Sacred No Longer

The suffering of cattle for the Indian leather trade

Summer 2004

In India, the majority Hindu population holds the cow in higher regard more than any other animal. Some consider them holy and deserving of protection, not only from cruelty, but also from slaughter for their flesh and skin. Sadly, the demand for cheap leather in the west has spawned a grotesquely cruel illegal trade that is thriving unabated, with government officials turning a blind eye. Earlier this year, Advocates' campaigner, Yvonne Taylor, travelled to Chennai in the South of India to investigate.

India has the world's largest livestock population, estimated at more than 500 million. More than half are cows, buffalo and bulls. Cattle are sold for slaughter at huge markets where there is typically no veterinarian and where injured animals get left behind. Although the current law states no more than six cattle can be transported per lorry, up to forty are crammed on top of each other on the long trips to the slaughterhouses. The animals frequently gore and blind one another with their horns or break their pelvises when forced to jump from the trucks. Some suffocate. Live animals struggle under the dead and dying for hours on the long, hot journeys. These cow 'death trains' are operated by the state-owned railway.

India's constitution prohibits the killing of healthy, young cattle. To get around this, dealers often deliberately break the animals' legs or poison them so that they can be declared unhealthy and therefore suitable for slaughter. Cow slaughter is permitted in just two provinces, the communist-ruled states of West Bengal in the east and Kerala in the south. Although it is illegal to transport animals for slaughter across state borders, traders bribe officials to look the other way as they pack the cows into rail cars or trucks headed for one of the two provinces.

Thousands of others are surreptitiously herded overland - tied together with ropes running through their pierced noses - forced to march hundreds of kilometres in searing heat, often without food or water. If they collapse from exhaustion, herders snap the bones in their tails or rub chilli seeds and tobacco into their eyes to make them walk again.

There are approximately 3,600 slaughterhouses operating legally in India. However, there are estimated to be over 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses. Animals that survive transportation are frequently so sick that they have to be dragged into the slaughterhouse where they can see others dying before they themselves have their throats cut with blunt knives. There have been documented cases of cattle having their legs hacked off whilst still conscious and animals being skinned alive.

In licensed slaughterhouses, there is rarely a 'manager' to oversee staff or any form of training. Some assign a Government veterinarian but many of them do not show up for work and no inspection of the animals' health is performed prior to slaughter. There are no controls in the numerous illegal slaughterhouses.

The export trade in Indian leather is worth about $1.7 billion and India's export share of the leather market has been on the increase. Germany is the largest importer of Indian leather (19%) followed by the UK (17%). When people purchase leather products, there is no way of telling where the leather has come from as labelling only indicates where the product is finished.

Each year, the Indian Council for Leather Exports hosts an exhibition that attracts leather buyers from around the globe. The culmination of the event is a leather fashion show, featuring some of India's top fashion models. The show has been the target of previous protests - both PETA and Greenpeace have staged runway protests in recent years. This year, Advocates' very own Yvonne mounted a protest at both of this year's fashion shows. Her daring protest resulted in extensive media coverage across India. On her return to the UK, The Big Issue in Scotland devoted 4 pages to an in-depth exposé of the Indian leather trade.