Shawl trade wiping out rare antelope

A WORLD ban on luxury shahtoosh wool shawls has failed to stop the slaughter of theTibetan chiru antelope, shot for their fine hair.

High on the Himalayan plateau in western China, the country's biggest crackdown on illegal antelope hunting has netted a grim tally: 1,658 chiruskins, 545 chiru heads and 17 gangs of poachers. Environmental campaigners in China and around the world are heartened at Peking's decision to take stronger action to try to save the chiru from extinction. But the haul, announced yesterday, from a campaign lasting one month, is another warning that the antelope's future hangs in the balance.

More than 200 Chinese policemen took part in the big crackdown across the Hoh Xil natural reserve, a 100,000- square kilometre region on the Tibetan plateau straddling Qinghai province and Tibet. One poacher was killed and two others wounded, 66 were arrested, and 18 vehicles, 14 firearms and 12,000 bullets seized, the China Daily reported yesterday.

Earlier this year a police officer at the State Forest Administration died in action against the poachers. This followed the 1994 death in a shoot-out with poachers of the deputy party secretary of Zhiduo county in Qinghai. He was leading the local battle to save the chiru. His successor died from gunshot wounds last November, in a mysterious incident at first blamed on suicide.

The chiru population has fallen to below 75,000, and up to 20,000 a year are being slaughtered for their neck wool, which is woven into gauze-like shawls so delicate they can be passed through a finger ring.

Each antelope yields just 125-150g (4-5oz) of the fine wool, so several animals must be killed for each shawl. Yet there remains a market, encouraged sometimes by the belief that tufts of the wool caught on bushes and fences can be gathered by Tibetan children without the animal coming to any harm. Photographs of the mounds of carcasses left by the poachers prove otherwise.

Nearly 150 countries, which are signatories to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, all ban the sale and trade of shahtoosh. One glaring exception is the local government in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where most of the illicitly traded wool is woven into shawls.