By Paul Eccleston
The illicit trade in skins from Asian big cats is still flourishing in China.
July 15, 2008- The skins of snow leopards, leopards and tigers are openly on sale in shops, an investigation has revealed.
Buyers come from all over China to purchase the skins which are marketed as rugs or taxidermy specimens.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) which exposes environmental crimes a worldwide, found 13 snow leopard skins, 13 leopard skins and 1 whole tiger skin for sale in just one street during a five-day period in June 2008.
The gruesome skins could be seen on display in shops despite a ban on the trade. One trader questioned by investigators claimed he was tipped off by an ‘insider’ before a visit by the authorities giving him time to hide the skins.
All Asian big cats are becoming increasingly rare and all are protected under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES is currently being held in Geneva where conservation groups will urge China to take tougher enforcement action against shops illegally trading in animal skins.
The Chinese authorities have been taking measures to curb the demand for products – particularly in Tibetan communities – which has helped wild tiger populations such as India, Nepal, Bhutan and Indonesia but numbers are still critically low.
EIA investigators travelled to Linxia, in Gansu Province after being tipped off that the trade continued to flourish.
Traders said there had been a fall in demand from the Tibetan community and this had resulted in a reduction in the number of shops which openly sold animal skins but the EIA found five traders who had previously been involved in selling Asian big cat skins.
Big cat skins for sale were said to have been sourced from Afghanistan, Burma, China (Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Xinjiang), India, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia and Vietnam.
One trader offered a whole tiger skin and said that a contact in the local Forest Bureau alerted him in advance of Bureau inspections.
The latest EIA investigation of 30 shops in Beida Jie (Beida Street) found a total of 14 shops offering to sell illegal skins. They were able to see:
• 9 whole snow leopard skins
• 4 snow leopard skins made into rugs
• 13 whole leopard skins
• 5 pieces of leopard skin trim
• 1 whole tiger skin
• 1 piece of tiger skin trim.
Two more shop owners said they did not have Asian big cat skins on the premises but could supply snow leopard and tiger skin.
EIA admitted that enforcement efforts in China to date had resulted in the confiscation of 30 snow leopard and 51 leopard skins between 2003 and 2007 but claimed these were only cosmetic actions and there was an urgent need for more covert, pro-active, coordinated, intelligence-led raids against known and persistent offenders.
In May 2008 China claimed that China that the open availability of Asian big cat skins had almost been eliminated after one trader found in possession of 27 snow leopard skins and snow leopard bone leopard, bear and lynx skins was jailed for 11 years and fined $14,600.