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London Traders Caught in Shahtoosh Bust Plead Guilty

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/04/17 Compiled by Thubten (Sam) Samdup]

LONDON, UK, April 13, 2000 (Environment News Service) - A London trading company, The Renaissance Corporation, pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges of trade in illegal shahtoosh shawls. The costly shawls are made from the wool of endangered Tibetan antelopes that must be killed to harvest their soft underbelly fur to make the garments.

The 138 illegal shahtoosh shawls were seized in 1997 by London Metropolitan Police in what they call the world's largest haul ever.

The Renaissance Corporation was charged only yesterday. The company pleaded guilty and was fined 1,500 (US$2,381).

Inspector John Francis of the Metropolitan Police, said that over 1,000 Tibetan antelopes were killed to weave these 138 shawls.

According to the London office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), this number represents no less than two percent of the world population of Tibetan antelopes, also known as chiru.

"This case is tragic in that over a thousand endangered Tibetan Antelopes were killed for nothing more than extravagant luxury," said Karen Steuer, IFAW director of commercial exploitation and trade. "But this case also illustrates the growing commitment by local authorities not to allow illegal wildlife trade within their jurisdiction."

The shawls seized had a total estimated value of 353,000 (US$560,495).

Some of the shawls measured more than six meters (19.5 feet) in length and are valued individually at over 6,500 (US$10,320).

These very long shawls, said Inspector Francis, were likely made from up to 21 Tibetan antelopes each.

Shahtoosh is a Persian word meaning "from nature and fit for a king." The soft colorful shawls are in great demand among fashionable women around the world.

A chiru hair is three-quarters the thickness of goat hair used to make cashmere wool and a fifth the thickness of a human hair. An entire shawl can be pulled through a finger ring, so they are called ring shawls.

The trade in chiru has been banned since 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and is also banned by Britain and by India's federal governent. But in India's Jammu and Kashmir state the government defends the shahtoosh trade which supports over 20,000 of the state's craftspeople.

"DNA testing has proved that the wool is not obtained from the chiru only, but it is a mixture of wool shed by different wild animals in the Himalayas," the state's industries and commerce minister Mustafa Kamal told Reuters on March 27 in Jammu, the summer capital of the state.

This comment perpetuates the false idea that the antelope hair used to make shahtoosh shawls is shed from living animals. In fact, Tibetan antelope must be killed to obtain the hair.

In a crack down on the chiru trade, Chinese wildlife protection authorities have confiscated hundreds of dead Tibetan antelope and arrested dozens of poachers during the past two years.

An 11 member Chinese scientific research team investigating the remote Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve in June and July 1999 found 909 bodies of skinned chirus.

"Higher fines must be imposed for traders to feel the effects of legal action against them," said Steuer. "This is an animal that carries as much international protection as the great Panda, yet fines for the illegal trade in shahtooshs made from it carry no weight whatsoever."

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