| A man wearing a tiger skin at a festival in Tibet. (AP)
The Indian tiger is heading rapidly towards extinction, thanks to a new breed of wealthy Tibetans who prize the skins as trimming for their traditional costumes, an investigation has shown.
Until recently it was tiger bone used in Chinese medicine that was thought to be driving the escalating poaching trade, but it is now clear that Tibetan fashions are stoking demand to unparalleled and unsustainable levels.
This year alarm bells sounded in India when it emerged that one of the country’s most prestigious reserves, Sariska in Rajasthan, had been completely emptied of tigers by poachers.
Hearing rumours that the new Tibetan trend for skins was behind the rapid increase in poaching, a team from the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency went to Tibet and the Sichuan and Gansu provinces in China.
What they found surpassed even their worst nightmares.
In New Delhi on Thursday, Belinda Wright, of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, who was part of the undercover team, said the time for scaremongering was over.
“This is it. The end is now in sight for the Indian tiger. The sheer quantities of skins for sale are beyond belief. As the Sariska scandal so clearly showed, the Indian tiger is now being systematically wiped out.”
At horse festivals in Tibet and Sichuan, dancers, riders and spectators wandered about, openly wearing the traditional chuba, generously trimmed with tiger and leopard skin, while organisers and local officials joined in.
Traders said the demand for the skins was coming from the newly-moneyed classes who had made small fortunes from selling a local caterpillar fungus used in Chinese medicine.
Demand for the fungus has rocketed since two Chinese Olympic athletes attributed their success to its stamina-building powers. A rare mushroom is also fetching high prices.
The skins are smuggled along well-established Nepali trading routes into Tibet where they are sold openly in shops in capital Lhasa. Using hidden cameras, Wright, who has devoted 35 years to saving the Indian tiger, toured the centre of old Lhasa posing as a buyer.
She said: “In 10 shops, we found 24 tiger skin chubas, most of them decorated with great swathes of skin, and all openly displayed for sale.
“In 20 other shops, we recorded 54 leopard skin chubas. The dealers categorically told us that they had come from India. When we asked, we were shown three fresh tiger skins and seven fresh leopard skins in four different locations ' again, all from India.”
Wildlife experts accuse the Indian and Chinese governments of seriously underestimating the scale of the problem and, through a mixture of corruption and bureaucratic inertia, failing to address it.
Perhaps most depressing was the apparent lack of concern among Tibetans wearing these chubas.
In Sichuan’s Litang, Wright talked to a 21-year-old as he sat in his tent, swathed in a fresh tiger skin that had cost his father about '6,700. “He said that he would wear it just twice a year ' during the Tibetan New Year and at the annual horse festival ' even though he said he didn’t particularly like it.
“I asked him how wearing a dead animal’s skin could be compatible with his Buddhist religion, but he had no explanation, except to say ‘I didn’t kill the tiger’,” she said.