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City Life Delhi: Poachers, weavers and a market sting

CHANDNI CHOWK is the most historic but also the most hysterical corner of Delhi: abutting Shah Jahan's magnificent Red Fort, the main street sliced through by the British after the uprising of 1857 is today a maelstrom of dilapidated cycle rickshaws and trucks and taxis and porters and shoppers all fighting their way through the capital's most teeming bazaar.

Porters pad down the middle of the road with huge squashy bundles on their heads. Small schoolchildren in powder-blue uniforms travel crammed like battery hens into a wooden box hauled by a groaning cyclist. Fat ladies sally forth in rickshaws to buy jewels, their young daughters perched on the axle.

Under a black marble statue of Gandhi outside Delhi's vaguely rococo old town hall, a posse of plain- clothes policemen sit sweating in a Hindustan Ambassador, waiting for the phone to ring.

On the far side of this whirlpool of traffic, on an upper floor, is a shop that sells shawls: pashmina and cashmere for the wealthy, coarser wool for the rest. Samples are displayed on the walls. But the most desirable item sold by this shop is neither displayed nor advertised.

Shatoosh, which means "king of wools" is the finest wool in the world. But its trade is illegal, because it is leading to the extinction of a Tibetan antelope, the chiru, which produced it.

Chiru roam the vast spaces of the Tibetan plateau. Poachers shoot them in the winter, when their coats are at their thickest, then shear off the wool. The thread makes its way via Nepal to Kashmir, the only place where it is still legal, where highly skilled craftsmen weave it into shawls of extraordinary delicacy. In Delhi, although illegal, the trade is flourishing, and this shop is one of many that trade in it under the counter.

Yesterday a young Japanese woman visited the shop and said she wanted to buy a large number of shatoosh shawls, for which she would pay in dollars. The shopkeeper pointed out that she could buy them more safely and conveniently in Tokyo, and gave her the details of his agent there. Yes, she said, but there it will be twice the price. The shopkeeper agreed to bring several dozen shawls for her to look at the next day. The time agreed was 3pm.

Now it is exactly 3pm and Yoko Shimizu (not her real name) is back in the shop, crosslegged on the padded floor, and the colour has drained from her face and there is a tremor in her voice. Because she is not a bona fide customer but an undercover agent of the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society. Working in tandem with the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), she has agreed to be the bait in this shatoosh trap.

The shawls are produced, several removed from their plastic wrappers. Anyone who has touched shatoosh can recognise it at once. This is the stuff: Yoko has no doubt. She tells her Indian escort, who has a mobile phone: "Tell the driver to bring the car." This is the agreed signal.

It is 3.10pm. In the hot car, the phone rings. From this car and from a blue Mahindra Commando in front, officers from the police and the city's wildlife department and a senior representative of the WPSI uncoil themselves, fight their way through the rickshaws, climb a dark, steep staircase, and suddenly the small shawl shop is very full of people and very quiet.

One of the shopkeepers hisses to Ms Shimizu: "You must leave immediately! You must leave immediately!" The man from the WPSI, who looks like anybody's kind uncle and is therefore a good man for the job, takes her arm tenderly and leads her out of the fray. Ninety-two shatoosh shawls are counted out under the eyes of the police, who watch very keenly because each shawl has a street value of at least pounds 500, and for even one to disappear would be a serious matter. When the paperwork is done, the shawls are packed into a box that is sealed, and they and the owner of the shop are taken away to the police station.

The shopkeeper will spend tonight in the station lock-up; tomorrow he will be charged. If WPSI is successful, bail will be refused and he will have a few more days in jail to contemplate the error of his ways.

The case will then vanish into the labyrinth of the Indian legal system, its conclusion perhaps years in the future. Saving the chiru is a long, slow and uncertain task.