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Shawl Trade Risks Killing Off Antelope

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/06/27; June 27, 2001.]

Felicity Lawrence
Wednesday June 27, 2001.
The Guardian

Wealthy fashion followers have brought a rare species of antelope to the brink of extinction, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. An investigation by the fund, made public today, found that an illegal trade in shahtoosh shawls, made from the wool of a Tibetan antelope, the chiru, was flourishing.

Shahtoosh, literally "king of wools" is made from the throat of the chiru. It is like gossamer in both weight and texture, making it the rage among the rich and famous.

International conventions prohibit trade in the wool, but IFAW investigators said that they were offered raw wool and chiru pelts in Tibet, and found shahtoosh shawls for sale "in a well known shopping district in London". They passed their evidence to the Metropolitan police.

In the last century the number of chiru fell from several million to 75,000. Each year an estimated 20,000 are hunted for their wool. Up to five pelts are needed to make one shawl, which can fetch up to 10,000.

Mike Baker, director of IFAW UK, said yesterday that there was an urgent need for action. "The anti-poaching and enforcement efforts of the Chinese and Indian governments must continue to be strengthened. But we must also ensure the demand for these shawls is stopped."

Hong Kong has been one centre of the illegal trade.

The shahtoosh is a byword for quality and rarity, a rich woman's version of the pashmina shawl. The antelope's hair is three-quarters of the width of the finest cashmere, and as soft as silk. The shawls are also known as ring shawls - so fine they are said to be able to pass through a ring.

The fashion industry is keen to distance itself from the trade. When British Vogue ran a photo of Lady Charlotte Fraser wearing what the magazine described as a shahtoosh, it received a complaint and apologised for the mistake.

The US Vogue's website ran a picture purporting to be a well known actress wearing a shahtoosh, but this has been taken it off its website. "It was supplied to us by a photographer. We are not sure it is correct, and we do not support any illegal merchandise," a spokeswoman said.

Last summer in New York there was a high profile prosecution of importers who planned to sell them on to boutiques in Paris. This year, the outgoing US ambassador's wife in Delhi was embarrassed when it was revealed she owned one of the shawls. She agreed to surrender it to the authorities before leaving.

Several ladies-who-lunch were startled to be subpoenaed in New York when it emerged that a charity auction they had organised in 1994 included the sale of $100,000 worth of shahtoosh garments.

They said they had believed the stories that the precious wool was collected from bushes where it was caught as the antelope brushed past. In fact there are no bushes on the Tibetan plateau, and the wild and shy chiru has to be killed to obtain its hair.

Dying for Fashion

The great auk, a 3ft tall penguin-like flightless seabird, was hunted by the Victorians for its feathers until it became extinct. The last breeding pair was killed by two fishermen in 1844. They also smashed the last egg.

The beaver went into decline during the 19th century and was virtually wiped out in some parts of the United States, when their fur became the most desirable material from which to make hats.

The Guadalupe fur seal, which lives in the Pacific off California, is threatened with extinction after having been hunted for its pelt.

The musk deer, once used by the fashion house Chanel among others to make perfumes, is an endangered species.

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