C. Shekhar Nambiar

    There is no other way to save the endangered Tibetan antelope, Chiru (Pantholops Hodgsoni), from extinction but to say "no" to Shahtoosh. The time has come for all to come forward and put an end to the illegal trade.

    As animals go the Tibetan antelope is not a much-talked about species. It certainly lacks the appeal of the tiger or some of the other mammals such as the rhino and the elephant. Yet, it is perhaps one of the most threatened species today. It is being mercilessly slaughtered for its underwool which goes into the making of the famous Shahtoosh shawl.

    The Shahtoosh is from Persian (wool procured from nature and fit for an emperor). It is indeed an apt description. For, Shahtoosh is in a class by itself. Soft and of light texture, it provides warmth and comfort. It owes its "royal" status to the hair from which it is woven. The coat of the chiru as the endangered antelope is locally known, contains some of the world's finest hair, measuring three-quarters the width of cashmere and one-fifth that of human hair. Shahtoosh is so fine that even a large shawl can be pulled with ease through a finger ring, giving it the name, "ring shawl".

    Shahtoosh shawls, which sell for anything between US $ 1,000 and $ 5,000 and even more, have today become the fashion symbol. To be seen draped in a Shahtoosh shawl is the "in thing" among the elite and the fashion-conscious of the world.


    What is little known, however, is the sad tale of death and slaughter beneath the veneer of luxury and opulence of Shahtoosh. At least five animals have to be killed for producing a single shawl. This has, of course, been contested by vested interests not wanting to put an end to their lucrative business. But the fact is that the animal is being mercilessly killed. In the summer of 1999 alone, Dr. William Bleisch of the China Exploration and Research Society (CERS) reported seeing more than 900 skinned chiru carcasses, many of them pregnant females, in China's high-desert Arjin Shan Reserve.

    Chiru is endemic to the Tibetan plateau, occasionally wandering into the Ladakh region of India. Ironically, it is accorded the highest protection, listed as it is in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In India, it figures in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and its trade is banned in China. The animal has been given the highest possible protection by the governments concerned, except in Jammu and Kashmir where its trade is permissible.

    The international ban on Shahtoosh trade has been in force for close to 25 years now. Jammu and Kashmir is the only place where its trade continues to be legal. Historically, the demand for Shahtoosh shawls is known to have existed in northern India for centuries, but perhaps never so large as to go beyond unsustainable levels. It was largely the 'burgeoning Western market" that caused "a dramatic increase in chiru poaching in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Renowned field biologist George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) makes the observation in Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe (1998) that "tens of thousands of animals must have been killed" to supply the trade during that time. The credit for introducing the wool to the West reportedly goes to a Dallas-based fashion executive, Stanley Marcus.

    The estimate is that in 1900 there may have been about 1 million animals. But fewer than 75,000 chirus remained in the wild in 1995, according to China's State Forestry Administration (SFA), which cited Dr. Schaller's estimate. According to SFA estimates, as many as 20,000 chirus fall victim to poaching annually.

    There is no other way to save the endangered chiru but to say "no" to Shahtoosh. And that is the primary message and aim of a new campaign, "Say No to Shahtoosh", launched by Trade Record Analysis of Flora and Fauna In Commerce - TRAFFIC-India recently.

    The campaign hopes to sensitize key public to the threats facing chiru. It could not have come at a better time. "If the trade in Shahtoosh is not completely stopped there is just no way to save the species," says Akhil Chandra of WWF-India, who has been coordinating the campaign.

    The campaign has received the wholehearted support of the Delhi government and others. The Chief Minister of Delhi, Smt. Sheila Dixit, has assured her government's "full cooperation in enforcing the provisions of the law relating to illegal trade in wildlife". She expressed the hope that the campaign "will over time generate a wider movement". Endorsing the campaign, writer and columnist, Khushwant Singh had said, "Shahtoosh shawls and scarves should be rejected outright by consumers. The Tibetan antelope cannot be sacrificed on the altar of human vanity." "I whole-heartedly support the campaign against Shahtoosh. More and more people should be enlightened about how an innocent animal is being slaughtered for making expensive shawls and scarves," says Miss India, Gul Panag. Top fashion designer J.S. Vallaya said he was not aware that the animal had to be slaughtered for making Shahtoosh shawls. Now that he had become aware of the reality, thanks to the campaign, he would go the extra mile to pass on the message to his peers, he said "Wearing it (Shahtoosh) is like wearing death," said Ms Maneka Gandhi, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, at the launch of the campaign. According to her, those who layered their suitcases with Shahtoosh for selling it in Europe and other places need to be stopped, and for this the Customs authorities will have to gear themselves up.

Modus Operandi

    There are enough arguments and counter-arguments about how the Shahtoosh wool is collected. Interestingly, some traders say that it is obtained from the ibex, the high altitude Himalayan goat, and that it is sheared from the animal. Another view has it that the wool is collected off bushes. Experts have discounted these views as being without any foundation. No evidence of the wool being collected off bushes could be provided by traders in Ladakh to an official Government of India team which toured the region in 1995.

    A recent investigation by TRAFFIC-India confirms that all the smuggling routes of chiru wool lead to weavers in Jammu and Kashmir. Some routes take the wool from the high plains of China directly over mountain passes and into Kashmir, while others cross Nepal and other Indian States before arriving in Kashmir, sometimes passing through Delhi and other north Indian cities.

    Some Tibetans carry Chiru wool from China to Kashmir, either directly or via Nepal. In other cases, Tibetans hand over the wool to traders in Nepal, who then carry it into India. In addition, Kashmiri traders come to Nepal to buy chiru wool, then smuggle it into Kashmir themselves, says TRAFFIC-India.

    The wool is known to travel by horseback, truck, train, and airplane; often hidden in shipments or parcels of wool from domestic animals, such as sheep or the pashmina goat, whose fine wool is a near-equivalent of Shahtoosh. "The contraband is sometimes stuffed inside jackets and blankets. At the lowest and only driveable pass between China and Nepal,Customs officials in 1998 found a cache of 219 kg of chiru wool behind a false ceiling in a truck carrying sheep's wool", adds TRAFFIC-India. In mid-1999, a CITES mission visited Nepal and India to study the status of tiger conservation and trade. While browsing in a hotel gift shop in Kathmandu, mission members were offered Shahtoosh shawls for US $ 1000 each. A TRAFFIC-India investigator found Shahtoosh shawls for sale in Kathmandu and Pokhra, priced at US $ 1400-1900.

    In Delhi, the CITES mission was offered Shahtoosh shawls by several traders in shopping arcades within five-star hotels. One establishment brought out dozens of Shahtoosh shawls in a variety of sizes and colours, with prices starting at US $ 1000. According to an estimate 2,000 Shahtoosh shawls are available for sale in Delhi on any given day.

    According to a booklet brought out by TARAFFIC East Asia and TRAFFIC-India, Shahtoosh buyers from aound the world regularly fly to Delhi for private showings or to patronize shops in upscale hotels. Shahtoosh then makes its way from Delhi to the fashion capitals of the world in personal luggage, by courier, hidden in cargo, and by post. Informants say that buyers from Europe, especially France, Italy and Spain, are the most avid, though Hong Kong is also a hot market.

    In the first quarter of 1999, TRAFFIC-India has cited these examples of Shahtoosh trafficking that came to light in Delhi. On February 26, Customs authorities at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi seized nine Shahtoosh shawls from a French national. On March 6, Delhi wildlife inspectors seized 159 Shahtoosh shawls from a shop in Old Delhi. On March 14, customs officials at Indira Gandhi International Airport seized 13 Shahtoosh shawls from a courier package bound for Paris. On March 17, Wildlife Department officials seized 96 Shahtoosh shawls from a shop in Old Delhi, and Forest Department officials seized another 13 in New Delhi. In all, Delhi officials seized 290 Shahtoosh shawls in the first three months of 1999. Given the ease with which the light, thin shawls can be stowed and hidden among legal goods, it is logical to assume that these seizures are the mere tip of an iceberg of illegal trade. The TRAFFIC-India campaign hopes to educate the public about the illegal trade. Posters and stickers are being distributed, urging people to say "no" to Shahtoosh. Prominent citizens have come forward supporting the campaign and a pro-active media initiative to disseminate the message to the widest possible audience has been launched. The calendar of activities includes organising targeted campaigns in selective cities across the country. The campaign seeks to target all segments of society - Union and State Governments, fashion institutes and designers, customs and police, and the diplomatic community, and to get commitments from people to say "no" to Shahtoosh. In the end, it is the consumer alone who can help stop this illegal trade by simply refusing to buy Shahtoosh products.