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Tibet Project Aims To Wrap Up A Shawl Thing

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2004/07/07; July 7, 2004.]

The Age, Australia
07 July 2004

A shawl for the illegal shahtoosh trade is woven in Kashmir.

Luxury shahtoosh shawls are illegal in order to protect the antelope killed to make them. Hamish McDonald in Rutog, Tibet, reports on a possible alternative.

Inside a mud-brick pen, Tibetan men wearing felt hats and colourful beads over their lambswool-lined coats lift a hefty goat into a weighing harness beneath a sturdy tripod.

Then the goat is held while a plastic tag is punched through one ear. It gives a little bleat of pain. Ishidorje, a cheerful man with a clipped moustache and sun-beaten face, parts the goat's thick hair, revealing a mass of white, crimped fibres.

"Not so fine," he says. "The animal's a bit old. It will do as a breeding goat." The released goat scampers back to the flock.

Outside on a flat grassy plain, shepherdesses in long skirts and satin-covered sun bonnets are moving other groups of white goats.

Inthis corner of Tibet, could lie a new phase in the pashmina (cashmere) shawl craze that swept the world's fashion capitals, and a new alternative to the illegal shahtoosh shawl.

The remote experimental breeding station is five days' drive from the nearest airport at Lhasa or Kathmandu. Mr Ishidorje is developing a super-pashmina that may match the fineness of the shahtoosh, its aristocratic counterpart. A cheap Made in China "shahtoosh" could then drape the shoulders of millions of women. Advertisement Advertisement

Its name meaning "king's wool" in Urdu, the shahtoosh has been an object of envy among the Western and Oriental rich for centuries.

It is often woven in the rich Indian and Persian design based on a budding mango that a Scottish mill-town took over as the paisley pattern, and is so fine it can be pulled through a ring.

Since 1979, however, trade in the shahtoosh has been banned in most countries, including India and China. Its fibre comes from the under hair of the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, a fast-moving animal that grazes the bleak plateau of Tibet at altitudes of about 4500 metres but which was heading for extinction because of the shahtoosh demand. "You can either skin the animal or you can pull the hair out of the skin," says Pubuchiren, head of a four-man detachment of Tibetan Armed Police charged with stopping poaching of protected species around Rutog.

"Either way, you have to kill the antelope first."

It takes as many as 22 antelopes to provide the under hair for just one shahtoosh shawl. An estimated 20,000 animals a year were being poached in the 1990s for a blackmarket trade in Europe and North America before a worldwide crackdown, including intensive efforts by Chinese authorities - two of whose protection officials were shot by poachers.

Tibet's antelope population is estimated to have rebounded from a low of 40,000 to about 50,000. But even this increased population equals only fewer than 2500 shawls, hardly enough to satisfy demand on the blackmarket, where prices are sky-high. A raid by London police in 1997 found a Mayfair shop selling shahtoosh shawls for up to 15,000 ($A39,000).

Enter Mr Ishidorje, an animal scientist at the Tibet Agricultural Academy in Lhasa. Since his project at Rutog started in 1988, the quality of his breeding flock, now about 1600 pashmina goats, has steadily improved in fineness, lack of kinks from poor seasons, uniform white colour, and yield per animal.

This has meant a lift in incomes for Rutog's goat-herders, who ship out 65 tonnes of pashmina wool every year, sometimes putting them among the richest peasants in China. "The quality of pashmina wool from this county is the best in the world," he says.

The Communist Party boss of Rutog county, Lu Riqing, has been quoted in the Chinese media as saying the breeding project could lead to a substitute hair of the same seven to nine microns as the antelope's under hair. Currently the pashmina goats have hair about one-third thicker.

Mr Ishidorje is more cautious, saying the project still lacks adequate testing equipment to compare goat and antelope hair. "But if the investment is made in this program, it's possible," he says.

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