Historic Burning of Pelts in Srinagar - "The End of an Era"
Last week, Ashok Kumar in IFAW's India partner office, lit the flames to a pyre of more than 127,000 smuggled pelts and skins of endangered species seized in India. Wildlife in India, particularly the Bengal tiger and Asian elephant, are being decimated by poachers in the market for easy money. Park rangers in India can barely keep up, but that doesn't stop them from protecting their forests as best as they can. Officials in India are doing their part by prosecuting wildlife criminals with hefty fines and significant jail time. The destruction of seized pelts is the clearest message that India will not tolerate the decimation of its wildlife. Ashok describes the situation in his own words:
One of the routes to the decimation of wild species has been shut down: The fur trade of Srinagar in Kashmir valley. The process began some years back in 1997. The time had come, late no doubt, that a licensed trade in garments made from skins and furs of wild species had to come to end.
The carnage of a wide range of wild species over decades, if not
centuries, can be guessed at by a mind boggling number of fur garments
and skins declared by licensed furriers of Kashmir. The stock of tiger
skins and garments alone tallied more than 89. In all, the stock of
skins from wild species totaled more than 125,000.
The tradition was age old, going back perhaps 200 years or more.
Trappers and hunters of wild species in forests of the Indian
sub-continent and the Himalayan range sold their `produce’ to a small
town trader, who in turn delivered these to major cities such as
Calcutta and the walled city of Old Delhi. The hub Gihara Gali later
came to be known as Lane number eleven, the notorious wildlife trading
alley. Actually, the word Gihara refered to a tribe of part time
hunters turned wholesalers and taxidermists of wild skins and furs, who
also supplied the Kashmir fur industry. The oldest case of the infamous
wildlife trader, Sansar Chand, a Gihara, dates back to 1988 - he was
accused of selling 29,489 skins to Kashmiri traders. The list of
species seized in this case reads almost exactly as those now burned
and included one tiger and five leopard skins. Jackal, wild cat and fox
skins predominate. The case is still undergoing trial after 19 years.
In 1978, I had sought an appointment with Sheikh Abdullah, the Prime
Minister of J&K state. He was also called Sher-e-Kashmir (the Lion
of Kashmir). Fur garments were on open sale in his state, in Kashmiri
owned shops all over India and in Nepal. I requested him to halt the
carnage. His reaction was sharp: “mine is a tourism driven state,
tourists from all over the world come to Kashmir, and they buy fur
garments. That provides livelihood to my people.” No, it cannot be
halted, he said. Two decades later, his son, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Chief
Minister of J&K was to approve the public burning of these skins.
In 1986, the Central Government of India banned the trade in wildlife
The furriers took the government to court and succeeded in
getting a “stay” order halting the implementation of the ban. As a
result of NGO intervention in the court case, the stay was lifted and
the ban came into force in 1992.
Yet in Kashmir, this trade remained legal and licensed, since J&K
state had a separate wildlife law. That law was brought on par with the
Central Law only in 2002, which threw up the question, what to do with
stocks of skins, furs and garments (some of which were considered to be
legally held by licensed furriers)?
To a committee appointed in 1997,
furriers numbering 224 offered to surrender their stocks knowing a ban
was imminent; an inventory was made and the value was determined. But
where was the money, all of Rs.9.42 crores (US$ 2,400,000) to
compensate the furriers?
The Central Government refused to give the
amount because that would amount to buying wildlife skins. The Central
Government had already refused to do that for ivory traders and
furriers in the rest of the country and their stand was accepted by the
Delhi High Court in 1997 and upheld by the Supreme Court of India. The
trickiest question was: should the government of J&K agree to
compensate furriers? A move that could appear as if the state was
buying wildlife articles,
There was an impasse.
A solution was proposed: compensation would not
be given for the stock, but as rehabilitation grants to artisans. That
opened a Pandora’s box because hundreds of artisans came forward to
claim the grant whereas the furriers were traders and not at all
artisans. The furriers then filed a case in the High Court of J&K
in 2006 asking for the amounts promised to them when their stock was
surrendered. The Court’s decision instructed the J&K Government to
deposit the amount with the High Court, which would then release the
funds to the 224 furriers.
This process of paying compensation to
furriers is ongoing and the stage was set for the burning of the furs
At one stage, the temptation could have been to challenge - in the
Supreme Court - the decision of the J&K High Court to compensate
the furriers. There is little doubt that based on the Delhi High Court
judgment of 1997 and upheld by Supreme Court, such a petition could
have been admitted, halting the process of destruction of stocks. A
more balanced view was that Rs. 9.42 crores was just money that could
bury a gory past once and for all.
Yet Kashmir, the paradise on earth,
has its serpents. There is said to be as yet hidden, undeclared stocks.
That story is beginning to unfold to be chronicled another day.
The burning of many truckloads of fur garments and skins was started by J&K's Wildlife Department on December 3, 2007 in Srinagar, Kashmir. Chief Wildlife Officer A K Srivastava observed that they had waited many years for this moment to arrive. I lit the first torch and lowered a tiger skin onto the pyre. As the flames leapt skywards, I witnessed history being made. Going up in flames was the largest single agglomeration of wildlife skins anywhere in the world. Wild species have respite from the Kashmir fur trade but there are newer challenges to wild species from the emergence of new markets in China. At no time can we give up the battle.
A full list of the stock of furs and skins burned is available upon
request sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
With inputs by Rosa Argent, intro by Lynn Levine - IFAW
4 December 2007