By Peter Simpson in Beijing
Last Updated: 11:34pm BST 21/10/2006
Sa Bei Long swung his large canvas sack of illegal goods over his shoulder and disembarked at Beijing's main train station after his long journey from Tibet.
The world's highest railway was intended to foster closer economic links between China's capital and the disputed mountain province, but it is also proving a fast, safe and cost-effective route to the country's richest market for fur smugglers such as Sa.
Until the railway was opened in July, the 19-year-old trader would have had to transport his wares by road, a long and hazardous journey along a route on which fatal crashes are common.
Now, for just 780 yuan (£52) return, Sa – a Han Chinese – can carry his precious cargo of exotic animal pelts on the 2,500-mile train ride from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in just 48 hours. "I sell mainly to rich Chinese. My last customer was a Taiwanese businessman," he said, as he set off on foot to hawk his illegal goods on the streets of Beijing. "The train is easy to use, safe and cheap. Many people are using it to sell stuff all over China."
When the railway opened, critics warned that it would hasten the cultural destruction of Tibet by making it more accessible to Han Chinese settlers. They did not foresee the threat it would pose to some of the world's most endangered species.
Many of Beijing's new rich have developed a taste for exotic animal hides to adorn their homes. Now, thanks to fast rail access to the distant Himalayan wilderness, they are easier to obtain – as are rare plants that are sought after for herbal medicine.
advertisementSa nervously scans the streets for danger as he seeks potential customers. Beijing's many security officers are notoriously fickle, turning a blind eye one day, demanding bribes the next.
He uses a wolf skin, tucked under one arm, to lure prospective customers before offering them a discreet look inside his sack at the more exotic furs. Last week, he had rare snow leopard skins for sale at 48,000 yuan (£3,250) each, several black bear furs for 2,600 yuan and wolf pelts for 600 yuan.
An estimated 6,000 snow leopards remain in the wild and their numbers are falling rapidly. China's black bears are also threatened, but tigers are most at risk from the rising demand. Their skins are mostly brought into Tibet from India and sold to smugglers eyeing the lucrative trade in Beijing.
"Yes, I can get you a tiger skin for 200,000 yuan," Sa boasted to The Sunday Telegraph. "It will take 10 days to order and bring from Tibet by train."
Believing he was talking to a potential buyer, Sa agreed to a private showing of his wares at a Beijing hotel. On arrival, he nervously spread two snow leopard skins and a black bear pelt on the bed. A pungent, musty smell filled the room.
"The leopards were shot and the bullet went in here," he said, pointing to two small stitched incisions in the white, supple leather, "and came out there. But the fur is in good condition. The poachers are good shots."
Sa, one of an increasing number of fur vendors in Beijing, is paid a 10 per cent commission on each item sold. "If you want a tiger skin, I will try and catch the next available train," he said.
He agreed to a bigger deal of five leopard skins at "a bargain" 30,000 yuan each. Payment could be made in cash or transferred to a bank account, he said. A brief handshake sealed the deal and he agreed to return the next morning after picking up the order from a secret warehouse.
The Sunday Telegraph later cancelled the appointment with the smuggler and alerted conservation organisations to the illegal trade.
"We were not aware that fur traders were using the train link to sell in Beijing," said Zhu Chun Quan, head of conservation operations for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in China. "This has the potential to quicken the extinction of tigers, snow leopards and other endangered species. We will alert our officers in Lhasa and use the evidence you have provided to lobby the Chinese government to enforce strict checks on passengers and their luggage." Convicted smugglers would face long prison sentences.
Endangered plants used in Chinese medicine are also in demand through the new supply chain. Dr Jane Goodall, a British conservationist who is touring China, said widespread corruption among railway officials and police made laws ineffective.
"It is horrific to learn that this train is speeding up the extinction of these magnificent animals and other endangered species," she said. "It is up to the Chinese government to educate its citizens that buying such furs and plant medicines has irreversible consequences."
Publishers wishing to reproduce photographs on this page should phone 44 (0) 207 538 7505 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org