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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Multi-skilled graphic designer ...

Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solicitor

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solic...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches