A shawl, made from shahtoosh which comes from the underbelly of the Tibetan antelope, or Chiru, can cost more than pounds 11,000. The antelope has to be killed to secure the raw wool, which is then hand woven over several months.
The shawls can be bought in fashionable boutiques in Rome and Paris, and are said to be on sale in Britain - a consignment worth pounds 300,000 was seized by police in Mayfair just over a year ago. Dealers also advertise the material on the Internet.
The Independent was yesterday offered a scarf said to be made from shahtoosh in the back room of a tiny shop in central Rome. An assistant unlocked a tall cupboard and pulled out a bundle wrapped in unbleached calico. The price was pounds 1,000.
Italy, along with Britain, is one of the world's major markets for the banned wool, according to Massimiliano Rocco of World Wide Fund Italia.
Mr Rocco says there is no shortage of people willing to pay high prices. "It has become a status symbol. If you're going to make a splash at the first night of La Scala, a shahtoosh shawl is pretty much de rigueur."
In Paris, the owner of a boutique selling other Kashmiri products said: "There is a demand for shahtoosh, sadly, amongst women in high society in France. I have no absolute proof that a market for shahtoosh exists. But I hear many things which makes me believe that it does, not in shops but in more private ways."
"We have every reason to believe the trade goes on in France, as it does in Britain and many Western European countries," said John Sellars of the Geneva-based United Nations agency which enforces the international convention on trade in endangered species. "Shahtoosh is one of our top 10 enforcement problems, up there alongside tigers and elephants."
Sites on the Internet openly offer shahtoosh shawls, and there have been high-profile raids on shops in London and Paris in the last couple of years.
Hilal Ahmed Hakim of Uzama Arts, in Delhi, confirmed that shahtoosh shawls could be available: "Yes, shahtoosh is banned but we can export it without a name so it will look like an ordinary shawl."
Bobbie Jo Kelso, of Traffic International at the World Wide Fund for Nature, said that shahtoosh was being sold blatently in Hong Kong and it was likely that shawls were being passed on to Europe. "The trade is very very secretive," she said.
Last December, more than 100 shahtoosh shawls were seized in Hong Kong .Reuse content