The Illegal Wildlife Trade

Across their range tiger, Asian big cat and otter populations are under increasing threat from the demand for skins and body parts. Since 1999 huge seizures have taken place in India, Nepal and Tibet indicating that there is a sophisticated network of criminal masterminds controlling the trade in urban and cross-border areas. The volume of skins and body parts confiscated in most of these cases suggest that dealers are confident of avoiding detection and taking greater risks. However, it is likely that the vast majority of consignments reach their destination undeteced: Tibet's capital Lhasa, from where the growing market in Tibet, mainland China, Hongkong and Taiwan is supplied.

For years, political commitment to combat wildlife crime and implement adequate enforcement measures remained a low priority in all range countries. Only since 2006 several wildlife traders have been arrested and sentenced in India and Nepal.

In May 2011, a critically endangered Arabian Leopard was captured in Yemen and sold alive to an unknown buyer. The leopard is said to have died shortly after being sold. Further disclosures are expected pending the ongoing investigation (December 2011).
On 13 May 2011, the Bangkok based FREELAND Foundation reported the arrest of a United Arab Emirates citizen as he was preparing to fly first class from Bangkok to Dubai with various rare and endangered animals in his suitcases, which included four leopard cubs, one Asiatic black bear cub, and two macaque monkeys.

For more information also read this article.

In November 2010, the Kathmandu based Wildlife Watch Group reported:

The business of trading in skins of endangered species was booming in the tent city of Mina after the Haj in Saudi Arabia. Among the products being sold are the skins of tigers and even the critically endangered Arabian leopard whose habitat has been reduced to mere pockets of remote terrain in Yemen. "The spotted leopard is virtually extinct, and I have to wander for weeks in the jungle and mountains in the south of Yemen to find them. Then hunting them is very difficult and risky, as they are very intelligent, fast and dangerous", said Abdul Samad Habshi, who says his nickname back home is The Skin Man.

Read more ...

In November 2010, Traffic Southeast Asia reported:

The wildlife markets of Mong La in the Northern Shan State on the Chinese border, and Tachilek on the Thai border opposite the northern Thai town of Mae Sai in Chiang Rai Province represent the largest and most active wildlife markets in Myanmar, and are probably the biggest outlets for the direct sale and supply of endangered big cats in the world. During 13 surveys carried out between 2001 and 2010, the species most frequently recorded was leopard, with 167 whole skins and 4 skulls observed. Skins are sold and used as trophies, magic Buddhist amulets and for use in decoration and the fashion industry in China and the west. Other body parts are used primarily as aphrodisiacs for the visitors to Mong La as there is a large and active sex industry present. Many of the customers were international, especially from Korea and Taiwan. It is clear that the primary national-level wildlife trade legislation in Myanmar, the Protection of Wildlife and Wild Plants and Conservation of Natural Areas Law is not being enforced in Tachilek or Special Region 4 and Mong La. Both centres continue openly to offer endangered species for sale in large volumes. Read more: Oswell, A. H. (2010). The Big Cat Trade in Myanmar and Thailand. TRAFFIC Southeast Asia

On 16 September 2010, the Wildlife Protection Society of India reported 133 leopards killed in 2010 in India. In May, the NGO estimated that at least 3,189 leopards were killed in the country since 1994. For every tiger skin, at least seven leopard skins are smuggled.
On 25 January 2010, two skins of fully grown leopards were seized in Himachal Pradesh, India. A 55-year-old man was arrested for allegedly possessing these skins, reported Wildlife Watch India.

In 2009, the Wildlife Trust of India reported:

In December, the Bihar forest department assisted by the Wildlife Trust of India seized two leopard skins and arrested four wildlife traders near Valmiki Tiger Reserve along the Indo-Nepal border. The arrested persons were caught red-handed during delivery of the skins and most likely involved in cross-border trade. Read more ...

On 5 April, a tiger skin and a leopard skin were seized in Tamil Nadu; three wildlife traders were arrested. Read more ...

In end of March, a wildlife trader was arrested in Orissa and one leopard skin recovered. Read more ...

On 5 March, three people were caught red-handed and arrested with two leopard skins in western Uttar Pradesh. Read more ...

In June 2009, Dr. Abdul Razaq Manati from the University of Kabul, Afghanistan, reported:

In 2004, 28 leopard skins were seen being offered in the shops surveyed in Kabul, for an average price of US$ 825. In 2006, during a single inspection at the market in Kabul, 44 leopard skins were being offered for sale, almost twice as many different individual skins on offer as in the whole of 2004. Prices had also increased over the two years by 20%, to an average of US$ 1037 per skin. In 2007, the authorities had started to take action to control the trade in endangered species in Kabul and this improvement in enforcement was reflected in the drop in the number of furs being offered for sale at the same market, to 13 leopards. Shopkeepers confirmed that the demand for these skins by their clients without exception foreigners looking for exotic souvenirs was undiminished. Read more: Manati, A. R. (2009). The Trade in Leopard and Snow Leopard in Afghanistan TRAFFIC Bulletin Vol. 22 No. 2: 5758

In 2008 the Wildlife Trust of India reported:

In July, the Indian Police recovered eight leopard skins in Uttar Pradesh and arrested four persons involved in this skin trade. Read more ...

In May, six leopard skins were seized in far western Nepal in a joint operation carried out by Indian Police and Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. They arrested four notorious wildlife traders. Read more ...

In January 2008 the NGO Wildlife Conservation Nepal reported:

Between April to December 2007 ten leopard skins, two tiger skins, tiger bones, 350 pieces of tiger whiskers, 1 clouded leopard skin, 1 leopard cat skin, 500 elephant hairs and baby rhino horn were seized in various districts in Nepal. 13 traders and poachers have been arrested.

In the last week of January 2008 the wildlife trader Tsewang was sentenced for 15 years imprisonment along with a fine of Nepali Rs. 100,000 (about 1335 US$ / 930 €). Tsewang had been in the wanted list of the Government of India since 1994; Nepal Police had arrested him on 11 December 2005.

The Resources Himalaya Foundation reported on 5 February 2006:

A Tibetan-Nepali national identified Tshering Lama, a "notorious" international poacher and trader of illegal wildlife items, was arrested in New Delhi on Friday evening, February 3. Police also seized a huge cache of 34 freshly-tanned leopard skins and four otter skins from Lama, a Tibetan national based in Nepal.

A massive manhunt is on to nab two of his accomplices who are believed to be hiding in the area. According to sources, the absconding criminals are in possession of more banned wildlife items, including tiger skins.

The leopard skins bore marks resembling a signature with a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese characters. The consignment was en route to Siliguri in West Bengal, to be then dispatched to the Tibetan Autonomous Region through Nepal.

On 23 September 2005, investigators of the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Wildlife Protection Society of India informed at a press conference in Delhi:

During a 4-week fact-finding mission to Tibet and China in August the investigators obtained video and photograph footage documenting a massive increase in the availability of tiger, leopard and snow leopard skins in the country. They attended several horse festivals and found many people, including organizers and officials, wearing costumes decorated with tiger and leopard skins. In Lhasa they found 54 leopard skin costumes, and 24 tiger skin costumes openly displayed. Seven whole fresh leopard skins were presented for sale and, within the space of 24 hours, they were offered three whole, fresh tiger skins. In one street alone in Linxia, China, more than 60 whole snow leopard and over 160 fresh leopard skins were openly on display - with many more skins rolled up in the back. They also found over 1800 otter skins used for decorating traditional costumes.

EIA and WPSI are appealing to the Tibetan people to stop wearing endangered tiger and leopard skins, and urge international organizations to support awareness initiatives to get the message to consumers as fast as possible.

Photo courtesy: Stephanie Sears

On 10 September 2005, the Indo-Asian News Service reported another huge haul of skins in Nepal:

On September 2 the Royal Nepal Army seized five tiger skins, 36 leopard skins, 238 otter skins and 113 kilograms of tiger and leopard bones in the Rasuwa district of Nepal, bordering the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This consignment was found during a routine patrol in the village of Syabru Besi close to the Langtang National Park hidden beneath perishable goods. The person carrying the consignment, Mingmar Tshering Tamang, is under police custody along with two of his accomplices, both from Nepal. According to an official the goods were coming from Delhi and supposed to be sent to Tibet.

On 7 April 2005 Care for the Wild International reported:

Indian police in Delhi last night seized 44 fresh leopard and 14 otter skins. A team led by Assistant Commissioner of Police Mr. Bhagat arrested two Tibetans and one Nepali in connection with the seizure, which took place on the very day that His Holiness the Dalai Lama launched a collaborative initiative with UK Charity Care for the Wild International and the Wildlife Trust of India to stop Tibetan involvement in illegal wildlife trade.

The three men were trying to smuggle the skins into Nepal and China, when they were arrested. Their plan was to transport the contraband skins by using an overnight bus service which links the Tibetan settlement Majnu Ka Tila in India directly with Boudha in Kathmandu in Nepal. The men are due to appear in court today.

In October 2004 the Environmental Investigation Agency reported:

There have been further seizures of tiger and leopard skins in Nepal with four separate incidents in 2004 alone. In March 2004, 15 km from the border with Tibet, seven leopard skins, six otter skins, 165 pieces of leopard and tiger bone and 185 pieces of rhino skin were recovered by the army from a container truck.

In April 2004, six leopard skins were seized from a Mr. Jampa Lama in Nepalganj on the border between India and Nepal. Nepalese officials working undercover arrested the buyers of the skins at their workshop in Boudha in the centre of Kathmandu, where skin sections equivalent to 24 leopards and 12 otters were seized. In July in the Boudha area of Kathmandu, a 24-year-old man was arrested with two tiger skins, eight leopard skins, four sacks of fresh tiger bones, and a sack of rhino bones and skins.

Read more : The Tiger Skin Trail .

In autumn 2004 the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) reported:

Between 21 June and 10 July 2004, 10 tiger skins, 25 leopard skins, four sacks of fresh tiger bones, and the claws of 31 tigers and leopards were seized in 11 cases throughout India and Nepal.

In October 2003 BBC News quoting the Chinese Xinhua News Agency reported:

On 9 October 2003 a haul of 1276 skins comprising of 32 tigers, 579 leopards and 665 otters was intercepted in Tibet as smugglers carried the contraband in a truck from neighbouring Nepal into Tibet. Three Tibetans and two Nepalis have been arrested. The skins are valued at 6.52 million yuan, or 787,620 US$. According to the Vice Director of the Anti-Smuggling Bureau of Lhasa Customs this was the largest such seizure since 1951; many of the skins had bullet holes, and the size of some specimens suggest the animals were only a few months old.
The wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC specifies this seizure having consisted of 1392 skins, namely of 31 tigers, 581 leopards, 778 otters and two lynxes.

The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) reported in summer 2003:

In the first months of 2003 at least 98 leopards were poached in India. Informants claim that leopard poaching and the skin trade is being coordinated on a national scale.

On 9 April 2003 the Nepali television station Channel Nepal reported:

On 4 April skins of 109 leopards and 14 otters were seized in the Kathmandu Valley. The skins were discovered in a truck heading to Dhading Besi (situated west of Kathmandu), packed in sacks and paper bags. Most of the skins smelled badly and were obviously quite fresh; they showed bullet holes or signs of poisoning. On the back they were marked "Paid".

This is the largest seizure ever made in Nepal. The trader Pasang T. Lama had 50,000 Rupees (about 640 US$) about him, has been arrested and investigated. He admitted having received the money as advance payment for delivering the skins to the Tibetan border. Government officials assume that the skins were meant to be taken to China via Tibet. So far nothing is known about the whereabouts of the bones and claws of these animals.

The Kathmandu Valley is a continuing hotspot of the illegal fur-trade. There, Bodhnath, Thamel and Swayambhunath are known collection centers for skins, bones and other derivatives of tigers and leopards in particular. Evidence suggests that there are linkages between these illegal markets and the Chitwan area in the south of Nepal, where some tourist guides serve as middlemen between traders and poachers.

On 7 January 2003 Himalayan News Service reported:

On 19 December 1999 a truck was intercepted in Ghaziabad, India, containing 50 leopard skins, 3 tiger skins and 9 skins of other animals - the second largest seizure of big cat skins since India's Independence. All the skins bore the signature of Tashi Tshering, a Tibetan in exile, signifying that these were chosen from a much larger selection.

This seizure was followed by a seizure in Khaga, India on 12 January 2000. Four tiger skins, 132 tiger claws, 70 leopard skins, 18,020 leopard claws and 221 skins of blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) were confiscated. Again, the signatures of Tashi Tshering were present.

By then, a new pattern in illegal wildlife trade had begun to emerge: On 19 April 2002 22 leopard skins and 72 other skins were seized at Siliguri, West Bengal.

In January 2003 Tashi Tshering was arrested by the special task force of Uttar Pradesh, India along with 12 leopard skins.