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Shawl Casts Pall Over Antelope

By Lynne O'Donnell

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 99/10/23 Compiled by Thubten (Sam) Samdup]

LYNNE O'DONNELL, China correspondent The Australian - Canberra, 23 October 1999)

A BATTLE royal is looming between conservationists who want to save a rare Tibetan mountain antelope and the haute mode international jet set, who have become addicted to shawls woven from its fine wool.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature has launched a "Don't buy shahtoosh" campaign coinciding with an agreement between China, India and Nepal to end poaching of Tibetan antelope.

But they face an uphill battle as the Government of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, where the shawls are made, refuses to co-operate with international efforts to ban the trade.

Demand for shahtoosh, superfine cashmere spun from the animal's fur, has reached such a fever pitch among the well-heeled that the shawls fine enough to pass through a wedding ring, warm enough to hatch a pigeon's egg can fetch up to $75,000 in the world's fashion capitals.

As a result, there are now believed to be fewer than 75,000 chiru, as the animal is also known, remaining on the Tibetan Plateau, down from millions 50 years ago.

Environmentalists say the animal is being slaughtered by poachers at a rate of more than 10,000 a year, and could be extinct within a decade.

"The time to protect this animal is now," said George Schaller, an expert on Tibetan fauna with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

"If we don't, the Tibetan Plateau will remain a beautiful place but there will be a great emptiness once this animal is gone," he said.

US authorities have already begun targeting the ladies of the lunching set, seizing their shawls in order to stigmatise shahtoosh as ivory and fur have been as a senseless and cruel vanity.

Dr Schaller spends months each year living on the vast plains of the Tibetan Plateau between China and India, the exclusive home of the chiru, and is credited with making the association between the shahtoosh trade and the animal's dwindling population.

The myth prevails among sellers and owners of shahtoosh shawls that the silken-soft down from the chiru's belly and throat is collected in tiny tufts that adhere to shrubbery.

These little clouds of fur, the fable goes, are hand-plucked by nomad children and sold in tiny quantities to near-blind weavers in Kashmir, who spin it into jewel-coloured clouds of gossamer.

The gruesome truth is that the chiru are slaughtered by gangs using high-velocity rifles and high-speed jeeps that can traverse the barren and rocky Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, where altitudes range from 3500m to 6000m above sea level.

In recent years, Dr Schaller said, poachers had discovered the chiru's calving grounds and now killed females "by the thousands" as they gave birth. They were skinned on the spot and the hides sold to merchants in Nepal and India, who trafficked them to Kashmir.

Three to five pelts are needed to weave one shawl.

Experts said evidence had emerged of a border barter trade in which shahtoosh was swapped for tiger parts penises, bones, internal organs prized in China as aphrodisiacs. One bag of bones culled from Indian tigers traded for two bags of shahtoosh.

The wool is spun, woven and embroidered with exquisite filigree in Srinagar by companies controlled by a handful of powerful families. The shawls are smuggled to fashion outlets worldwide. Total output is unknown.

Poaching and trade in shahtoosh are illegal worldwide under the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which Australia is one of 140 signatories. The chiru has been listed as endangered since 1975.

Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has said: "As long as I am the Chief minister, shahtoosh will be sold in Kashmir."

Without the co-operation of the Kashmiri authorities, the chiru's only hope lies in enhanced border patrols.

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