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Environmentalists Condemn Deadly Fashion Trend For Endangered Species Product

[Source: WTN-L: World Tibet Network News. Published by: The Canada Tibet Committee]

November 30, 1998

Continued global trade in "shatoosh" may lead to further deaths, conservationists say

San Francisco -- In the wake of the recent death of China's chief conservation official responsible for protecting the rare Tibetan antelope, environmentalists are calling on government agencies to step up efforts to halt the illegal trade in the antelope's wool and for more responsible practices by the global fashion industry.

On November 8, Zhaba Duojie, an ethnic Tibetan official responsible for the protection of the antelope in China's Hoh Xil wildlife reservation, Qinghai Province, was found shot dead in his home in the town of Yushu, Zhidoi county. Zhaba's death follows the murder of his brother-in-law and predecessor, Suonan Dajie, who died in a gunfight with antelope poachers four years ago.

China's Hoh Xil reservation is located on the eastern edge of the remote Tibetan Plateau, home to the Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) and other endangered species, including snow leopard, wild yak and Tibetan wild donkey. The antelope, which is accorded the highest level of wildlife protection in China, is targeted for "shatoosh," its valuable fur.

"The poaching of Tibetan antelope and trade in shatoosh are illegal under Chinese and international law and are acts of sheer greed," said Justin Lowe, director of the Tibetan Plateau Project. "Contributing directly or indirectly to the death of a conservationist who is attempting to protect this endangered species is tantamount to terrorism. This tragedy demonstrates that renewed efforts are required worldwide to stop the black market shatoosh trade."

The Tibetan Plateau Project and New York's Wildlife Conservation Society are developing a proposal for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to place the Tibetan antelope on the US Endangered Species list, a move that would make trade in shatoosh a federal crime.

Zhaba headed the "Western Yaks" anti-poaching squad that attempted to halt illegal hunting in the eastern region of the vast Plateau. Poachers sometimes kill hundreds of antelope at a time, stripping their hides and leaving bloody carcasses littering the Tibetan grasslands. The antelope wool is smuggled to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where it is manufactured into scarves and shawls that are considered the world's most luxurious -- and expensive -- woolen products. Shatoosh accessories may sell for $10,000 or more apiece in First-World fashion capitals.

The China Youth Daily initially reported that Zhaba, who was also a local Communist Party official, was murdered by unidentified gunmen. Police have since told the Yangcheng Evening News that Zhaba killed himself during a domestic dispute, a claim the conservationist's colleagues have reportedly disputed.

World-renowned wildlife expert George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who has researched Tibetan Plateau wildlife for a decade and is the foremost authority on the Tibetan antelope, estimates that only 75,000 antelope survive, their numbers decimated by relentless hunting. Experts speculate that anywhere from 2,000-4,000 antelope are killed annually to supply the luxury shatoosh trade.

Although the antelope is protected by Chinese law, wildlife officials are outnumbered by poachers and too understaffed to effectively protect the species. Gangs of armed hunters roam the remote Chang Tang protected area in northern Tibet, shooting antelope and selling the shatoosh to international smugglers.

In October, 14 Tibetan poachers were convicted of slaughtering 500 antelope and trafficking in 200 hides, and were given prison terms of up to 13 years and fines of $1,800 each.

"Antelope poachers are greedy, ruthless and determined," Lowe said. "Motivated by the high value of shatoosh, they will go to great lengths to maintain this lucrative, illicit trade. How many antelope, and how many conservationists, have to die before the world takes notice and ends the shatoosh trade?"

Although international treaty has forbidden trade in shatoosh since 1975, wildlife and enforcement authorities are struggling to stem global demand for this luxury product. Shatoosh seizures in Paris, London, Delhi and Hong Kong demonstrate the scope of the wildlife trade.

CNN Interactive reported last July that in the US "Shatoosh shawls are being sold nationwide in department stores and in high-end boutiques" -- a violation of international and US law. The US Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated a shatoosh consignment from an upscale New York boutique last May, but the agency is not discussing the seizure, citing its ongoing investigation.

The American fashion press has relentlessly promoted shatoosh. Articles in Vogue, Elle, and Harper's Bazar have touted "toosh" as the ultimate must-have luxury item for high-flying trend-setters. Whether honestly or disingenuously, consumers and vendors who traffic in shatoosh often disclaim any knowledge of the fabric's bloody lineage.

"The fashion press needs to act more responsibly to inform consumers that shatoosh is internationally designated contraband that is contributing to the decimation of an endangered species," said the Tibetan Plateau Project's Lowe. "Not to speak out against this despicable crime is to be complicit in the death of one of the Earth's most graceful creatures."

Lowe noted that news of Zhaba's death came as hundreds of Americans demonstrated against fur sales at the opening of the Christmas shopping season in dozens of cities around the US on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

"Unlike traditional furs sold in America, shatoosh is made from an endangered species. 'Save the antelope, ban shatoosh,' should become the new rallying cry of conservationists nationwide," said Lowe.

The Tibetan Plateau Project of Earth Island Institute promotes biodiversity conservation and the sustainable development of local communities in the five-nation Tibetan Plateau region by encouraging research and strengthening international, U.S. and foreign conservation laws and policies.

(Justin Lowe, Director Tibetan Plateau Project. 415/788-3666 x132. Email: tppei@earthisland.org http://www.earthisland.org/tpp/antelope)

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