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Hong Kong Cracks Down on Shahtoosh Traders


HONG KONG, China, April 5, 1999 (ENS) - Here in Hong Kong a trader in the soft underbelly wool of the endangered Tibetan antelope awaits sentencing. Recent tough action by the Hong Kong judiciary is an unprecedented effort to stop the illegal trade in this softest of all wools known as shahtoosh.

In late February, a Hong Kong magistrate found the trader guilty of illegally possessing 130 pieces of shahtoosh shawls. Sentencing is scheduled for April 13.

The seizure took place in December 1998 following a tip-off from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring programme of the World Wide Fund for Nature and IUCN, the World Conservation Union.

"The guilty verdict set an important precedent not just for Hong Kong but for the world," said Judy Mills, director of TRAFFIC East Asia based in Hong Kong.

"We hope the sentencing will be severe enough to send an additional message that the trade in endangered species products is not worth the risk to the species or your bank balance," Mills said.

The possession and sales of shahtoosh are illegal because the Tibetan antelope, locally called chiru, is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).

In January, a different trader pleaded guilty to illegally possessing 23 pieces of shahtoosh shawls, which were seized from his hotel room last December. The trader was fined HK$20,000 (US$2,580).

The Indian national was arrested by Hong Kong authorities for smuggling shahtoosh shawls into the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), then illegally selling them from his hotel room in Central Hong Kong.

Working on tip from TRAFFIC East Asia, a local TV station with a hidden camera filmed the man offering shahtoosh for sale. Once the illicit offer was filmed, TRAFFIC East Asia informed the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) of the Hong Kong SAR. In a joint operation with the Customs & Excise Department and AFD, government officials seized 23 shawls from the man, who was later arrested.

Three to five Tibetan antelope are killed to make one shahtoosh shawl, a luxury commodity that can retail in Hong Kong and other international fashion centres for up to US$5,000.

They are also known as ring shawls because they are of such fine texture that an entire shawl can be passed through a finger ring.

The Tibetan antelope is found only on China's Qinghai Plateau and the Ladakh area of India. It is estimated to number no more than 75,000 in the wild and populations are declining.

While this antelope and its products have been banned from international trade since 1975, its wool has become a "must have" item among the world's rich and famous.

Authorities seized shahtoosh shawls from another prominent merchant in 1995. But due to difficulties in obtaining laboratory identification of the wool as being from the Tibetan antelope, the case had to be dropped and the shawls returned.

Since then, identification techniques have been refined and are in use in France, India, Italy, and the USA. These techniques employ the use of microscopes, chromatography and DNA analysis.

A TRAFFIC investigation of the trade of shahtoosh in Hong Kong shows that the shawls are sold in some upscale boutiques as well as at parties held in private homes. A Chinese national nongovernmental organization, Friends of Nature, is calling on the world to help protect the chiru of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. More than 20,000 chiru are killed in the region annually, Liang Congjie, president of the organization said last October in Beijing. At this rate, Liang predicts extinction within 20 years. The chiru is protected under Chinese government regulations as a first-class animal, and convicted poachers face several years in prison.


Shahtoosh shawl (Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC) The endangered Tibetan antelope is known locally as chiru.

Environment News Service (ENS) 1999. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: The photo of the "endangered Tibetan antelope" on the Lycos/ENS web page appears to be a species other than the antelope, perhaps a wild sheep or goat. Can anyone identify the animal? If so, please reply to TPP.


Mailings to this list of addresses originate with the Tibetan Plateau Project (TPP) of Earth Island Institute.

TPP is campaigning to halt the international trade in shahtoosh and protect the Tibetan antelope. For more information on TPP's campaign activities, see the antelope webpage: http://www.earthisland.org/tpp/antelope.htm

SUBMISSIONS: If you have an article to submit to this list, email the text and source information (publication, date, etc.) to TPP at: http://tppei@earthisland.org

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