These animals are dying out. And all because the lady loves shahtoosh

Trade in Tibetan antelope wool is banned but with a shawl fetching pounds 11,000, more than its weight in gold, the breed's future looks bleak
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE MEN who weave it can spend months producing a single shawl, and then need a holiday to restore their eyesight. It is the world's most sophisticated emblem of wealth: weight for weight, the wool is more valuable than gold or platinum, and in a Mayfair store that shawl which cost the weaver his eyesight can cost the consumer pounds 11,000.

The burgeoning trade in shahtoosh is leading to the extinction of the remaining herds of Tibetan antelope, or chiru, from which it comes.

But although the trade has been illegal in most of the world for 22 years - that pounds 11,000 shawl was one of 138, worth more than pounds 300,000, seized in a Metropolitan Police raid on "Kashmir", in Mayfair, central London, in February 1997 - it remains legal in the Indian state on which it is centred.

Kashmir lent its name to shahtoosh's humbler but ecologically friendly relative, cashmere, and it is the immensely skilled artisans of the state who spin and weave both wools.

Last week, confronted by legal moves from the Wildlife Protection Society of India to shut down the trade for good, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Dr Farooq Abdullah, was defiant.

"As long as I am the chief minister," he declared, "shahtoosh will be sold in Kashmir." The campaign to ban the trade, he went on, "maligns the people of the state", and he averred that there was "no evidence of Tibetan antelope being reduced in number or their being shot to acquire wool for shahtoosh".

Shahtoosh means "king of wool" and for centuries it has been one of the most prized items in an Indian trousseau. But for a long time confusion has reigned about its provenance. Even today a web site in the United States propagates the notion that "twice a year [the Tibetan antelope] moult, rubbing their fleece against rocks or bushes. Wind blows the hair into little clumps. Tibetans and Nepalis trek through the mountains for weeks to return with little handfuls of wool."

This bucolic scene is worthy of Lewis Carroll's "aged, aged man a-sitting on a gate". ("He said, `I search for haddock's eyes among the heather bright, and sew them into waistcoat buttons in the silent night...' ") But it is pure invention.

As Dr George Schaller, director of America's Wildlife Conservation Society, discovered during long expeditions on the bleak and arid Tibetan plateau in the past few years, chiru are trapped and shot, usually during the winter months, when the undercoat, which yields shahtoosh, is at its thickest.

This is the only verified way in which shahtoosh can be obtained. Tibetan herdsmen pluck the wool from the hides of the dead animals to sell to local dealers. "In the courtyard of one such dealer," Dr Schaller reported in 1988, "were sacks of wool ready for smuggling into western Nepal and from there to Kashmir, where the wool is woven into scarves and shawls."

Shahtoosh has been culled, spun and woven in this way for centuries. But in the past 10 years it has finally arrived in the West as the ultimately opulent fabric. The huge new demand has been answered by ruthless and large-scale killings of chiru by organised gangs, driving on to the Tibetan plateau from the Chinese side and shooting the chiru from vehicles, killing as many as 500 animals in a hunt.

The Chinese estimate that between 2,000 and 4,000 chiru are poached every year. Enforcement of the ban on killing, to which China is a signatory, is especially difficult because of the huge area of the plateau, its remoteness and the bitter cold of the winter months when most hunting takes place.

There have, however, been impressive Chinese successes. In 1996 the director of the Arjin Shan Reserve, Song Binqian, received information about a gang of poachers at work on the plateau and confronted them. After a lengthy gunfight more than 20 poachers surrendered. In their possession were seven rifles, 10,000 rounds of ammunition and 1,100 antelope carcasses. The leader of the gang was jailed for seven years.

But the poaching goes on, and the number of chiru is in steep decline. When the British explorer Captain C G Rawling travelled through Tibet in 1903, he wrote afterwards of seeing "as far as the eye could reach ... thousands upon thousands of doe antelope with their young. We could see in the extreme distance a continuous stream of fresh herds steadily approaching: there could not have been less than 15,000 or 20,000 visible at one time."

Today there are few herds of more than 2,000 animals, and in 1995 the remaining chiru population was estimated to be about 75,000. Dr Schaller fears that, if large-scale poaching is not halted, the chiru "will within a few years be reduced to tragic remnants."

An additional, sinister twist to the decimation of the chiru is its connection to the illicit trade in tiger bones. This was uncovered in 1993 when three shahtoosh traders confessed to investigators in India that tiger bones and skins were bartered for raw shahtoosh, yielding vast profits on both sides; on the Kashmiri side, it was claimed, the profits were used to buy arms for militants in the state's long-running insurgency.

Another trader revealed that for one bag of tiger bones - the result of poaching in India's game reserves, and immensely prized in Chinese traditional medicine - he would receive two bags of raw shahtoosh.

The Wildlife Protection Society of India, which was founded by the wildlife photographer and film-maker Belinda Wright in 1994 in response to the new menace from the Chinese medicine trade to India's dwindling number of tigers, has been fighting the shahtoosh trade every way it can.

According to Ms Wright, who was born in India of British parents, the people with most to lose from a successful choking off of the shahtoosh trade are about a dozen wealthy businessmen.

The artisans who spin and weave it would continue with their customary trade in cashmere, which is produced from a domestic goat.

And for those who hanker for filigree shawls but recoil from the massacre shahtoosh entails, she recommends "shahmina": a wool that has been developed recently in India, with virtually the same weight, texture and warmth as shahtoosh, produced from pure strains of high-altitude goats. With no bloodshed involved.