High fashion Tibet-style: Stopping the illegal tiger skin trade in Asia
Evidence of Tibet’s growing economy is easy to spot these days. Just take a walk down Barkhor Street in Lhasa’s main shopping district. Here, in the Tibetan capital, deals are being struck left and right — from carpets and prayer wheels to exotic fruits and plastic shoes. For both first time visitors and Tibetans alike, it is obvious that business is booming. Unfortunately, the boom includes a growing trend in the wildlife trade.
Concern is increasing over the role of the Tibetan market in the trade of tiger skins and the skins of other Asian big cats, with many animals poached every year throughout the Himalayan region to meet demand.
Although there are no accurate estimates of the world tiger population, numbers are believed to have fallen by about 95 per cent since the turn of the last century – down from around 100,000 to the present estimate of between 5,000 and 7,000.
Throughout their range, tigers and other Asian big cats such as leopards and snow leopards are threatened by poaching and trade, as well as habitat destruction, loss of prey, and conflict with humans. Trade investigations, seizure reports, and other anecdotal information all point to China as a major destination for skins and other parts of the animals. But local trade is also a significant part of the problem.
"If nothing is done to curb this growing demand now, tigers will be lost from the world forever," said Dawa Tsering, WWF’s field manager in Tibet.
How much for that tiger skin in the window?
The trend for clothing made with tiger and leopard skins (chubas), a tradition once found only in eastern Tibet, has now become very fashionable in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet.
“Clothing trimmed with tiger skin has become a new status symbol for Tibetans,” said Dekyi, a 20-year old, upwardly mobile Tibetan university student. “Being from Lhasa, I would never have thought to buy one before. But now people are buying tiger skin clothing for expensive gifts for weddings or for their children.”
Dekyi’s friend Nima, also from Lhasa, agrees.
“If you don’t have a tiger skin, people look down on you,” she commented. “My sister recently went to a company party where she was the only one who wasn’t wearing one. She went out and bought one right after the party.”
The modern-day trend for embellishing clothing with animal skins around the hem stems from an old tradition in eastern Tibet — a tradition in which wearing animal skins represents one's social status and prosperity. The custom originated in the Tibetan military and was carried on by aristocratic families until the 1950s. The tradition was recently revived in Amdo in eastern Tibet, and has since found its way to the capital and other Tibetan communities in China.
A chuba adorned with tiger skin can cost anywhere between US$3,000–9,000. Chubas made of leopard skin go for US$1,000–3,000, and otter skins significantly less at US$500–850. An average government employee in Tibet makes only about US$350 a month.
“This newfound trend has less to do with old customs than with new money,” said Tsering. “The trend is growing especially among Tibetans in Lhasa and other regions where it is not a tradition. It is being fuelled by Tibetan celebrities and TV anchors, who proudly wear clothing with fur from highly endangered tigers, snow leopards or otters in public.”
Cracking down on the illegal trade
With little enforcement of laws prohibiting the sale of these endangered species, shopping for a tiger skin couldn’t be easier. On Barkhor Street alone, at least 23 shops openly sell animal skins and parts. Merchants openly walk the streets, tiger skin in hand, approaching potential customers. And, the skins are proudly displayed in shop windows and walls, giving the impression to buyers that the trade is legal. But, it is not and the skins are all illegal.
A major seizure involving some 31 tiger skins and 581 leopard skins in 2003 at a checkpoint in small township of Angreen County in Tibet sounded an alarm bell to conservation and enforcement communities. One year later, Tibetan police seized 1,392 animal skins in a single operation. The haul included the skins of 31 Bengal tigers, 581 leopards, 786 otters, and two lynx. Similar seizures have taken place in nearby India, Bhutan, and Nepal.
While past conservation projects mainly focused on the tiger bone trade, the skin trade was less researched. Recent surveys have shown that largely open markets for Asian big cat skins in Tibet are the main cause of the depletion of tigers in India, much of South Asia and elsewhere, and that Tibetan communities have become the largest market for Asian big cat skins.
According to a 2005 survey by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network — a joint programme of WWF and IUCN–The World Conservation Union — Tibetan consumers already possess large numbers of skin products, with 3 per cent of respondents saying they own products made from tiger skin, 6 per cent from leopard skin, and 44 per cent from otter skin. The survey also found that 17 per cent of total respondents surveyed are planning to make or purchase skin products.
Being part of the solution
Despite extensive efforts by conservation organizations, including WWF, tigers and other Asian big cats are still being poached. Recent developments, such as the spate of tiger poachings in the Ranthambore and Sariska Tiger reserves in India, serve to highlight the fact that demand for tiger parts is still high.
“The skin market for Asian big cats in Tibetan communities in China has become an enormous pressure for tiger conservation throughout the Himalayas,” said Tsering. “Unless it is curbed quickly, tigers and other endangered species in their source countries cannot effectively be conserved.”
To address the growing threat, WWF China’s Tibet field office is implementing a programme aimed at curbing market demand for Asian big cat skins in the region. The programme aims to work at the policy level and on the ground to strengthen both enforcement and awareness to stop the skin trade.
Cooperating with Tibet’s forestry department, WWF has provided a series of training exercises on patrolling, wildlife monitoring, and legal provisions of nature reserves and wildlife conservation to officials of local management departments. WWF is also working with the forestry department in the Chang Tang Nature Reserve, a 300,000km2-protected area, which is home to the chiru, the endangered Tibetan antelope, as well as wild yaks, snow leopards, and Bengal tigers.
The key to all of WWF’s programmes is its partnerships with local communities and governments, and other non-governmental organizations. In addition to running training programmes for park rangers and anti-poaching units, the global conservation organization conducts regular socio-economic and wildlife surveys, provides critical equipment such as radios and transportation, and runs educational programmes for local communities on the importance of conservation.
“Through education and strengthening enforcement, we are now working to prevent new wildlife markets from emerging,” stressed Tsering.
“I believe that with the right tools and information, Tibetans will weigh this issue between fashion, culture and conservation and stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.”
* Caroline Liou is Deputy Communications Manager at WWF China
• It is estimated that there are between 5,000–7,000 tigers remaining in the wild, most in isolated pockets spread across increasingly fragmented forests stretching from India to south-eastern China and from the Russian Far East to Sumatra, Indonesia. In the past century, the world has lost three of the eight tiger subspecies. The Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers have all become extinct, and the South China tiger faces the same fate.
• Like tigers, Asian leopards are rapidly losing their habitat and prey species. Wild sheep and goats, the natural prey of species such as the snow leopard, have been hunted out of many areas in the central Asian mountains, and growing human and livestock populations are putting increasing pressure on the remaining leopards and their prey. There are about 4,500–7,350 snow leopards found throughout a range of 12 countries. There are less than 50 Amur leopards in the wild.
• WWF China’s Tibet Programme has been working to conserve biodiversity in the Tibetan Plateau since 1998, when WWF China established the WWF Tibet field office in Lhasa to manage its activities in Tibet. WWF is the only international organization that has a field office in Tibet with full time staff to help conserve Tibet’s natural resources.
• In 2002, WWF’s Global Species Programme developed WWF’s Tiger Programme, which includes a strategy for conserving tigers in the wild, in partnership with other conservationists and government authorities. This strategy identified seven priority and four additional landscapes across tiger range important for its conservation, in addition to vital anti-poaching and trade work. Within these key landscapes, WWF and its partners work to reduce or remove threats to the survival of tigers in the wild.
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