Stopping a 'Near Threatened' species from being sold as luxury shawls

Sustainable Leaders | Asia

By Madhumay Mallik / Wildlife Trust of India, Freelance Writer

Published December 31st, 2023

For every Shahtoosh shawl made, between three and five Tibetan antelopes get hunted. Listed as ‘Near Threatened’ under IUCN’s Red List of Species and put under Appendix 1 of CITES, the Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), locally known as Chiru, has long been hunted for its underfur.

In India, the Tibetan Antelope has been given the highest degree of protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The Shahtoosh shawl trade was banned globally in 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which India is a signatory.

Tibetan antelopes are classified as Near Threatened, their numbers are estimated to be between 100,000 and 150,000 nature individuals, according to studies from 2009. | ahsup / Flickr

Tibetan antelopes are a cornerstone species of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and play a crucial role in the ecosystem. Despite all conservation efforts, the population has yet to fully recover to historical levels. In 2016, the China Red List classified the rare herbivore as ‘Near Threatened.’

The hunt for the Chiru and the demand for Shahtoosh go long back in history. It is described as the prized fabric of Akbar the Great, the 16th-century Mughal emperor. The literal translation of Shahtoosh is the ‘King of Wools’ in Persian. However, the production of Shahtoosh shawls has serious ethical and conservation implications.

Despite this, in May 2023, 400 Shahtoosh shawls were seized from Northern India. Enforcement agencies including the Forest, Ecology and Environment Department of Ladakh and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) seized close to 400 shawls from various shops in the Ladakh and Punjab region. This is one of the biggest seizures of Shahtoosh shawls in recent years and indicates that the illegal trade is still at large.

The illegal trade continues

The Tibetan Antelope is not an animal that can be domesticated. It survives only in the wild, in sub-zero temperatures of Changtang region in Tibet. These herbivores have a marvellous genetic adaptation to hypoxia. Therefore, due to the specific habitat requirement of the Tibetan antelopes are unique that not even a single zoo across the globe has been able to house a Chiru.

The high demand for Shahtoosh does not help its case either. Each shawl/scarf made from the wool of the Chiru sells for about $20,000 in the illegal European market and the opulent aficionados are ready to pay top dollar.

However, before the spurt of the trade in the 1970s, Shahtoosh was mostly a byproduct of subsistence hunting. The wool, back then, was collected by herders as the Chiru shed its fur naturally. The shawl, thus made, was restricted to a few aristocrats in the Kashmir region, but soon found its way to the western market.

The demands and the price shot up overnight. Shahtoosh soon became a fashion statement and opened up an enormous opportunity for the few traders who were engaged in its making. With rising demand, the hunting too went up and it was not just for subsistence anymore. The Shahtoosh shawl was featured in fashion shows by brands like Valentino and was marketed by magazines like Vogue as a luxury product during the 1980s.

A Shastoosh shawl found in the Portland International Airport in February 2016. | USFWS - Pacific Region / Flickr.

They were sold openly on New York’s Madison Avenue and featured brazenly in top fashion publications like Harper’s Bazaar. It had and still has a status higher than Cervelt (manufactured from the underfur of the New Zealand Red Deer) or Vicuña (made from the wool of the South American sheep bearing the same name) and would cost as much as $15,000.

The secret Shahtoosh markets of Srinagar

Srinagar in India used to be and continues to be the hub for shahtoosh manufacturing. To weave a Shahtoosh shawl, it takes a specialized artisan who can handle the 10-micron fibre (a human hair is about 60 microns, if you are looking for a comparison).

They are also called the ‘ring shawls’ as they can be passed through a wedding ring! This quality of the fabric also makes the final product lighter than its counterparts. It’s a fine product and the art of weaving is passed through generations. To weave seven yards, it takes at least six months of work, beginning with the collection of the raw material.

Working secretly in downtown Srinagar, the artisans continue to manage the secret trade routes. Even today, one would be able to locate shops selling Shahtoosh shawls in markets like Kokar Bazar, Lal Bazar, Khanyar, Safakadal and Rainawari.

Almost 93% of the families involved in the manufacture and trade in Shahtoosh live and work around the state capital, according to a 2003 joint report by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). However, the whole process is strictly limited to a few artisan families who have been traditionally linked to the trade. The Chirus are hunted in Tibet and the supply starts from hotspots including Chumur (Changthang) and Karzok (near Tsomorriri).

The wool is extracted and lands up in the secret manufacturing units of Srinagar (Kashmir) via the Darchula in the Indo-Nepal Border and Khatima in Uttarakhand. Surveys done by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), an NGO working on wildlife conservation across India indicate two grades of this wool.

One is from the upper body of the Chiru which is greyish in colour and the other, the more prized underfur, which is differentiated by a lighter shade. Just the wool in markets of Darchula costs between INR 50,000 ($600) and INR 1,00,000 ($1200), depending on the grade.

Covert operation by WTI also reveals that the Chiru wool is always transported with Pashmina wool, a legal product derived from the domesticated Changthang goats. For every 50 kilograms of Chiru wool transported, there would be 10,000 kilograms of Pashmina wool as a cover-up. Chiru wool is also transported in matchboxes.

Manufacture and trade in Shahtoosh continue to threaten the existence of the Tibetan Antelope. | Madhumay Mallik / WTI.

Shahtoosh is highly compressible and huge amounts of it can be squeezed into small bundles. Porters, who are mostly migratory herders, carry it to the borders on foot and then use public transportation to reach important markets like Srinagar and New Delhi. Over the years, these porters have perfected their routine by changing trails and modes of conveyance.

‘Say No to Shahtoosh’ Campaign

Hunting of the Chiru is widespread across the landscape as is confirmed by the amount of wool that is being transported across. 48 of the 54 villages surveyed by WTI in the Ladakh region of India hinted confirmed hunting of Chiru alongside other species like Snow Leopard (Vulnerable), Tibetan Wolf (critically endangered), Himalayan Brown Bear (critically endangered), Tibetan Argali (endangered), Blue Sheep (near threatened) and the Ladakh Urial (vulnerable). 13 of these villages actively supply to the international trade of the product.

With overseas demands fueling the major part of the illegal hunting and trade of Chiru, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and WTI launched a campaign to reach out to international designers. A report that was aptly named ‘Wrap Up the Trade’ was published in February of 2000.

The London Fashion Week that year was when the fashion designers started showing their support. Back in India, WTI also reached out to the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). The ‘Say No to Shahtoosh’ campaign took centre stage at The Lakme Fashion Week of 2001 in Mumbai.

Snow Leopards in Asia (pictured) and other vulnerable species can benefit from these campaigns.| Pascal Mauerhofer / Flickr

WTI also roped in His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, through the ‘Tibetan Awareness Campaign’’, to pass on the message. The Indo-Nepal border being a prime route in the trade of contraband, Dalai Lama addresses all Tibetans not to be a part of the hunt and help protect animals like Chiru from illegal wildlife trade.

‘In May 2002, the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly passed an amendment bringing the state Act on par with the central legislation which included the Tibetan antelope in Schedule I.’, further enforcing strict penalties to those involved in hunting the species.

The push towards Pashmina

In 2017, the campaign hit a temporary roadblock with a Parliamentary panel suggesting lifting the ban and bringing back the trade to secure the livelihood of artisans who were involved in the Shahtoosh manufacturing. The idea of conservation breeding was also floated. While the intention was good, it would have certainly meant that the illegal trade, which still was ongoing, was not behind closed doors anymore. Thankfully, an official lifting of the ban didn’t come into force. The Chiru remained protected ‘legally.’

The ban on Shahtoosh in 2002 and the implementation of CITES in the J&K region of India led to the birth of the Shahtoosh Traders’ Association. The members were people who were involved in the collection and manufacturing of the prized fabric. The demand was for alternative employment to about 30,000 people who were involved in the trade. Enter the Pashmina.

Collecting pashmina wool strands didn’t involve violent means. The raw material could be derived by combing the fine hair of the Pashmina goat. Further, these were highly domesticated species. However, pashmina being a stronger and thicker fibre,y can be worked on by machines. Pashmina shawls are already mass-produced and this has forced the finer hand-craft by locals to take a back seat.

The IFAW-WTI campaign also floated the idea of incentivizing and supporting the local weavers of Kashmir to fall back to the traditional hand-weaving techniques. The idea of sourcing the finest pashmina fabric from the Mongolian sub-species was also floated. The fabric ranks equally with the Chiru wool, in terms of quality. However, it requires the fashion fraternity to come together for all of this to become sustainable.

The way forward

The legal bans and the massive campaigns did work to corner the illegal wildlife trade networks. The population of the Tibetan antelope revived from around 70,000 individuals in the 1980s. However, seizures have happened periodically over the years. A more recent survey by WTI, in collaboration with UNDP, reports that Shahtoosh shawls are still being woven in Srinagar and the Pattan area of North Kashmir, India. Other transit points in the trade include Karzok (Tsomoriri, Ladakh), Darchula (Indo-Nepal border), Khatima (Uttarakhand) and New Delhi. The shawl finds its way to the international market via Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Kolkata.

As more people in Tibet and India become more aware of the illegal trade of the Shastoosh shawl the Tibetan Antelope can remain protected.| Ravi Sharma / Unsplash.

Today, a shawl, woven from 100% Chiru wool, is valued at around INR 3,00,000 (approximately $3,500) while products with 50% Chiru wool fetch a price of around INR 50,000 (approximately $600). This is the value in the Indian market. Exported, the price rises exponentially. The survey also found out that Shahtoosh dealers keep a good stock of products for sale, pointing out the active trade network.

Put simply, the Tibetan Antelope will have a future when the demand will stop. However, this seizure only hints at the continued demand for the Shahtoosh among both national and international buyers. Campaigns against the use of Shahtoosh must be brought back to the global platform to reach every existing and potential buyer. The recent seizures also imply that there needs to be stronger enforcement both in the mainland and all the possible exit points for the contraband.

To be followed by stricter vigilance at the identified ports of import, it will require further capacity building of enforcement personnel. While the laws are in place, Shahtoosh-consuming countries need to come up with stricter penalties and work on enforcing them.

About Wildlife Trust of India

Wildlife Trust of India has been working towards curbing illegal wildlife trade in protected species across India, by offering trade intelligence to enforcement agencies and capacity building of personnel through workshops and equipment support. To date, its Pan India enforcement project has led to 280+ operations, resulting in the arrest of wildlife traders and confiscation of wildlife contraband including tiger skin, tiger bones, pangolin scales, Shahtoosh shawls, ivory, tokay geckos and more. In several instances, WTI’s intelligence has also led to international operations involving species like African grey parrots and Sunda pangolins. WTI also works on more than 40 projects in India focusing on species recovery, habitat improvement, human-wildlife conflict mitigation, wildlife corridor securement and more.

Featured Image: JuniperPhoton / Unsplash.

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