Demand for Wool Could Soon Make Tibetan Antelope Extinct
By Jonathan S. Landay
Knight Ridder Newspapers
He’s not an international gunrunner. He doesn’t traffic in heroin or cocaine. But Farooq Malik’s handiwork is outlawed the world over.
Malik is a master weaver whose forte is handcrafting shawls of shahtoosh, the most luxurious and expensive of all wools. The average strand is one-fifth the diameter of a human hair.
“Shahtoosh is most difficult to work because it is so delicate,” said Malik, 26, looking up from the garment he was weaving, thread by flimsy thread, on a loom he operates with his hands and bare feet in a cramped, dimly lit workshop here in the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Made for centuries and only in Kashmir, and fetching between $2,000 and $17,000 apiece, shahtoosh shawls are coveted by doyennes of haute couture and fashion-flaunting socialites from New Delhi to Hong Kong, Paris to New York.
WORLDWIDE BAN ON SHAHTOOSH
But the shahtoosh trade is banned internationally. Pressed by conservation groups, more than 150 countries agreed last month at a conference in Kenya to crack down harder on smuggling networks. The reason: The wild animal from which the wool is obtained, the Tibetan antelope, is being slaughtered by poachers in such massive numbers that it could be extinct within 10 years.
“This animal today has become one of the most critically endangered animals on Earth,” said Manoj Mishra, the director of Traffic-India, part of a non-governmental network that monitors global trade in endangered wildlife.
In India, authorities had begun a new crackdown on dealers and owners even before the Kenya meeting of signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, the U.N. treaty that has outlawed the shahtoosh trade since 1979.
India’s crackdown followed an intense media campaign by conservation groups to save the antelope, also known as the chiru. Mishra said it has had a major impact in India, where antique shahtoosh shawls are treasured as heirlooms and wealthy families still seek them in dowries.
WEALTHY WESTERN LADIES
“Our target was those ladies who wore shahtoosh. These ladies are no longer wearing shawls in public. They know they can be hauled up (by authorities),” said Mishra. “It’s really the wealthy women of the West who are the biggest danger today.”
Experts say that both Indians and foreigners are smuggling shahtoosh abroad. Mishra estimates at least 2,000 shawls are on offer on any winter day in New Delhi.
To date, there have been only two convictions under the international ban.
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)