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Shawls Sold at Charity Event: So Soft and So Illegal

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/01/05; January 5, 2001.]

January 3, 2001

The New York Times


The charity event is now infamous, not because of the exquisite items that were up for sale, but for what some of the guests got in return for their purchases and patronage: subpoenas.

Wool shawls were up for sale. Very nice wool shawls, which sold for about $1,400. More than $100,000 worth were sold that fall evening in 1994 at the Mayfair Hotel in Manhattan, to benefit the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

What the guests did not know, however, was that the shawls were not made of just any kind of wool, but of shahtoosh an incredibly rare material woven from the fine hairs of the endangered Tibetan antelope. Also called the chiru, the antelope, which lives in the freezing, remote plateaus of western China, is reputed to have the finest wool in the world.

But the possession of shahtoosh is illegal. Trade in the material has been banned since 1975 under an international convention, and mere possession in the United States is a misdemeanor hence the subpoenas. A sale intended to help cancer patients ended up with the first prosecution in the country for the sale of shahtoosh.

Federal investigators following a tip from customs agents in France in March 1995 zeroed in on the 1994 shahtoosh sale at the Mayfair Hotel, and the roster of New York society that unknowingly bought up the illegal shawls. The buyers were not prosecuted, nor is Sloan-Kettering in any way culpable, according to Tara Donn, a special agent in the division of law enforcement at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Elizabeth, N.J. Some of the buyers gave up their shawls when they learned of their origin, she said.

But in November, two officials of the company that provided the shawls for the Mayfair sale, Cocoon North America, based in New York, were fined $32,000 each and put on probation for exporting nearly 100 shawls to France, Ms. Donn said. And next week, officials of Navarang Exports of Bombay, which supplied the shawls to Cocoon for the Mayfair sale, will be sentenced in Federal District Court in Newark.

Ms. Donn said she could not say if any additional charges would be brought in connection with shahtoosh sales. She would not say what role, if any, the buyers at the Sloan-Kettering sale played in the inquiry.

Still, the prosecution has put a spotlight on the improbable and clandestine world of shawl smugglers. Shahtoosh had been prized among the upper classes in Asia for centuries, but only recently did the West become aware of it, with some fashion magazines in the early and mid-1980's promoting it despite the ban.

The rise in shahtoosh's popularity over the last 10 years has increased poaching, and the antelope population has fallen by 90 percent since 1900, when there were at least a million in China, said George Schaller, a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and an expert on the Tibetan antelope.

"Any woman who wears a shahtoosh shawl has at least three dead antelopes wrapped around her shoulders," said Mr. Schaller, who has been tracking the chiru population since the 1970's.

The only way to obtain the fur is to slaughter the animal. The hides are then smuggled into Kashmir, where weavers fashion the wool into shawls.

A Web site promoting the wool boasts that "an egg wrapped in a shawl and left in the sun would be cooked in a few hours." And the material is so fine, Mr. Schaller said, that an entire shawl could slip through a ring. Some sell for as much as $15,000 on the black market, he said.

"Nobody paid much attention until the New Jersey grand jury began to investigate some socially prominent women," Mr. Schaller added. Now saving the chiru is a cause celebre, advocated in the same fashion magazines that once popularized shahtoosh.

The shawls offered at the Sloan-Kettering event were underpriced, which is one reason their origin was misunderstood by the guests.

"What these companies sometimes do," Ms. Donn said, "is hook up with some known charity that has an affluent mailing list." It is an attempt to gain access to wealthy clientele and sell shawls for their market value. "Sloan-Kettering had no clue. I can't stress that enough," Ms. Donn said.

Organizers of the charity event said they were approached by Cocoon, whose executives said they wanted to do something to help the hospital's Dream Team, an anonymous group of volunteers that helps patients' wishes come true.

The mistake is unlikely to happen again, said Avice Meehan, the cancer center's vice president for public affairs. "We at Memorial Sloan-Kettering now know a great deal about shahtoosh, what it takes to make shahtoosh and why we shouldn't ever buy one," she said.

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