Dalai Lama offers Indian tigers a lifeline

By Simon Denyer

New Delhi - The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, has thrown a lifeline to India's dwindling tiger population after an emotional appeal to outlaw the trade in animal skins provoked an extraordinary reaction in his homeland.

All over Tibet, there have been reports of people burning wild animal furs since the Dalai Lama, the Himalayan region's exiled god-king, made his appeal at a Buddhist prayer meeting in southern India in January.

Thousands of Tibetans attended the festival and many carried the Dalai Lama's words back to their Himalayan homeland.

Conservationists say there has been a sharp rise in the poaching of tigers and leopards in India in recent years to feed an explosion of demand from Tibet.

They say the tiger faced being wiped out in India as a result.

Now they have some renewed hope.

"The reaction of the Tibetan people, now that they have been made aware of the results of their actions - gives a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel for the Indian tiger," said Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

An ancient tradition of wearing animal furs seemed to have been revived in Tibet in recent years, partly perhaps as a result of greater disposable income.

Since December, 1999, 18 of 19 major seizures of wildlife parts or skins in India either involved Tibetans or were strongly linked to Tibet, said Wright.

In January, the Dalai Lama said he was "ashamed" to see images of Tibetans decorating themselves with skins and furs.

"When you go back to your respective places, remember what I had said earlier and never use, sell, or buy wild animals, their products or derivatives," he asked pilgrims at the Kalachakra, an initiation ceremony for Buddhists in south India.

Chinese authorities initially reacted with suspicion to the burning of skins, apparently seeing it as an expression of support for the Dalai Lama, who fled his Himalayan homeland to India after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

Eight Tibetans have been detained since late February in Sichuan province for carrying out the burning "under foreign influences", according to Radio Free Asia, a US-government funded station.

But Wright said the Chinese had taken some steps to outlaw the multi-million dollar trade in the last few days, which had until now been carried on openly on the streets and in the markets of Tibet.

"Frankly, the only country that hasn't reacted is India," she said.

"It has done nothing to clamp down on the illegal wildlife trade."

India has ordered a nationwide census of tigers after reports emerged last March the entire population of up to 18 tigers in a sanctuary in western India had been killed by poachers.

A census in 2002 counted 3 642 tigers.

Wright said she saw 83 fresh Tiger skins and thousands of fresh leopard skins on a trip to Tibet last year.

On one street alone in Linxia, Gansu province, she counted 163 leopard skins, most or all from India, on open display.

"I was numb," she said.

"I thought that was the end. The wild population here cannot sustain that. It showed clearly that India's enforcement effort had totally failed."


sign up