Eight Tibetans are being held in detention in Ngaba prefecture (Chinese: Aba) in Sichuan province (the Tibetan area of Amdo) following an initiative to burn wild animal furs that was recorded on video and has been broadcast by conservation groups worldwide. The Tibetans, five of whose names are known to ICT, are currently detained in cells in a local police station.

Further incidents of Tibetans burning fur pelts in order to protect wildlife have occurred in several different areas of Tibet in the past few weeks, including at least two incidents in Lhasa, on February 6 and 15. According to one report from Tibet, in Rebgong, Qinghai (Amdo), dustbins on either side of the street were said to be filled with burnt animal furs last week. There is intense debate about the fur burning initiatives among Tibetan and Chinese intellectuals on Chinese-language websites, and according to postings on one site, the price of furs has dropped in various Tibetan areas in the last few weeks.

This growing environmental consciousness in Tibetan areas follows increasing concern about the illegal wildlife trade between India and Tibet and the lack of enforcement from the Chinese authorities in preventing wild animal pelts being sold in Tibetan areas. Tibetans have traditionally decorated their robes (chubas) with wild animal furs, and there has been increasing concern in recent years about the link to the trade in skins and the threat of extinction of the big cats, notably the tiger, in India. The Dalai Lama made strong statements about the importance of wildlife conservation and compassion towards animals during a gathering of thousands of Tibetans from Tibet and in exile in India last month, which have been welcomed by environmental groups worldwide, including the Environmental Investigation Agency, Care for the Wild and World Wildlife Fund.

The detentions in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture occurred after a group of Tibetans convened at Kirti monastery in Dzoge county (Chinese: Roergai) to burn endangered animal furs worth thousands of yuan. A video that was brought out of Tibet depicts Tibetans heaping furs in a pile that is set alight while others cheer and shout ‘Lha gyalo’ (Victory to the Gods’, a traditional Tibetan religious evocation) in the background. A Tibetan from Tibet said: ‘It was an extremely moving sight, and many people cried.” The Tibetans who were detained have been questioned and apparently their relatives have been allowed to visit them. Separate incidents of animal skin burning occurred near or around other local monasteries in the Ngaba area.

Beijing is concerned about the Dalai Lama’s continued influence in Tibet, and on Saturday the Chinese Embassy in London said in response to the fur burning initiatives that: “The call from Dalai Lama has purposes other than to protect wild animals in Tibet because with such action it is not in favor of protection of wild animals but the disturbance of social order [sic]” (Channel Four News, UK, 18 February 2006).

Reports from inside Tibet however clearly indicate that these initiatives are considered expressions of concern about wildlife protection, as well as a renewed determination to uphold one of the key tenets of Buddhism, compassion to all living beings, following the Dalai Lama’s statements at the Kalachakra. Tibetans who burnt animal skins and were questioned in Rebgong, Qinghai, by security personnel, reportedly said that they had done so because the wearing of these skins is against Buddhism. The wild animal pelt burnings are also happening in the context of an emerging environmental consciousness in the PRC over the past few years, particularly with regard to mammals such as the chiru (Tibetan antelope) and the big cats. The environmental film ‘Kekexili: Mountain Patrol’, starring a respected Tibetan actor and depicting the attempts of a group of Tibetans to prevent poaching, was a major hit in China after it was made in 2004 and has been widely shown in film festivals in the West.

Two isolated burnings of wild animal pelts have occurred in Lhasa in the past fortnight in the central Barkhor area. The burning on February 15 took place close to the Jokhang temple, and while some Tibetans gathered around to watch, it did not develop into a major gathering.

The situation in Rebgong, Malho (Chinese: Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, is reportedly still tense following the stepping up of security in the area after Tibetans burnt wild animal furs on February 7. One Tibetan, Tseten Gyal, who was involved in collecting traditional clothing made with animal furs for burning, was questioned by local police after a crowd had gathered to participate in the burning of pelts of leopard, foxes and otters or to witness the burning. Tibetans involved said they wanted to shatter the perception in people’s minds of Tibetans wearing fur as decoration, and they vowed to protect animals’ lives, particularly wild animals. Many local Tibetans gave money to the local temple for prayers to be said for the animals that had been killed. Tibetans in Rebgong were prevented from holding a larger burning of skins in a local monastery, but were apparently allowed to burn skins in the courtyards of their private homes.

A Tibetan from Amdo called Radio Free Asia to say that these actions were spontaneous, without one organizer. The caller said: “Some Tibetans vowed in writing that they will never again use animal skins for clothes. All these activities came from their own personal initiative and voluntary participation” (Radio Free Asia, February 22). The caller added that the awareness of endangered species and the need to protect the environment was growing among Tibetans.

There have been further reports of Tibetans burning wild animal skins near a local monastery near Chentsa (Jianzha in Chinese) county in Qinghai (Amdo), and according to Radio Free Asia, Tibetans attending a dance ceremony at Kirti monastery in Ngaba on February 14 were told by monastery officials not to wear clothes made of rare animal skins, saying that their offerings would be refused if they did.

Debate among Tibetans and Chinese about the burning of animal skins

There has been some criticism of the actions in postings on Chinese-language websites by Tibetans and Chinese, with contributors saying that they thought the furs could have been donated to the monasteries, or used to build a collection for a museum to show how Tibetans once went through a stage of using animal skins as a kind of adornment. Some Tibetans draw attention to the differences between intellectuals and the people who live on the land, with one correspondent saying: “As ever, there’s a group of educated Tibetans sitting around and talking, whereas out there, there are the people on the lower rungs of society who are sacrificing themselves, who are the bearers of wisdom and responsibility.”

But according to one contributor to the debate, a Tibetan writer who assessed many of the postings: “Most people said they [the animal furs] had to be destroyed: if they remained then people would want to wear them and then other people would want to trade in them.” Others discussed the method of burning the skins that was chosen by the Tibetans (the Dalai Lama did not refer to this in his Kalachakra message): “This was how they have chosen to express themselves, and it has to be said that it was the most appropriate way for them to do it – all the best to them!” Two further contributions state: “?Doing this only tells everyone that for a very long time, we were vain and ignorant! It may not have been the perfect nor the most elegant way to have gone about things, but for the people who live on this land it was the most appropriate way.” “Burning these valuable skins took a lot of determination – it’s a big sacrifice for most people. And that in itself is an expression, it’s the positive effect of a call made by the Dalai Lama, and through it can be seen the simplicity of the Tibetan people’s belief in the Dalai Lama.”

A Tibetan scholar writing on a Chinese-language website said that there had been a big increase in hunting and poaching after the habit of wearing animal fur spread throughout Tibetan areas in the 1980s and 1990s. But a Chinese writer contributing to the site said that the increase in the trade had been exacerbated by a Chinese official aesthetic: “To attract investment and develop tourism, you see ‘culture festivals’ wherever you go, and one of the main drivers of this has been performances in Tibetan costumes. These shows demonstrate the aesthetic sense of the government, and the people exhibiting their valuable costumes can often make a name for themselves, and so are encouraged to use ever rarer skins in ever greater quantities. Sometimes the government even borrows jewellery from people and passes it onto a handful of performers to use. And then they wear so much decoration they look like a jewellery shop and the government has to dispatch police officers to keep guard over them to make sure they don’t lose or steal anything.” The Chinese writer also refers to a Tibetan pop singer who always wears fur, thus perpetrating the image that all Tibetans wear fur and kill animals, and concludes by saying: “The authorities in Tibetan areas need to realize that if culture is going to be made to function as a ‘stage’ for the economy, then culture is always going to be seriously damaged.”

Another contributor to the Chinese-language website wrote: “Each Tibetan who regards himself as a Buddhist, who considers himself to have more compassion, mercy and love than others: where is this love and compassion and our prayers for all living things when we face our compatriots in animal skins? To allow these beautiful creatures to border on extinction because of our morbid aesthetics is to conclude their history in blood and tears! It’s enough to have suffocated Shakyamuni in the blink of an eye! ? We do not want to be seen as aloof, or be reproached by the world. If we do not leave these skins behind us, then the disaster befalling these animals will continue, and they will become extinct from among such a compassionate nationality as us. We cannot watch and wait – we have to act and return to the animals a world free from terror and slaughter. We all live under the same blue sky.”