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Shahtoosh Trade Alive, Chiru Dying

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/11/04; November 4, 2003.]

The Pioneer

Recognising its vulnerability, the Chiru has been granted the highest protection. It is listed under Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and is a Schedule I species under the Wildlife Protection Act in India, 1972. The Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 1978, upgraded the endangered Chiru to Schedule I by an amendment in June 2002.

While the Chiru is found at high altitudes on the Tibetan plateau, shahtoosh shawls are woven only in Kashmir. Now, a sustained campaign - supported by fashion designers like Ritu Kumar and Rina Dhaka - seeks to end this bloody trade and save the Chiru. But the law is only on paper, and Chirus are still being slaughtered to feed a flourishing Shahtoosh trade as an undercover investigation by The Pioneer reveals. Posing as an exporter, this correspondent discovered a vibrant underground Shahtoosh industry in the bylanes of old Srinagar where it is sifted, dyed and woven for sale in the main market. Though dealers say about 5,000 shawls are still being made annually, even a conservative estimate of 1,000 shawls annually would push the Chiru to extinction in five to seven years. That's because five Chirus must die for one shahtoosh shawl to be made.

The task was risky, and required covering tracks carefully - most traders are wary of the Central Bureau of Investigation or wildlife officials posing as buyers.

First stop, Shahjee Arts Emporium. This establishment's business card, and the placard outside, unashamedly announce that Shahtoosh is available, though the owners get edgy and defensive when asked to show a shawl. After a while, tactical money-flashing included, the owner, Ghulam Mohammed, is convinced he has a customer and produces a shahtoosh scarf. This is just an example, says Ghulam Mohammed, pronouncing that there is an unlimited supply of all Shahtoosh varieties - men's and women's shawls, blankets, in natural colours and dyed, embroidered and otherwise - beginning at Rs 25,000.

Assured of a sizeable order, this correspondent is later introduced to the main dealer, Imran. A young Delhi-based trader, he is vary of disclosing any information about himself. No surnames, no contact numbers, no address, no photographs.But he insists that any demand of Shahtoosh shawls will be met, and delivered at your doorstep. Urged by Ghulam Mohammed, he agrees to show a place where Shahtoosh is woven.

The weaving is being carried out in a dingy room in double-storeyed house at Zoonimer, in the bylanes of old Srinagar, where most of the weavers live. There are two toosh shawls in the looms, and more thread awaits its turn. Another weaver nearby has Shahtoosh in different colours; Imran says it is for a check design much in demand in the UK and US. The weavers say this is their trade, professing ignorance of the ban or the fact that wild animals are killed for the wool. It is clear that they have been warned not to talk about their vocation. This is not even their traditional vocation - they used to weave Pashmina - but Shahtoosh offered better money so they took it up instead. It is learnt that about 1,000 weavers and an equal number of cleaners (those who sift the wool) are currently employed in the trade.

On the way back, Imran is open about information regarding the trade. He insists that there is no ban in Jammu and Kashmir, but the India ban has had a positive impact on the trade, for demand has shot up pushing prices up before it. Are the shawls smuggled? Child's play, says Imran. "By road, by train or by air, we can send as many as we want. There is no checking and who will recognise shahtoosh, anyway?" he points out.

Imran cannot put a figure to the number to the number of shawls produced every year, but says there are "very many," maybe 5,000. These figures are disputable - dealers are known to mix Pashmina and other wool with Shahtoosh to deceive buyers. But Imran's estimate is enough to realise that the Chiru is in its last lap, if something more is not done immediately.

According to Imran, the supply has declined, but because of the ban and not a fall in Chiru population. "The market in Kashmir is negligible, so we get shahtoosh from Tibetans who bring it in from Nepal and Tibet. Srinagar is the only place it is woven. Shawls are then taken to Delhi, which is the hub of the trade. Besides the domestic market in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, most of the shawls are smuggled to the UK, USA and UAE," he explains.

Later, Imran leads the way to his house in Soura where he shows us a few shahtoosh shawls. The offer is open: If shawls are required in Delhi, an order can be placed through the Srinagar contact number.

The next day, this correspondent visits the place where shahtoosh is sifted, a job mainly managed by young girls. This is at Wanganpura, close to Idgah in the old city. Two girls, Rukaya and Tasmin, who are doing sifting do not know of any ban. They are paid one rupee to clean one gramme of wool. Each girl cleans about 100 gramme a day, and there are at least 1,000 such girls employed in cleaning shahtoosh in the city. Shahjee was not the only shop that traded in shahtoosh. Entering other shops at random revealed that Shahtoosh was readily available; one only had look like a genuine buyer. Clearly, the law is just on paper, not enforced. As this investigation proves, the illegal trade in Shahtoosh is rampant and flourishing indicating extinction not just for the Chiru but also for the tiger. It is an established fact that Shahtoosh is used as barter for tiger skins and bones in the illegal wildlife trade. According to wildlife investigators, traders from Tibet offer the wool in exchange for tiger bones in India.

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