Kashmiris flout ban on shahtoosh shawls

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 12:00am

The weaving of prized shahtoosh shawls, banned internationally to protect the Tibetan antelope they are made from, is still taking place secretly in Kashmir, according to a new survey.

Kashmir authorities banned its production last year, reluctantly bowing to pressure from wildlife conservation groups who warned that the Tibetan antelope, whose under-fleece is used for weaving the ultra-fine and luxurious wool, would be extinct in 10 years if the trade continued.

But a door-to-door survey by the Wildlife Trust of India and the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that 15,000 people were still weaving shahtoosh (Persian for the 'king of wool') shawls. The report, entitled 'Beyond the Ban', argues that production can only be stopped if the government helps the weavers to find other jobs

'If we want to save the Tibetan antelope, we need to provide viable alternatives to those involved in producing the shahtoosh,' the report said.

The Tibetan antelope's hair is said to be six-and-a-half times thinner than human hair. The animal developed this underfleece to protect it against freezing winters in the remote plateaus that it inhabits in Tibet and in the Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces of China.

The numbers of the Tibetan antelope have dropped from several million 100 years ago to fewer than 75,000 today. It takes three antelopes to make one shahtoosh shawl. About 20,000 are killed by poachers every year. The pelts are then taken to Kashmir, where shahtoosh has been woven for over 600 years, before being transported around the world.

A ban was always going to be problematic, given that 30,000 people depend on weaving shahtoosh for their livelihood in the state where unemployment is high.

Women form the bulk of the workforce, many of them widows of men killed in the 13-year insurgency in Kashmir.