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.
The price of a shahtoosh shawl on the underground market in Delhi ranges from the equivalent of $890 to $2,780. Prices in more distant markets can be three to eight times as much.
During a raid on a London shop in 2000, police seized 138 shahtoosh shawls, bearing price tags in British pounds equivalent to a low of $3,600 and a high of $27,000.
In a police raid in Delhi, one Kashmiri trader asked, “Why target us? Why not raid the houses of ministers, rich people … ? We’ve supplied shahtoosh to most of them.” Conservationists in the city admit that shahtoosh continues to be sought after by many rich and well-connected people in Indian high society.
“The ban will never be effective in India unless these powerful people eschew the shahtoosh,” one conservationist said.
Under Indian law, the punishment for trade or possession of shahtoosh shawls can be six years in jail and the equivalent of a $550 fine. Similar laws on trade in shahtoosh exist in most countries, including the United States, which has the largest market for the banned shawls.
Animal protection campaigners say the Jammu and Kashmir government has not been sufficiently serious in enforcing the ban — a major reason why chiru are still being hunted.
Vivek Menon, executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India, said: “There is no ban really in effect for any [length of] time. [Despite the nominal ban] Shahtoosh continues to be woven in Kashmir almost openly, and the shawls are still sold illegally. It means poaching of the chiru is still going on in Tibet, and its wool is still being smuggled to Kashmir.”
The current government of Jammu and Kashmir, which does not agree that shahtoosh is still being woven and traded in the state, says the ban imposed by its predecessor must be withdrawn because the activists “misled the court with wrong information on the collection of chiru wool.”
Mohammad Altaf Naik, the advocate-general of Jammu and Kashmir, said on June 9, “We are in total solidarity with the ban against killing of the chiru. In fact, it was never needed to kill a chiru for the sake of its wool. Only the wool molted by the chiru was used in the weaving of shahtoosh. Killing the animal for the wool would be like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs,” he said.
“It is a serious issue involving the livelihood of thousands of impoverished Kashmiris. We shall try our best to convince the court that no wildlife law was ever violated in our state for manufacturing the shahtoosh shawls,” Mr. Naik went on.
Weavers and traders in Kashmir also deny that the chiru was killed for its wool. They say the animals shed their wool on bushes or rocks at the end of the harsh Tibetan winter, and Tibetan nomads collected the molted wool to supply it to weavers in Kashmir.
Some shahtoosh customers in the United Kingdom and the United States are told the fur came from chiru bred on farms in Ladakh.
Gill Sanders of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said, “It is impossible to get the wool from chirus unless they are killed. They are wild animals, so you couldn’t shear them like sheep.”
Aniruddha Mookerjee, director of the WTI, said, “Forensic laboratories have proved, and the courts of law have been convinced, that the wool of shahtoosh is always ‘plucked out’ from the pelts of Tibetan antelope, which clearly indicates that the species is killed before the wool is procured.”
Chinese wildlife experts estimate that about 20,000 chiru are still being poached annually, and that only 75,000 of the animals are left in the wild — down from one million five decades ago.
Following a survey of Kashmiri shahtoosh weavers, the IFAW and WTI suggest that production of the shawls can only stop if the government helps train the weavers for other jobs.
“If we want to save the chirus from extinction, there is an immediate need to find viable alternative livelihoods for the shahtoosh workers in Kashmir,” said Mr. Mookerjee.
“Although a number of possibilities exist, the single most effective measure would involve creating and strengthening an industry and an international market for high-quality Kashmiri pashmina [goat wool] shawls, which is made from the wool of domesticated mountain goats,” he suggested.
By breeding Mongolian goats on farms in Kashmir and using their wool, shahtoosh makers could weave shawls nearly as good as shahtoosh, some Indian experts contend.
“Wool from the first shearing of Mongolian baby goats is the perfect substitute for shahtoosh,” said Dhruv Chandra, an expert in Delhi’s shawl industry.
“We have named the shawls made with Mongolian goat wool ‘shamina,’ and displaced Kashmiri shahtoosh. Weavers will be paid equally to weave them. It’s the best pashmina money can buy, and also it is the best way to save the chiru by rehabilitating the Kashmiri shahtoosh weavers into shamina,” Mr. Chandra said.
Most Kashmiris involved in the manufacture of shahtoosh shawls are women — many of them widows of men killed in the state’s 15-year-long conflict between India and Pakistan over control of the state, and sole breadwinners of their families.