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Endangered Chiru Finds Hope in Govt Breeding Plan

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/01/04; January 4, 2005.]

Srinagar, January 4: Slaughtered with gay abandon in the barren Ladakh region to feed the greedy market of the prized Shahtoosh shawls, the endangered Tibetan antelope ‹ or Chiru ‹ might yet have hope. The Jammu and Kashmir government is setting up a programme to breed this endangered animal. According to International Fund for Animal Welfare and Wildlife Trust of India, the number of chirus has fallen from one million to about 75,000 in the last 50 years. Each year, as many as 20,000 animals are killed in China alone to meet the demand for the fine shawls, each of which is sold for tens of thousands ‹ some going up to lakhs, especially in London or New York ‹ of rupees.

Despite the flourishing, on-the-sly trade, Kashmir's 30,000 strong artisans, who make a living weaving Shahtoosh shawls, argue that they do not kill the animals. Their claim is that they simply collect their hair which fall on the ground when the chirus rub themselves against bushes.

As the debate continues, the J-K government has decided to work out a way to keep this animal from disappearing from the face of the earth. The research wing of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) in Srinagar has proposed to set up breeding centres in the Chantang area of Ladakh province, where the antelope abounds. M H Shah, director of SKUAST¹s research wing, says the chirus will be imported from Tibet and some will be captured in the high mountains of Chantang. The university is also proposing to domesticate the animal.

"Right now, we have sent a proposal to the state government and ICAR (Indian Council of Agriculture Research. It is a multi-crore project and all we are waiting for is a nod," says Shah, who will be heading the project. "We have a team of scientists, mostly from Ladakh, who will begin work as soon as we get a green signal," he says adding that the Chief Minister is "very keen" on starting the project.

The shawls are hand-woven from the antelope¹s hair. And so fine are they that a three-metre shawl weighs barely 160 grams (five ounces). Wildlife experts say for making a single shawl, five chirus that live at an altitude of over 14,000 feet, must be shot and sheared. The slaughter, predictably, has prompted an international ban on the shahtoosh trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Act. Despite the trade ban, weavers continue to make shahtoosh shawls for whopping returns.

"It is high time we rescued the animal," says Ghulam Mohideen Sofi, J-K Wildlife and Forest Minister. "Breeding will begin as soon as the basic infrastructure is in place," adds Sofi. "We will ensure the centres give the antelope the ambience it would find in its natural habitat," he says.

The shahtoosh trade has always triggered a fierce verbal dual between the artisans and traders on one side and environmentalists on the other. Even though Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has repeatedly stated that he is in favour of domesticating the antelope, he has, however, preferred to keep away from the controversy.

According to the J-K Traders' and Weavers' Union, nearly 50,000 former shahtoosh weavers have been struggling ever since the centuries-old trade was banned nine years ago. Despite the claims, as per government estimates, there are still some 30,000 shahtoosh weavers in the state.

The copy of railway report was later distributed among the audience.

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