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Fashion Store Fined for Selling Shahtoosh

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/06/30; June 30, 2001.]

By Aseem Chhabra
June 26, 2001.

A high-fashion Beverly Hills store and its owner have agreed to pay a fine of $175,000 for importing and selling shahtoosh shawls in the United States.

This is the largest fine a business entity has paid in the US for dealing with shahtoosh shawls, which are made from the wool of the endangered Tibetan antelope, also known as chiru. And it is being referred to as another victory for the supporters of wildlife conservation and the protection of endangered species.

Last month Maxfield Enterprises, Inc, which operates a retail store at 8825 Melrose Avenue in Beverly Hills, and its principal owner, Thomas Perse of Los Angeles, California, entered into a civil settlement with the US attorney's office in Newark, New Jersey. The agreement states that Maxfield was involved in the purchase, sale and import of shahtoosh shawls from 1994 to 1996.

"It is encouraging news, because it demonstrates that shahtoosh dealers are becoming aware of the potential liability that they face in a court case," said Justin Lowe, director of the San Francisco-based Tibetan Plateau Project. "Also I think this settlement demonstrates that fine clothing retailers are beginning to recognize the implications of illegal activities that involve the use of endangered species."

As part of the deal, Maxfield Enterprises will also run a black and white public service advertisement in Vanity Fair or Harper's Bazaar -- both high-circulation fashion and lifestyle magazines -- expressing remorse and describing the threats to the endangered Tibetan antelope, the collection and manufacture of shahtoosh, and the illegal status of this internationally banned product.

Perse and his attorney Dennis Roach, also of Los Angeles, were not available for comments.

Michael Chagares, assistant US district attorney in charge of the case, said that by concluding the agreement Maxfield and Perse did not admit to their guilt.

"But they gave us the money," Chagares added. "I leave the rest to you for interpretation."

The chiru numbered up to a million at the beginning of the last century. But a recent estimate by Wildlife Conservation Society biologist George Schaller placed its current population at as low as 65,000-72,500.

The decline, according to Schaller, is mostly due to poaching for shahtoosh. Another estimate, provided by China's state forestry administration, suggests that almost 20,000 Tibetan antelope are killed annually by poachers.

According to Tara Donn, special agent with the US Fish and Wildlife Services, the Maxfield case is a spin-off from another widely publicized case where two companies -- Cocoon North America, formerly of Clifton, New Jersey, and Navrang Exports of Bombay, pleaded guilty to smuggling shahtoosh shawls into the United States and then exporting nearly 100 shawls for sale at a fashion boutique in Paris.

In that case, the two principals of Cocoon, Linda McAfee, a resident of Hong Kong, and Janet Mackay-Benton of New Egypt, New Jersey, paid a total of $41,729 in fines to a federal court in Newark.

Later, in what was a major disappointment to wildlife activists, a federal court judge imposed a $5,000 fine and a five-year probation on Navrang Exports and its Bombay-based president, Iqbal Memon. According to US law, Memon and Navrang could have faced up to $500,000 in fines.

Cocoon's most noteworthy shahtoosh sale took place in November 1994 at the Mayfair Hotel in New York City, where shawls worth $100,000 were sold at a charity event to benefit the Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. Supermodel Christie Brinkley and Pat Buckley, wife of conservative columnist William Buckley, were among the celebrities who bought shawls at that charity event and were later called to testify before a federal grand jury, which was investigating Cocoon and Navrang's shahtoosh dealings in the US.

Donn, who was the lead investigator in these cases, said Cocoon was one of Maxfield Enterprises' supplier. Maxfield sold the shawls from $2,600 for plain pieces to up to $5,500 for those with embroidery, she added.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been able to recover some of the shawls from Maxfield as they did with Cocoon and Navrang.

"When we are doing a case like this, when the animal is so highly endangered, we do try to get them out of circulation," Donn said. "We believe to leave them in circulation would only further the people's desire to have them. So we have done our best. Some purchasers were co-operative."

The recovered shawls are shared with other customs officers for purposes of identification. Some shawls will be cut up into pieces and placed in identification kits, which will allow officers to be able to tell the difference between pashmina and shahtoosh.

Recently Donn used some of the shawls for a presentation to a Rotary Club in West Nyack, New York. "I passed them around for people to feel them," Donn said. "They largely were not aware of this trade, but they were amazed at how much money these shawls garner in retail."

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