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"Shahtoosh," king of wool, spells extinction for rare antelope

by Abhik Kumar Chanda

NEW DELHI, March 19 (AFP) - Shahtoosh, which literally translates as the "king of wool," was the stuff that dreams were woven of in medieval India and part of the trousseau in many aristocratic European homes.

But the growing hunger, especially in the West, for exquisite shawls woven from the incredibly soft and warm wool, now threatens the Tibetan antelope with extinction, despite a ban on the trade in India.

Shahtoosh comes from the neck and soft underbelly of the antelope, which has to be killed in order to harvest the wool.

The shawls, whose main markets are in Britain, France, the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, are manufactured in the northern Indian state of Kashmir where the antelopes migrate every summer from Tibet.

Indian weavers say they gather the strands of hair from rocks and bushes against which the animals had rubbed themselves.

The claim is hotly contested by environmentalists and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) who argue that thousands of Tibetan antelope, known as chiru in Tibetan, are butchered every year to cater for rising demand.

"Trade in shahtoosh shawls has gone up by 50 percent since the late 1980s," said Manoj Kumar Misra, a senior official at the WWF's India chapter.

"On any given day in New Delhi, you can find between 2,000 and 2,500 shawls on offer," he said. "This is despite a 1972 law calling for a minimum of a year in jail and a 25,000 rupee (588-dollar) fine if anyone is caught buying or selling shahtoosh."

Misra said the rising global demand was reflected in a recent Chinese government report which said that 20,000 antelope were killed every year to feed the trade.

"To us, the figures seem a little on the higher side since the total population of Tibetan antelopes seems to be between 50,000 and 60,000," he said. "Nevertheless, the contraband trade is growing by leaps and bounds."

The mystique of shahtoosh shawls, which are so fine that they can easily pass through a finger ring, even captivated French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who bought one for his future wife Josephine.

Josephine was so enthralled by the present that she reputedly ordered 400 more. The shawls are traditionally woven in three pastel shades -- white, beige and ivory.

Misra said shahtoosh shawls currently cost about 100,000 rupees (2,350 dollars).

"There are many imitations. The true shahtoosh shawls are woven with hair taken from the throat and the underbelly of the animal. About 250 grams (nine ounces) of wool are needed to make a regular-sized shawl."

The Wildlife Protection Society of India said shahtoosh was openly available in state-run handicraft shops across the country until a few years ago

"A few shops still openly sell shahtoosh shawls while others store the shawls in suitcases or hide them behind shop counters," a society report said.

Earlier this week, forestry department officials seized 26 shawls in two separate raids in New Delhi.

Misra said apart from stricter enforcement, sentences should also be increased.

"I would recommend a minimum jail term of 10 years and a 100,000-rupee fine," he said. "We are also planning publicity spots on television to warn people off shahtoosh"

One such commercial shown to AFP shows an unsuspecting buyer who is caught red-handed by police, jailed and fined.

"My life was fine until I tried to buy a shahtoosh shawl," the actor says, adding: "Today my children ask me why I became a criminal."

Misra said a global WWF campaign would also appeal to well-known couture houses such as "Chanel, Dior and Givenchy" not to use shahtoosh wool.

"There is a disturbing trend worldwide... an increase in the trade in fur. This spells danger for the Tibetan antelope because the wool trade follows the same pattern as the fur industry."

The official said a major problem in India was that "old money, socialites and former maharajahs and maharanis" flaunted their shahtoosh shawls at chic gatherings.

"While they are only wearing inherited things, we want to appeal to them not to wear them in public. It sets a bad precedent."

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