Kashmir rethinks shahtoosh ban

NEW DELHI — In a controversial decision, the government of India-administered Kashmir state plans to challenge an international ban on weaving and trading in the world’s most expensive fabric, shahtoosh, made from the fine fur undercoat of the endangered Tibetan antelope known as “chiru.”

Defying conservationists, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, says his government is set to ask India’s highest court to end the 4-year-old ban.

“The ban has brought immense misery to the lives of half a million shahtoosh weavers, traders and their families in Kashmir. We shall do our best to get the ban removed to bring relief to this 600-year-old industry as soon as possible,” said Mr. Sayeed.

Since 1979, the chiru has had legal protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Killing, harming or trading in the animal is illegal worldwide, and more than 160 countries are CITES signatories.

Before the ban, poachers killed the chiru for shahtoosh — a Persian word that means “king of wools” — in the animal’s habitat on the Chang Tang Plateau in Tibet and in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region and Qinghai province. During their annual migration in the Ladakh region of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, chiru were also killed by licensed hunters before the ban.

Kashmiri hunters say they killed the animals for meat, but won’t say if they supplied its wool to weavers. Although Jammu and Kashmir is part of India, many of its laws, including those on wildlife, differ from those elsewhere in the country.

Since individuals and groups seeking to protect rare animals did not have evidence that chiru were being killed for their wool, efforts to end trading in or weaving of shahtoosh never gained much momentum.

After researching the chiru in China, biologist George Schaller of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) confirmed in 1993 that the animals were being killed for wool sold to weavers in Kashmir. Gertse, a small town near south China’s Qiang Tang national park — the winter ground of the chiru — was where Mr. Schaller found a hub of trading in shahtoosh and a “cottage industry of women plucking shahtoosh from chiru hides.”

In a published report, the biologist wrote, “We saw herdsmen plucking wool from [Tibetan] antelope hides to sell to local dealers. In the courtyard of one such dealer were sacks of wool ready for smuggling into western Nepal, and from there to Kashmir, where the wool is woven into scarves and shawls.”

To animal-protection campaigners and wildlife authorities, Mr. Schaller wrote, “Every person who wears a shahtoosh has the bloody bodies of at least three Tibetan antelopes on his or her shoulders.”

After he made the link in 1993 between poaching the chiru and selling shahtoosh wool, a movement arose among conservationists, international celebrities and fashion designers to end the killing of the small and endangered chiru and the use of shahtoosh. Extinction of the rare species was predicted in 10 years if the trade continued.

The campaign led to a global ban on the trade and possession of shahtoosh in 1995. Five years later, the Jammu and Kashmir state government reluctantly banned the hunting of chiru and weaving or trading in shahtoosh.

In 2001, a year after the Jammu and Kashmir state ban, a door-to-door survey by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that at least 15,000 Kashmiris were still weaving shahtoosh wool from the hides of chiru.

The same year, an undercover team of investigators from WTI and IFAW were offered pelts of just-slaughtered chiru in Tibet. The investigators also found hundreds of shahtoosh shawls on sale at underground markets in Delhi, London and New York.

In recent years, authorities in China, India, Nepal and other countries have seized thousands of chiru pelts, shahtoosh shawls and many hundreds of pounds of the coveted antelope wool. Activists have also observed that shahtoosh shawls are still in high demand among the world’s rich and fashionable.

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