The Tibetans are setting fire to tiger skins and other exotic furs after the Dalai Lama personally called on his people to stop the trade in endangered animal pelts. Tibet has become the world's leading market for the contraband, as Justin Huggler reports for The Independent.

A rich and unusual smoke has been drifting into the Tibetan skies. People have been emerging from their homes and burning furs and animal skins. Onlookers have gathered to watch as Tibetans burned tiger skins worth as much as £6,000 in the streets. Many have given up their chubas, traditional robes adorned with tiger skins that can cost the equivalent of two years' wages for the average Tibetan, and watched happily as they went up in smoke.

In one town, it is said you can see the smoking ruins of tiger skins and other furs along the roadside. These scenes are not part of some exotic ritual. They are part of a major new environmental drive among Tibetans that could prove decisive in whether the tiger survives in the wild, or is driven to extinction. They come after the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, personally intervened and called on his people to stop the trade in wild animal skins. Because, almost unnoticed by the outside world, Tibet has become the world's leading market for contraband tiger skins.

Environmentalists now believe the Tibetan skin trade is as influential as Chinese medicine in driving the demand for tigers. It is the market for tiger skins in Tibet that has ravaged the wild tiger population in India in recent years.

Environmentalists are warning that the tiger is on the verge of extinction after it emerged last year that large numbers have disappeared from India's wildlife reserves - under the noses of game wardens. News emerged yesterday that tigers are missing from yet another Indian reserve, this time Buxa, in West Bengal. Some Indian wildlife experts are warning there may be as few as 1,200 tigers left in India.