Shawl ban offers rare antelopes hope

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2002, 12:00am

Buyers of the softest, finest and most expensive shawl in the world will find it even harder to find the luxury item now that Indian-controlled Kashmir has banned the production of shahtoosh shawls.

Wildlife activists are delighted, saying the move will help protect the highly endangered Tibetan antelope, whose superfine underfleece is used for the shawl.

The shahtoosh (Persian for 'the king of wools') was originally worn by traditional north Indian families who prized it as a dowry item. The first shahtoosh to reach Europe is believed to be the one Napoleon bought in 1796 and presented to Josephine. She was so pleased with it that she set a trend which spread throughout Europe.

More recently, in the 1980s it became a fashion statement of the international jet set.

The shawls are so fine they can pass through a ring, yet they are warm enough for icy winters. Each strand of the Tibetan Antelope's hair is said to be 6.5 times thinner than a human hair. It developed this underfleece to protect it against temperatures that can dip to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the area it inhabits, the remote plateaus of Tibet and Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces of China.

The number of antelopes has dropped from several million 100 years ago to fewer than 75,000 today. It takes three antelope to make one shahtoosh and poachers kill about 20,000 every year.

The pelts are taken to Kashmir for weaving before being transported to New Delhi. From there they are exported to London, New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Milan, where they are sold illegally for up to US$5,000 (HK$38,900). The wildlife watchdog Traffic says it is still being sold in Hong Kong.

Despite the animal's protected status and a ban on international trade, Kashmir had a different set of laws that permitted the production of shawls with a government licence. It is the only place in the world where the shahtoosh has been weaved for centuries. Now the authorities have made weaving a punishable offence.

'This is the final step in the fight against shahtoosh,' said Ashok Kumar, a trustee of the Wildlife Trust of India, which in partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare has been at the forefront of an international campaign.

The only 'difficulty' with the ban is that about 30,000 people, mainly women, depend on producing the shahtoosh for their livelihood.

Unemployment is a massive problem in Kashmir, where people are already suffering hardships following 12 years of civil strife. Many of the spinners are widows whose husbands have been killed in the conflict.

Wildlife groups have suggested an alternative: get these workers weaving pashmina, a cheaper version of the shahtoosh. 'This is already made in Kashmir but we think Kashmiri weavers could create a niche brand for it. We have even suggested a name 'Kashmina',' Mr Kumar said.