Historic Burning of Pelts in Srinagar - "The End of an Era"
Last week, (Dec 2007) Ashok Kumar in IFAW’s India office, lit the flames to a pyre of more than 127,000 smuggled pelts and skins of endangered species seized in India.
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, Ashok Kumar 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.
He 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 skins.
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 and skins. 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.