Crisis in the mountains: the plight of the pashmina

The goats of Kashmir are celebrated for the warmth (and softness) of their fleeces. But they haven't proved warm enough to withstand an unnaturally ferocious winter, and the communities who depend on their wool for survival are feeling the cold. Andrew Buncombe reports

Tsering Dorjay could not have been more serious. Speaking on a crackling telephone line from Leh, one of India's most remote cities, the senior council official got straight to the point. "We have a serious problem here. We have had unprecedented snowfall and the roads to the area where we have most of the livestock are blocked and there is no access," he said. "It is going to be very difficult to get help to them."

As unlikely as it sounded, Mr Dorjay was confirming reports that the Changthang region's feral Himalayan goats – known around the world for producing the wool used in soft cashmere shawls, or pashminas – were dying from the cold.

The thick woollen fleeces of these rare animals, already weak from lack of food, have apparently been insufficient to save those caught in the grip of an unusually long and severe winter. An unknown number of younger animals had already perished, Mr Dorjay said, and there were fears for a further 150,000 goats in areas cut off by snowdrifts.

Changthangi goats and the shawls to which they contribute their wool are found in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, located deep in the Himalayas on a high-altitude plateau at the very northern tip of India. To the north and the west sit the mountains of Pakistan, while to the east lie China and Tibet.

Much of Jammu and Kashmir's Ladakh region – where many of the goats are herded – is harsh, arid and forbidding territory and sits at an elevation of more than 10,000ft. Indeed, for seven or eight months of the year, Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is cut off from the outside world except for those travelling by plane. The temperature in the region varies from -5C to -35C in winter and a maximum of 30C in summer. For a few summer months when the snows melt, a nerve-jangling mountain road connects Leh to the Himalayan hill station of Manali, before heading on to New Delhi.

It is in this imposing landscape that the nomadic Drokba people, who raise Changthangi goats for a living, gather the precious wool used to make the sought-after shawls and blankets. Life for the nomads of High Asia has never been anything other than tough, but this winter has beset them with unprecedented problems.

The eastern Changthang area – after which the goats are named – is usually considered a dry desert. It is more than 14,500ft above sea level, sees little precipitation and farmers are forced to devise innovative irrigation methods for crops such as barley and peas.

But this winter, the Changthang desert has been covered by 2ft of snow – its heaviest fall for 30 years and far more than the rain-starved farmers bargained for. The Deputy Commissioner of Leh, MK Bhandari, said: "Being a cold desert, Ladakh usually receives about 4in of precipitation a year."

The unexpected snowfall did two things. Firstly, it covered plants the goats rely on for foraging, as well as the extra fodder laid out by the herders. Secondly, it cut off roads to the region and left officials struggling to distribute emergency food supplies for the animals. The few feed stocks the herders had set aside are already running low.

What has exacerbated matters and turned a difficult situation into a crisis is that, for three years, Ladakh has been affected by plagues of locusts devouring much of the vegetation the goats would otherwise have been able to eat. Officials could not use insecticides because of restrictions imposed by the federal wildlife department to protect the rare black-necked crane.

"We are sending fodder by road but there are some areas which cannot get to," said Mr Dorjay, the head of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. "We don't know how many animals have already died – it is very hard to get full information from these areas – but we have heard that a lot of the younger animals have died. There are also animals that are miscarrying because they are very weak and because of the terrible cold."

It is unclear precisely when the people of Ladakh began producing the feather-light pashmina or cashmere shawls, the latter an old spelling of the word Kashmir. But wall paintings in the 11th-century Alchi Monastery, to the west of Leh on the road to Srinigar, clearly portray people wearing beautifully-embroidered shawls. A history of the shawls, written by a Delhi-based dealer, Pashmina Imports, suggests that the shawls were, at that time, solely the preserve of Kashmiri and Ladakhi royalty. It also points out that the Rajatarangini, a history of Kashmir written in Sanskrit in the 12th century, also talks of the shawls and the wool from which they were woven.

The word pashmina comes from the Persian word pashm, or wool, and refers to the finest undercoat of the goats, particularly those living at higher altitudes. The wool from their underbellies and necks is remarkably fine and is gathered by the Drobka in late spring, either by combing or shearing. Once the fleeces are cleaned and sorted, the herders exchange the wool with traders who travel from Leh.

Spun by hand into a two-ply yarn, it can take a week to spin the pashm of one goat. A regular shawl requires the wool of three animals.

Pashminas have long been sought-after in the West. Emperor Napoleon gave a shawl to his Empress, Josephine, who popularised them in Europe. She is said to have owned more than 1,000 pashminas. Whether that is true or not, what is certain is that, by the mid-19th century, French textile designers were establishing shops in Srinigar in order to be closer to the centre of production.

Since then, the popularity of the pashmina has grown. Demand for the product has soared in recent years following a worldwide ban on shatoosh shawls made from the fine hair of the endangered Tibetan chiru antelope, which were killed rather than being combed or sheared. While that trade continues illegally, campaigners are promoting pashminas as a viable, sustainable alternative trade for local people who were involved in the shatoosh market.

Officials in Ladakh say the size of the pashmina industry has reached the stage where the goats and their wool – each animal produces only 250g a year – are vital to the economy of the region. The export trade to the US, the Middle East and Europe has become increasingly important because the continuing political violence in Kashmir has greatly reduced the numbers of tourists travelling to the state.

This week, authorities in Leh, who were alerted to the problem facing the goat-herders by a Drokba nomad who travelled on foot to a small district office, held an emergency meeting to draw up plans to try to save the herders and their animals. They concluded that, with limited resources, there was only so much they could do and they would require additional help from the federal government.

In the short-term, they have asked the Indian air force to organise an airlift of emergency food supplies for the goats. Mr Dorjay said the air force had agreed to help but the weather was expected to be too bad for its planes to fly today. It is hoped they will be able to start the drops tomorrow, using either transport aircraft or helicopters.

The air force will only be able to provide temporary relief, however. Given the large number of animals that need feeding, officials say it will be only be practical to supply them for longer periods once the roads become passable for lorries.

That will only be made possible when the snow melts – and the timing of that is something no one can predict.