlookindia for instance reports WPSI’s director Belinda Wright as saying: "The trade is in Tibetan hands, they smuggle, sell, buy and wear skins". Apart from the lack of any differentiation in such statement, in the light of the facts outlined in this Special Report, this effectively diverts attention from all the evidence that points to mainland China as the largest market for tiger products and, as an environmental expert put it to TibetInfoNet, the "major consumer of all its neighbours’ wildlife". Seen in a wider perspective, and considering that many international Tibet supporters tend to be sensitive to ecological problems, and environment protection is one of the core demands of the Dalai Lama of the PRC regarding Tibet, this results in a significant political point scoring for the PRC which domestic media al one could hardly have produced.

A similarly simplified, albeit much more radical, perception emanates from the animal activist and prominent Indian politician Maneka Gandhi. Already in an interview published in Vegan Voice in 2004, Mrs Gandhi, when asked what could be done to support her and her organisation, "People for Animals" answered: "Stop supporting the Tibetan struggle until the Tibetans stop poaching animals from India (…), most Tibetans that have taken refuge in India are the couriers to China, Pakistan and Nepal of wild animals". In a further interview aired by India TV news channel after the press conference, on 08 November 2005, Mrs. Gandhi was even more explicit: "Tibetans who have prospered and constructed buildings are all engaged in smuggling tiger skin" and she suggested "expelling all the Tibetans from India".

With their incomplete perception and portrayal of the trade as common denominator, none of the reactions listed here appear to provide much of a solution to the impending extinction of the Indian tiger. A report by the BBC states: "Teaching people about the importance of the big cats could be the key to the tiger's survival", however, in the light of the details given about the trade in this report, it appears questionable whether education campaigns among Tibetans planned by NGOs will really help put an end to it. With the trade and use of tiger skins being intimately linked to PRC structures, it is there that solutions addressing both supply and demand, need to be sought.

With what is effectively official promotion of the demand, it appears that only a strong moral stance, broadly accepted by Tibetans, might have a chance of success. It is certainly in this context that the Dalai Lama, during the recent Kalachakra ceremony held in south India, repeatedly addressed the issue in front of several thousand Tibetans who had come from Tibet for the occasion. Tibetans appears to have been very responsive to these appeals. Fringe events organised by NGOs at the Kalachakra were greeted with intense interest, information and educational material ran out within a few days and many Tibetans signed pledges not to wear animal skins. A report from Rebkong in Qinghai (Amdo) even mentions that local Tibetans collected skin garments and burned them in a spontaneous response to the Dalai Lama’s appeal. However, despite these achievements, an effective campaign can only yield success in the long term, if at all. Whether the tiger has this amount of time is questionable. Given the political realities, the suggestion by some NGOs to record the Dalai Lama’s message on VCDs and other media and disseminate them on a broad basis in Tibet, appears to be wishful thinking.

As far as the supply is concerned, there can hardly be any doubt that the PRC state, if willing, is in a position of at least seriously hampering it. However, as recently as some days before this report was published, tiger skins were still openly available for sale in Lhasa’s markets.

1: Tigers taken in t he Terai (the plains bordering Nepal), are also often transported directly to Kathmandu.

2: However, use of these routes through Nepal has declined in recent times due to the current insurgency. This is particularly true of the western areas where the strong Maoist presence has made the transfer of the goods through Mustang at times almost impossible.

3: The first seizure in Tibet was made on 08 October 2003 in Sangsang (60km west of Ngamring). 31 tiger skins, 581 leopard skins and 778 otter skins made it one of the largest ever, underlining the audacity of the smugglers on the Tibetan side of the border. Unlike most seizures made in India or Nepal, this received international media coverage. The second seizure was made around 11 September 2005 in Zhangmu, in sight of the Nepal-Tib et border, and immediately after WPSI and EIA had completed their investigations but before their findings were made public. On that occasion, 12 tiger skins, 60 leopard skins, 20 otter skins and 14kg of tiger bones were seized.

4: The background to the formation of the ’13 Settlements" the vicissitudes of its relationship with the CTA and its decline are very complex and cannot be explored any further here. The group was never a homogenous movement, but rather a conglomerate of those discontented, for a variety of reasons, with the CTA. During the 1980s ’13 Settlements’ gradually declined and most camps under its control quietly re-integrated into the rest of the exile community under the authority of the CTA.

5: For example, following an Indian Tantric custom, a group of l ay practitioners wrapped their naked bodies in tiger skins. The practice was forbidden to monks since it went against their vows, and only a handful of such practitioners existed in traditional Tibet.

6: There are among the rural population a few selected circles, for instance certain groups of nomads, who receive particular attention from the authorities in an attempt to appease long-lasting restiveness or to create stabilizing structures in an environment otherwise considered as politically labile. Reports from Tibet indicate that these circles belong to the principal consumers of tiger and leopard skins.

7: CITES stands for the "Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’.

8: On China's media coverage of environmental issues in Tibet, see also TibetInfoNet’s report of 25 October 2005 "Mining policies shift in the TAR’.

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