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 yesterday, 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 is 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 demand for the skins was coming from the newly monied classes who had made small fortunes from selling a local caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) 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, according to local people.
The skins are smuggled along well-established Nepali trading routes into Tibet where they are sold openly in shops in the capital, Lhasa. Using hidden cameras Ms Wright, who has devoted the last 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.
According to Indian government census figures there are 3,624 wild tigers left in India but that figure is now widely acknowledged to be a gross over-estimate. Some wildlife campaigners put the figure as low as 2,000.
The Indian government has recently set up a new Tiger Taskforce to try to staunch the flow of big cat losses but, the experts say, the commercial poaching interests are better funded and more determined than the state.
Perhaps most depressing of all for the investigators was the apparent lack of concern among Tibetans wearing the tiger and leopard skin chubas, many of whom had clearly not stopped to consider the implication for tiger populations.
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Thursday, September 22, 2005
Wild tiger facing extinction?
Tigers killed off for ceremonial costumes