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Wildlife To Sandalwood

In a landmark verdict, two Tibetans and a Nepali national were sentencedon 17November 2007 to five years of 'rigorous imprisonment' for wildlifetrafficking.While the wildlife trade from South Asia to China via Tibet is still far fromover, this recent success confirms that the heyday of this illicit trafficacross the Himalayas may well belong to the past. The decline of the trade,which began with the Dalai Lama's strong words to his fellow Tibetansin January2006 and the resulting mass burning of big cat pelts all over Tibet, is alsoconfirmed by recent seizures at China's east coast ports. This newdevelopmentindicates that traders have begun to shift their activities to sea routes,avoiding going via Tibet and reaching out directly to the lucrativemarkets inMainland China. There are also signs that the Chinese authorities mayhave begunto address the issue of wildlife trade with more consistency.Meanwhile however,a new cross-Himalayan illicit trade, the fast-emerging trafficking ofsandalwood, continues to drain South Asia of its natural resources,indicatingthat networks and syndicates are rapidly redirecting their activitiesalong newavenues.

The three sentenced smugglers are known as Tashi (alias Anand), and LobsangPhuntsok from Delhi, and Jeet Bahadur from Kathmandu. Besides the jail term,they were also handed fines of IRs10,000 (UK125; US$253; EUR175) each. In hisorder, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Alok Aggarwalobserved: "Keepingin view the incriminating and mitigating circumstances and the mandate ofWildlife Protection Act, 1972, I am of the firm opinion that theaccused personsshould be jailed for a minimum of five years for committing the saidoffence".


Acting on a tip off from the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), policeraided a house in Delhi's Old Tibetan camp at Majnukatila and arrested themenon 06 April 2005. 45 leopard skins and 15 other animal skins wererecovered anda case under section 49 12.50; US$25.30; EUR17.50) per skin, and Jeet Bahaduracted as courier carrying the skins from Delhi to Nepal in buses, aservice forwhich he was also paid IRs1,000 per skin.


Acting on a tip off from the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), policeraided a house in Delhi's Old Tibetan camp at Majnukatila and arrested themenon 06 April 2005. 45 leopard skins and 15 other animal skins wererecovered anda case under section 49 12.50; US$25.30; EUR17.50) per skin, and Jeet Bahaduracted as courier carrying the skins from Delhi to Nepal in buses, aservice forwhich he was also paid IRs1,000 per skin.


The three men were prominent members of a network established byTashi Tsering (alias Tsewang), a notorious wildlife smuggler. As theseizure wasone of the biggest wildlife hauls in recent years, the investigationpassed fromlocal police to the wildlife department, and on 18 May 2005 India's premierinvestigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over thecase on the orders of the Supreme Court of India.

Ironically, these arrests occurred on the day the Dalai Lama inaugurated theTibetan Conservation Awareness Campaign (TCAC), which was launched by Careforthe Wild International and the Wildlife Trust of India at New Delhi. In hisspeech he urged all Tibetans to reject the use of and trade in wildlife. Hestated: "It is a shame that we kill these poor creatures to satisfy our ownaggrandisement. We must realise that because of our follies a large number ofour animals are getting killed and we must stop this. (...) It is theresponsibility of all of us to realize the importance of wildlifeconservation". In the course of the same campaign, during the Kalachakra religious ceremonyheld at Amaravati, India, in January 2006, he addressed a message directly toTibetans from Tibet, saying: "When you go back to your respective places,remember what I had said earlier and never use, sell, or buy wildanimals, theirproducts or derivatives". His appeal resulted in Tibetans cheerfully burningskins of endangered animals worth millions of Yuan and pledging neveragain tobuy, sell or wear them. Although the Chinese authorities opposed theinvolvementof the Dalai Lama in the campaign, and occasional incidents of them forcingTibetans to wear furs continue to surface, as a whole, reports fromall Tibetansareas indicate Tibetans are steadfast in their resolve to shun wildlifeproducts. The Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala commentedon the 2005arrests, while the Dalai Lama was inaugurating the TCAC, saying that the lawshould take its course.

The sentencing of the three smugglers is remarkable because of the shorttrialperiod of little over two years - Indian courts are generally chronicallyoverburdened resulting in a slow pace of proceedings. A further indication ofhow seriously the case was treated is that the accused were deniedbail despitetheir lawyers filing appeals on three occasions. In most other pending casesrelating to wildlife crimes, the accused have been able to get bail from thecourts (1). That the accused were caught red handed and the illicitgoods seizedat the time of the arrest was particularly fortunate, as Indian law does notacknowledge confessions made to the police as evidence at court. At hearings,the accused consequently either deny having made any statement oraccuse policeof using torture to extract confessions. In this case, each piece of thecontraband was actually signed by the network's head, Tashi Tsewang, who washimself later arrested by Nepali Police (2), and the Delhi Police could provethe involvement of the accused with documentary evidence.


Despite the huge demand for skins of tiger, otter and other exoticspecies in Tibet and China prior to 2006, the involvement of Tibetans in thiscross-border illegal but lucrative trade had been small, mostly as couriers.However the few big players of the trade from the Tibetan communitywere part ofa wider network that included poachers in India, couriers in Nepal and thebuyers' syndicates in Tibet and China, who have benefited from powerful PRCconnections. The law enforcement agencies in India and Nepal are nowprogressively catching up with those involved.

Among the few other investigations by the Indian agencies centred onTibetans isthe long-pending case of Pema Thinley. Delhi police arrested him inAugust 1993in a raid at Majnukatila, along with Mohammad Yaqub, a well-known wildlifesmuggler from Kashmir but based in Delhi. A haul of 283 kg of tiger bones(estimated at representing the remains of 25 tigers), eight tiger skins, 43leopard skins, and over 100 skins of otters and other protected species wereseized in the raid. They had obtained the items from Sansar Chand, thenotoriouswildlife trader alleged to be responsible for eradicating tigers inSariska andother wildlife sanctuaries in North and Central India. Up until the watershed spring of 2006, the open display in the marketsin Lhasaand other Tibetans cities of tiger, leopard, otter and other skins etc,presented Tibet and Tibetans as the main players in the illicit wildlifetradebut, in fact, all evidence indicates that it was the massive demandfor big catskins, tiger bones, bear bile and other ingredients of Traditional ChineseMedicine (TCM) in Mainland China that was crucial in driving the market (3).After years of turning a blind eye to the trade and the condemnationit receivesfrom international forums such as the Global Tiger Forum etc, the Chineseauthorities began showing more concern from the mid-2000s onwards. http://www.tibetinfonet.net/content/display_image/181207-4 In August 2005, China participated in the first Convention on theInternational Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)Implementation and Enforcement seminar, indicating some concern about theillegal wildlife trade. A Xinhua report from August 2005 quoted Zhang Li, thechief representative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare inChina, assaying: "China is becoming a major consumer of some wild species". But sofar,despite China''s involvement in international conventions including CITES,environmentalists have expressed increasing concern at the Chineseauthorities'lack of enforcement. However, recent actions by the authorities indicate thescene may be changing.

The alternate sea route


The decline of trans-Himalaya wildlife trafficking and enforcementsuccesses in South Asia seem to have moved some of the players in thetrade tostart exploring sea routes as an alternative to the comparatively troublesomeland route via Tibet (4). It is logical for the smugglers to favourthese as thecoastal regions of the PRC, the epicentre of China's booming economy,has becomea major destination for all sorts of luxury products, includingpotions made oftiger parts, bear bile, exotic meat, tiger and leopard skin rugs and trophiesetc. There have been earlier reports of tiger parts, especially bones, beingsent by ship from the ports of Kolkata and from Bangladesh by asyndicate basedin Hong Kong and Nagchu (Chin. Naqu, in the TAR), and packed as herbs and teafrom India. Shatoosh, the wool of the endangered Tibetan antelope is alsotrafficked in this way. http://www.tibetinfonet.net/content/display_image/181207-5

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that on 21 September2007, customs officials in the northern Chinese port city of Qingdao seized aconsignment of two whole tiger pelts, tiger bones, one tiger gall bladder andother tiger products. The value of the items has reportedly been estimated at1,000,000 Yuan (UK68,000; US$135,000; EUR92,000). The smugglers, anIndonesiannational and a Chinese national, were detained. The Indonesian reportedlyconfessed to smuggling tiger products in July 2007 via Gongbei, and one tigerpelt via Dalian in August 2007. Both pelts were identified as comingfrom Bengaltigers.

Other countries like Thailand have also begun to crack down onwildlife traderswith the China-Tibet and India connections. On 27 August 2007, a Thaicriminalcourt sentenced an Indian national, Reyaz Ahmad Mir, the owner of aluxury storein Bangkok, to two years in prison and fined him US$600 for breachingThailand'swildlife protection laws. He was charged with illegally importing and sellingShatoosh shawls made from the wool of the chiru, the highly endangeredTibetanantelope (Pantholops hodgsonii). A few other similar cases are pending.

From Wildlife to sandalwood

The impact of the Dalai Lama's conservation message, and the Tibetanresponse toit, has led to a dramatic decline in the traditional market for the skins ofvarious wild animals in Tibet. It has not just forced the traffickers to lookfor new routes but has led them to exploit alternative products fromsouth Asianeco-systems in the lucrative markets of the PRC. One such product issandalwood,particularly the red variety, which is found in the jungles of the southernIndian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Trade insandalwoodis strictly regulated and, there are strict annual quotas. During theinsurgencyin Nepal, the Maoists guerrillas were alleged to have facilitated thesmugglingNepalese timber to Tibet (5), however the trafficking of sandalwood fromIndiato Tibet, and into Mainland China is a relatively new phenomenon. Sandalwood has long been valued for its aromatic qualities in Tibet,as well asin India, and its fragrant nature and rich oils have resulted in itbeing givenreligious and medical attributes. There is a large demand for it in theproduction of incense, perfume and traditional medicine from both Tibetan andChinese communities. For Tibetans, it has traditionally been used in makingaltars, statues, decorative items and the thrones of high lamas inmonasteries.To Tibetan traders it provides an alternative without the moral dilemmasinvolved in going against Buddhist principles or the Dalai Lama'sadvice. Therehave been unconfirmed reports that, with monasteries under renovation alloverTibetan areas in various provinces of the PRC, the local authorities haveprovided grants encouraging the use of sandalwood for altars and templefittings. That this newfound avenue of trade is gaining ground day by day with Nepal astransit point is demonstrated by multiple incidents of trucks, laden with redsandalwood, being seized at various border posts and custom points along theNepal-Tibet border. According to sources, red sandalwood is purchasedfor NRs500(UK3.87; US$7.84; EUR5.43) per kg in India and sells for NRs1,600 per kg(UK12.40; US$25; EUR17.37) in Khasa market (Tibet). On 12 April 2007, thethenMinister for Forest and Soil Conservation in Nepal, Matrika Yadav,announced thegovernment's intention to discuss the issue with the Indian and Chineseambassadors to resolve the problem. He is quoted as saying: "It is reallyunmanageable for the government to control illegal trade as they are highlysupported by different national and international networks". The flourishingillicit sandalwood trade has also been condemned by Nepali MPs, who raisedtheissue in parliament and demanded an investigation. The Commission forInvestigation of Abuse of Authority, an agency mandated to look intomisdeeds byministers and bureaucrats, also called for an inquiry.

In the space of just over six weeks in April and May 2007, at least 40tonnes ofsandalwood, valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, was seized inNepal orin India close to the Nepali border. It seems that the sandalwood was enroutefor Tibet via Kathmandu, with the smugglers using ingenious methods toconcealtheir contraband. There have been allegations that the authorities inboth Indiaand Nepal have allowed seizures to be stolen, either through incompetence orcorruption, and instances of custom officials allowing the trucks to passthrough check points have been routinely reported by the press inNepal. When atruck loaded with sandalwood worth a reportedly NRs.20 million (UK155,875;US$312,083; EUR218,399) was seized on its way to Tibet on 19 April 2007, theNepali press reported that five trucks containing comparable loads wasallegedlyallowed to pass the same night. If this represents the amount ofsandalwood thatis seized - one truckload in six - it is a sobering statistic. For thatseizedtruckload to then be returned to the illicit market sends a depressingmessagenot only to conservationists and law enforcement agencies but to thosecommunities in India whose livelihood depends on vibrant and diverseeco-systemsthat the sandalwood trees form part of. A table seizures of sandalwood made over a six-week period in 2007destined for the PRC/Tibet can be found under:


According to India's export-import policy drawn up for 2002-2007, redsandalwoodcan only be exported to other countries in product form and not as a rawmaterial. The principal chief conservator of forests in AndhraPradesh, in SouthIndia, S.K. Das, admitted that there has been an increase in sandalwoodsmuggling over the past few months and that instructions have been issued byIndia's Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to increase vigilance. Afurther seizure of 25 tonnes of sandalwood recently made in Sikkim indicatesthat the smugglers were awaiting an opportunity to transport their haul intothe PRC through the Nathu La. The pass, one of the traditional gatesinto Tibet,was reopened in July 2006.

The thoroughness and speed with which the use of wildlife pelts could beeradicated in Tibet is a unique success in the recent history of wildlifeprotection, born out of the specific political, cultural and religiouscontextof contemporary Tibet. The mining of sandalwood however, does not attract theoutrage that the illicit trade in wildlife does nor, at this stage, doessandalwood have a charismatic figure to champion its protection. It is likelytherefore, that south Asian ecosystems will continue to be exploited forshort-term gain and products from them transported into the PRC, across theHimalayas, for some time to come.

Notes:1: Some of the most high profile cases involved Indian celebritiessuch as actorSalman Khan, ex Cricketer Nawab M.A.Pataudi etc. Even India's two mostnotoriouspoachers, the late Veerappan and Sansar Chand who respectively contributedsignificantly to the near extinction of wild elephants in South India and thetiger in the north, were both granted bail many times.

2: Tashi Tsering alias Tsewang, once one of South Asia's most wantedpersons, was chased for years by Interpol and police in India andNepal. Interpol had issued a red corner notice on 03 April 2002against him on charges of conspiracy and violation of the provisionsof the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India. His was linked to some ofthe biggest wildlife seizures in recent history includingthose in 1999, 2000 and 2005. After the Interpol warrant, he went undergroundand later resurfaced with a new name - Tsewang. Followinginvestigations led bythe Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN), theNepali Police in Baudha, Kathmandu arrested him on 11 December 2005. TashiTsering first came into prominence in 1999 after one of the biggestseizures bythe police in Ghaziabad, India, at a tax checkpoint, recovering alarge quantityof leopard, otter and tiger skins being transported to Siliguri, a bordertownon the Indo-Nepal border, in the West Bengal state of India. The skins weresystematically numbered and carried his signature. The seizure yielded 70leopard skins, four tiger skins, 221 black buck skins, 18,000 leopardclaws, 132tiger claws and two firearms. Later in April 2000 another seizure in Siligurirecovered 22 leopard and 72 otter skins bearing his signature. Thestate policearrested a co-accused Nepali citizen named Tashi, however, he couldavoid arrestby the CBI. (For more details and background on the wildlife tradingnetworks,see TibetInfoNet's Update of 31 January 2006,

3:On this topic see also TibetInfoNet's Update of 30 December 2006,


4: This does not in any way mean that the smuggling of wildlifeproducts on landroutes across the Himalaya has stopped altogether. A seizure of skinsand otherproducts was reportedly made in December 2007 in the Dhading dictrictof Nepal,ie. on the way towards the Tibetan border. Details about the case are stillpending.

5: In more recent times, however, some youth group activists close to Nepal'sMaoist party have been supporting the Nepalese authorities in theenforcement ofenvironmental and anti-smuggling laws.

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