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Tibet’s wildlife problem

[TIN] Tibet Update 30 December 2006

The year 2006 has seen numerous reports on the subject of wildlife in Tibet. Although Tibetan consumption of illegally traded pelts of endangered animals seems to have been tackled for now by a popular movement inspired by the Dalai Lama, there are no signs that the illicit trade in wildlife will end as fast. Tibet’s wildlife problem is framed within a wider PRC wildlife problem, entangled in Chinese domestic and international policies. Tibetan regions within the PRC increasingly function as a sales market, a transit zone and a resource area for wildlife products, none of which contribute significantly to local wealth. Whereas the former seems stimulated mainly by tourism, the latter is linked to mainland China’s large demand for wildlife products and its fast developing infrastructure which facilitates the trade. Attempts by the emerging civil society in Tibet and mainland China to tackle the problem have had some effects, but their influence and leeway remain limited by governance issues and economic pressure.

The rise and fall in the demand for Tibetan wildlife pelts

The use of wildlife pelts is nothing new to Tibetan culture, but it’s only recently that it has extended beyond traditional contexts in connection with Tibet’s situation in the late twentieth century. Far from being concealed and undocumented, information on the proliferation of wildlife pelts in Tibetan regions of the PRC could be found for many years in Chinese official and non-official publications, as well as in Western media as an assumed expression of regained Tibetanness. The wearing of pelts was presented in China as illustrating their successful policies in terms of wealth development and respect of Tibetan culture for propaganda purposes; however, the Western media’s reading was that of a cultural revival despite decades of domination by China. Both views were right in their own ways, as indeed the demonstrative wearing of pelts had become for many Tibetans a welcome opportunity to celebrate their Tibetanness without fear of state disapproval. It emerged during the relative liberalisation of the 1980s, when Tibetans, still hesitant about displaying signs of cultural distinctiveness, selected a few stereotypical ‘Tibetan characteristics’ which fitted the Chinese mainstream imagination of Tibetans. In particular, Tibet’s show business from the 1990s contributed to the propagation of such stereotypes. It presented caricatures and pseudo-‘traditional’ vestimentary habits, which, contrary to the more authentic aspects of Tibetan culture, were not only acceptable to the state but even encouraged and sponsored by the authorities as a visible denial to the exile presentation of Tibet as poor and culturally denigrated.


Awareness about the imminent dangers of the extinction of big cats, however, led recently formed Tibetan environmental NGOs like the SnowLand Great River Environmental Protection Association or the Wild Yak Organisation, partly with some support of Chinese and Western environmentalists, to try and reverse the trend. They created mobile units running environmental education and cultural preservation programmes; they also ran classes in schools and distributed booklets and leaflets to local Tibetans, in order for them "to know about Tibetan traditional costumes before liberation". With the help of villagers they conducted surveys in order "to understand the current situation of wildlife and traditional costumes" and to assess the population’s "opinions about changes of Tibetan traditional costumes. Reports from these NGOs dating from late 2003 mention some confiscations of consignments of Tiger and Leopard skins as well as ivory, mostly of Indian origin, by the authorities. Their general recommendation to eradicate the illicit trade was to "promote law and policy", "enhance the government work on wildlife", and "inspire ecological culture" by involving the Buddhist clergy in campaigns to "change attitudes" and "call for ecologically acceptable costumes". Though sources do acknowledge that these efforts brought some results at local level, as a whole, they were in no position to resolve the problem, particularly since the sustainability of local changes in attitudes appeared questionable.

A radical change occurred when other NGOs working outside Tibet involved the Dalai Lama in the fight against wearing fur. The Dalai Lama had already been an active supporter of environmental initiatives like the Buddhist Perception of Nature programme initiated from Hong Kong by Nancy Nash in the late 1980s, and he was invited by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), New Delhi, and Care for the Wild, UK, in Spring 2005 to participate in their campaign. The rising level of environmental and wildlife awareness in exile Tibetan circles led for instance to the creation of the NGO Tesi Environmental Awareness Movement (TEAM) in June 2005, and to the publication in summer 2005 in the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Bulletin of an article which highlighted the involvement of Tibetans in the trade. At the summit of the campaign in January 2006, the Dalai Lama spoke at length and in unusually strong words against the fur frenzy, stating that seeing Tibetans wearing furs made him wish "not to live anymore". Spontaneous fur-burning campaigns started within a few days all across Tibet until late Spring 2006. Apart from being one of the most powerful demonstrations of loyalty to the Dalai Lama within Tibet in decades, the movement eradicated the wearing of furs among Tibetans, at least for the time being, and fur trade prices have plummeted. In response, shops in Lhasa which used to openly display Tiger pelts switched to crude fakes made with dyed sheep skins, but this did not meet with much success. By summer 2006, a time for festivals and hence an important occasion for wearing fur, the movement had made fur garments so ‘politically incorrect’ that it had virtually disappeared.

Though conforming to China’s laws, the movement did raise objections among the Chinese authorities due to its close association with the Dalai Lama, and local official bodies and Tibetans close to the authorities defiantly promoted the wearing of wildlife fur. Nonetheless, a source which observed the Lithang festival for TibetInfoNet in summer 2006 confirmed that almost no Tibetan could be seen wearing furs. The authorities who organised the festival, though, did stage a ‘Tibetan fashion show’ in which fur costumes featured prominently. Also, in an apparent attempt to discredit the current Dalai Lama’s position on wildlife furs, a tent made entirely of tiger skins which used to belong to the sixth Dalai Lama (1683-1705) was exhibited for all to see on the festival ground. The Mongolian-style tent, a present from a Mongolian prince, is kept in Lithang and has been occasionally displayed at the festival. Most Tibetan areas have witnessed similar attempts by the authorities to encourage the wearing of fur. Two NGOs, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), who circulated pictorial material about the wearing of wildlife furs in Tibet in a report published in September 2005, followed up with a second report in September 2006. Although it slightly downplayed the movement’s success, this new report essentially confirms the trend away from fur. In fact, apart from a few images showing fur wearers close to the authorities, most of its illustrations were reprinted from the Summer 2005 report.


Despite the sharp Tibetan decline in the use of skins since early 2006, there is no indication whatsoever that the illicit trade with pelts across the border has diminished. This raises questions about the effective share of past Tibetan consumption within the trade. The new EIA/WPSI report deplores the continuation of the trade and assumes that, now the sale of skins to tourists has increased, it quotes one trader as stating that 80% of his customers were mainland Chinese, while others said local government officials and army officers are among the Chinese customers. Though the report insists that "until early 2006, the primary market for tiger and leopard skins was for decorating chupas", it comes short of providing any relevant figures, making such assertions speculative. Research conducted by TibetInfoNet and information provided by wildlife experts working in Tibet indicate that Tibetan wildlife consumption represented only one limited, though unquestionably spectacular, aspect of a much broader wildlife issue related to Tibet.

Tibet as a sales market and transit zone for wildlife products

Tibetan regions of the PRC have indeed become an important sales market for wildlife products, but this is a market located in Tibet rather than a Tibetan market, and the continuing growth of this market appears to be linked to the exponential growth of tourism in Tibet. Beyond that, Tibet remains a prominent transit zone for the illicit wildlife trade. The recent opening of the railway linking the Chinese mainland with Lhasa exacerbates both problems, in that it considerably lowers the costs and simplifies the logistics, thus facilitating access to and transport through Tibet. While sources clearly state that there are some affluent western tourists among the buyers of illicit wildlife products in Tibet, as a whole the goods available on Tibet’s markets reflect a Chinese demand, which is unsurprising, since Chinese tourists have for long outnumbered Western tourists in the region. This is reflected in a remark in the EIA/WPSI report that paws and claws are left attached to big cat skins on sale. Whereas this practice does not make sense in the Tibetan context where paws and claws are seen as valueless, it does so for Chinese customers by proving the authenticity of the skins. A sense of snobbery rather than taste is what is generating the market for big cat skins among the nouveau riche, many of which hail from south China, mainly Shenzen and Hong Kong. For this circle of customers it is crucial that skins be easily identified as authentic by third persons. A report in the Londoner Telegraph of 22 October 2006 quoted a Chinese wildlife courier on the Beijing-Lhasa railway as saying: "I sell mainly to rich Chinese. My last customer was a Taiwanese businessman (…) the train is easy to use, safe and cheap. Many people are using it to sell stuff all over China".

Another case in point is the trade in ivory. Though Tibetan NGOs mentioned the existence of a local market for ivory in internal reports a few years ago, the quantities involved then were relatively negligible, since ivory features in Tibetan costumes only in very small quantities, for instance for buttons. The ivory items available now for instance on Lhasa’s market, besides involving considerable quantities, reveal that the public targeted is Chinese, since many items like statues and carvings match the general taste of Chinese tourists in Tibet and elsewhere. In one of their briefing papers, EIA state that their investigators were told that the ivory is mostly imported from India and Thailand, though African ivory is also available, and that some of it enters China already processed, while some reportedly arrives raw and is carved locally. TibetInfoNet’s research confirms that ivory of African origin partly directly, partly after transiting through the Middle East, enters the PRC via Pakistan and the Central Asian republics in Xinjiang (East Turkestan). While a large number of items are brought to mainland China, some goes to Tibetan regions where it is sold to tourists. Unconfirmed reports also indicate that ivory and wildlife products from Central Asia which enter China in Xinjiang might be diverted via Aksai Chin before transiting across the north Tibetan Changthang plateau and Qinghai/Amdo on their way to mainland China, in order to avoid the main roads. Similar to the traffic in skins, the networks which trade, distribute and retail ivory items are almost exclusively in the hands of Chinese Muslims/Hui people (although, in the case of skins, Tibetan syndicates mainly control the smuggling from South Asia across the Himalaya; they also run part of the wholesale distribution in Tibet (see Following the tiger’s trail 31 January 2006)). The Hui, who have their main markets on the periphery of Tibet, also sell pelt and ivory, both legal and illegal items, in many other parts of China. Although there is a century-long tradition of ivory carving in China, there is none in Tibet. For this reason, hence, Tibetans are unlikely to be involved if the ivory is being carved locally. Therefore, though Tibet is the market, Tibetans at large hardly benefit, either as artisans or as traders.


Apart from the great number of tourists and their general demand for the material, there is no specific reason to sell ivory items in Tibet. The sale of ivory here appears therefore mainly demand driven. In the case of wildlife skins however, supply and demand are confluent. As far as demand is concerned, the concept of Tibetans clad in wildlife skins has a firm place in the Chinese imagination of an exotic Tibet, qualifying Tibet as a most appropriate location for the trade. As far as supply is concerned, South Asia is geographically close and its borders, despite drastic efforts to curb illegal immigration, remain porous for mafia networks with symbiotic relationships with the authorities (see Following the tiger’s trail 31 January 2006). These factors present optimum conditions for the trade. Considering the sizeable profits and negligible chances of getting caught, even the death penalty which Chinese law foresees for wildlife traders appears hardly dissuasive. Meanwhile, although environmental NGOs inside Tibet are burgeoning in always greater numbers, they remain mostly toothless in a context where prominent agents of the trade are often effectively tolerated by representatives of the state authorities. Also, though the tremendous success of the anti-fur campaigns following the Dalai Lama’s advice has radically reduced fur consumption, ironically, by raising the defiance and the level of suspicion of the authorities in Tibet, it also put local Tibetan NGOs under even greater pressure not to appear ‘political’.

Tibet as a wildlife resource area and the international dimensions of the trade

Besides having become a transit zone and market ground for the wildlife trade, the Tibetan regions of the PRC are also a resource area for Chinese wildlife consumption. Whereas wildlife has become comparatively rare in the Chinese mainland, the Tibetan plateau remains an area of natural richness. Much more significant than the fur market is the great number of medicines and remedies based on wildlife ingredients which are sold in the traditional medicine shops ubiquitous in Chinese cities. Tibetan regions provide a great number of these ingredients like bear bile, musk etc. many of which are procured either in an ecologically harmful slash-and-burn manner, or under conditions fully at odds with the modern categories of nature and animal protection propagated by relevant international organisations. Some of these medicines are acknowledged as health-promoting. However, a great number of potions have only presumed effects on a countless number of sicknesses and corporal deficiencies ranging from cancer to impotency. Also, tonics for general well-being and long-life elixirs are of doubtful efficacy and their alleged effect is merely based on still wide-spread superstitions which more than half a century of state-propagated ‘scientific attitude’ have failed to eradicate. The government has always been keen to eradicate all forms of superstitions, but the popularity of these pseudo-medicines and their image of being deeply rooted in Chinese culture appear to have hindered the Chinese efforts to regulate the market. Beyond that, their high demand makes them an economic factor which contributes to the country’s growth, as recent years have seen an expanding international market for traditional Chinese medicine. Whereas in the past laws prohibited the uncontrolled export of Chinese medicines, today the numbers of shops selling serious and less serious ‘traditional’ remedies has mushroomed in Western cities, and this is welcomed by the Chinese authorities as a source of profit and prestige. In London for instance, the retail segment for Chinese medicine has grown from a dozen shops about fifteen years ago, then mostly concentrated within the Chinese community, to between 1000 and 2000 shops today.

These growing Chinese domestic and foreign demands put additional pressure on wildlife, the trade of which happens in a grey area between legality and illegality, undermining international health, wildlife and animal protection regulations. Interpol estimates that the illegal trade in endangered species is worth 5 billion dollars a year, making the sector only second to drugs. China, with its own domestic consumption, its many processing facilities and as an import and re-exporting hub, is a major centre for the trade. Though inside the PRC the Tibetan plateau is a major supplier of wildlife products, wildlife workers in regions and countries surrounding China unanimously point to a growing drain of wildlife raw products across the border to China. As the ivory trade clearly illustrates, certain wildlife products even enter China from oversees. Pelts of the endangered snow leopard from Kyrghiztan or Mongolia enter China in Xinjiang before being sold in diverse parts of the PRC or abroad. South Asian wildlife skins, tiger bones and other products enter China through Tibet, and the recent opening of trade posts on the Tibet border like Nathula raises concerns among specialists that this will again facilitate the trade.

In the UK, police authorities have officially expressed concern that “Asia has become a transit hub for illegal Wildlife products”, but they acknowledge informally that ‘Asia’ is an euphemism for China. Much of it is for the traditional Chinese medicine market in the U.K., not primarily as a result of a growing local Chinese population, but due to a western demand for trendy alternatives. In November 2006, the London Metropolitan Police started ‘Operation Charm’ focusing "on Chinese medicine practitioners selling goods that are made from, or even claim to be made from, endangered species" as "tiger bone, rhino horn, bear bile and musk". A significant proportion of these is likely to originate from or have transited through Tibet. Apart from medicinal products, the campaign also focuses on illegal pelts and the prohibited wool of the Tibetan antelope.

China has come under pressure internationally to tackle its wildlife problem, but so far progress has been slow. This is partly due to the tendency of Chinese representatives on international forums to often propose solutions effectively equaling an acceptance of the status quo by the international community. The 54th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Standing Committee held in Geneva in summer 2006 recommended that parameters be agreed for measuring progress in combating the trade in tiger products until April 2007. Though, the CITES Secretariat declared itself satisfied with China’s domestic control, it recommended that China should not yet be given trading partner status in order to allow additional time to monitor the implementation and the effectiveness of China’s newly established system of trade controls. China reacted with a blend of indignation, pressure and promises of betterment. In connection with ivory, its delegates criticised that fact that if China is not allowed to import ivory from legal stockpiles, Japan could be in a position to buy the entire 60 tonnes approved for sale. They argued that, if unable to import ivory legally, the carving industry would soon revert to the black market. On the eve of President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in November 2006, Indian and Chinese delegations negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding on wildlife protection. Both countries agreed to share intelligence in order to curb the illegal cross-border trade, and some Chinese staff might in future be trained at Dehradun’s Wildlife Institute of India. However, China also brought up a controversial project, the farm-breeding of Tigers. While both countries agreed upon a "consensus" that China would "rigorously and explicitly label" farm-products, wildlife specialists express strong reservations about the project, since it could effectively provide an easy channel for laundering illegal wild tiger products.

Meanwhile, a growing number of nature and animal protection NGOs in the Chinese mainland are popularising the wildlife cause, but it is difficult to see how fast and to what extent the movement can contribute to curb an intense wildlife trade supported by traditions and lobbies. China’s leadership in any case took notice of the movement and acknowledges or even encourages it occasionally in the state media. Columnist Zou Hanru for instance lamented the fate of the tiger in the 8 December 2006 issue of China Daily and praised private campaigns in North East China to save the Siberian tiger. So far, however, the focus of the inner-Chinese debate is on the dire situation of China’s own wildlife, while the prominent role of the country in the international wildlife trade and in particular the intense and mostly illegal consumption of its neighbours’ wildlife remains widely out of scope.

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