Tiger skin costumes at Litang Horse Festival, Sichuan Province, August 2005

Credits: © Wright WPSI / EIA

The trade in tiger and leopard skins in China and the Tibet Autonmous Region (TAR) is seriously threatening the future of the wild tiger. This picture taken by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) at the Litang Horse Festival in Sichuan Province in August 2005, reveals the enormous market for tiger and leopard skins - much of which is being used for costumes and ceremonial events.

Investigators attended horse festivals across the Tibetan plateau where many people, including the organisers and officials, were wearing costumes decorated with tiger and leopard skins, known locally as chubas. The costumes had been bought within the last two years and the traders categorically stated that the tiger skins had come from India. Since EIA's visit last year, there has been a massive increase in the availability of tiger and leopard skins in Lhasa, TAR. In the 46 shops surveyed, 54 leopard skin chubas and 24 tiger skin chubas were openly displayed, 7 whole fresh leopard skins were presented for sale and, within the space of 24 hours, investigators 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.

The investigators also found over 1800 otter skins, which are also used to decorate costumes. Debbie Banks, EIA's Senior Campaigner, stated: "In the last five years, the international community has seen the trade in tiger and leopard skins spiral out of control. If this trade continues unabated for another five years, it will be the end for the wild tiger. It is imperative that the Indian and Chinese governments stop this trade now, before time runs out."

In recent years, a major threat to the tiger's future is poaching for the traditional Chinese medicine trade (TCM). This is threatening the very survival of Asia's remaining tigers. The use of animals in medicine is still deeply rooted in local East Asian traditional cultures. Tiger bone is used as a pain reliever for joints. Despite bans and trade regulations at international and national levels, tigers continue to be poached and their body parts traded illegally to supply TCM demands. A tiger can earn a poacher more than $5,000 in Asia. Human populations in the major tiger areas are increasing much faster than the average global rate. During the 25 years since Project Tiger was launched in India in 1973, the country's human population has increased by over 300 million, and livestock numbers by over 100 million.

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