A walk last December through downtown Kathmandu´s Durbar Marg avenue was shocking to me, as someone concerned about endangered of Himalayan wildlife. The ubiquitous fur-selling shops all seemed to carry garments made out of spotted cats. Eager salesmen told me what they thought I wanted to hear: “jungle cat”, “ocelot”, “leopard”, anything. They said they would help me smuggle the fur out of the country. A Kashmiri shopkeeper operating at Store Number 11 near the Yak and Yeti Hotel offered me a snow leopard coat for USD 3,000.
Compelled by a need to know more, I initiated a brief study of Kathmandu´s fur market. I visited 36 fur-selling shops with a female companion (in picture with face obscured) and together we posed as a couple interested in some illegal fur shopping. We found that 86 percent of the stores carried coals made from protected species: leopard-cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), common leopard (Panthera pardus), clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), and snow leopard (Panthera uncia).
The fur coats we found represent the lives of many individual animals. Leopard-cats are diminutive creatures, so at least 36 cats must give up their beautiful skins to make one full length coat. Based on all the leopard-cat coats we counted, I estimate conservatively that over 700 of these animals were killed to stock the Kathmandu shops. Similarly, over 50 common leopards, about 28 clouded leopards, and 12 snow leopards were killed as fodder for Kathmandu´s fur trade. The numbers given here are indeed conservative because we missed some stores and did not go into all the large hotels, many of which have fur shops in their lobbies.
All the four species of cats whose furs are so abundantly available are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Nepal became a member of CITES in 1975 and in doing so agreed to prohibit international trade in species protected by the treaty. The fur trade in Kathmandu is “international” because the stores cater almost exclusively to tourists. (At U$ 500 to U$ 3,200 per coat, these furs are far beyond the means of most Nepalis.)
The merchants explained to us how to smuggle their wares out of Nepal. They offered to sew artificial fur over illegal coats to pass them through customs. Other methods were to pack the illegal fur into an ornate pillowcase or to attach a falsified label to the coat saying that it was old, thereby passing it through a “grandfather” clause of CITES.
Even if Nepal´s fur trade were strictly domestic (and consequently not in violation of CITES), the country would be violating its own National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1973. Section 10 of that Act “…gives complete protection throughout the Kingdom to Schedule I (protected) species…”, which include the leopard- cat, clouded leopard and snow leopard. According to the Act, hunting those species can result in fines from NRs 5,000 to NRs 15,000 and one to five years in jail.
Nepal shares its status as a CITES member and violator with both China and India. Snow leopard skins can be purchased from merchants in Lhasa, while a great diversity of illegal coats are sold in Srinagar (see July 1987 Himal). In fact, most of Kathmandu´s fur merchants are Indians, many from Kashmir. The CITES and the Conservation Act violations go beyond the four cat species mentioned here. Coats of Grey wolf (Canis lupus) and lynx (Lynx lynx), both protected species, were present in some shops. Garments made from other species of cats were found, all of which were likely from India, where all wild felids are protected. The overt fur trade in Kathmandu is legally indefensible. One may attempt to morally justify the trade by arguing that it brings foreign currency to an economically impoverished country. This may be true, except that the money changes hands in large bills and only a small percentage of Nepalis receive any direct benefit.
For a CITES nation like Nepal to ignore the sale of endangered species, brazenly displayed by shopkeepers right on Kathmandu´s most fashionable thoroughfare, is unfathomable. It is ironic that our study was conducted on the two days following an international CITES conference held in Kathmandu. Compounding the irony, I found a leopard-cat coat for sale downstairs in the Hotel Himalaya while the CITES meetings were in session upstairs.
How can the situation be changed? The authorities could start by announcing the enforcement of CITES and a programme of ongoing monitoring of the fur trade. This would help a bit, but merchants would simply move their business into the black market. They would lose the impulse buyer, but not the consumer who comes to Nepal intent on buying an illegal fur. A more desirable action, of greater benefit to the endangered species, would be to confiscate furs and to prosecute shopkeepers. The enormous financial damage (an estimated U$ 15,000 in some shops) would be felt by the middlemen in the trade. All confiscated furs should be incinerated. Again, the trade would have to be continually monitored.
Nepal was one of the first countries to sign CITES and, in general, enjoys a good international reputation as a friend of conservation and proponent of the treaty. Hopefully, Nepal will act to retain its good reputation and, most importantly, to relieve some of the pressures facing the endangered populations of leopard-cats, common leopards, clouded leopards, snow leopards, and other protected species of fur-bearing animals.
Larry Barnes is a biologist from the United States.