Chinese ‘tourists’ face 7 years in Indian jail over shahtoosh shawls made from endangered antelope

  • Two Chinese women were arrested in New Delhi for attempting to leave India with US$574,000 worth of the shawls, made from an endangered antelope
  • The tourists face potential fines of up to 450,000 yuan (US$64,800) each and between three and seven years in jail, according to Chinese media
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 9:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 2:09pm

Two Chinese women have been detained in New Delhi after attempting to leave India with US$574,000 worth of shawls made from a species of endangered antelope, prompting Beijing to warn its nationals to abide by local laws when travelling.

The Chinese embassy on Sunday confirmed it had contacted the families of the women and offered them legal advice after they were arrested last week.

Embassy director Zhao Jun warned mainland tourists not to purchase shahtoosh shawls made from the fine underhair of the Tibetan antelope, or chiru. The animal is listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union, as well as by China and India.

“Chinese citizens are now going to India for tourist season …[We] issued a reminder to Chinese citizens to strictly abide by the Indian wildlife protection law and other regulations, and they must not carry prohibited wild animals and plants,” Zhao told a media briefing on Sunday.

Kashmiris flout ban on shahtoosh shawls

“We would like to remind domestic tourists again to learn more about India’s laws and regulations, to respect local customs and habits, and make their travels safe.”

Indian media reported that the Chinese nationals, who entered on tourist visas, carried 15 shahtoosh shawls worth about US$38,000 each.

Each finely-knit scarf, which requires the slaughter of three or four chiru, ranges in price from about US$3,000 for a plain, un-dyed version, to tens of thousands of dollars for intricately-woven, colourful variations.

According to Chinese media, the tourists face potential fines of up to 450,000 yuan (US$64,800) each and between three and seven years in jail.

On Weibo, Chinese tourists have written about being offered such illicit items during their travels through India. User Misty Ocean wrote about being offered a shahtoosh scarf in a local shop.

“I drank the tea, and the clerk took out a suitcase. He opened the box … I put my hand gently on a scarf … it felt different from any fabric I have ever touched,” she said of the garment priced at 3,600 yuan (US$500).

“China does not sell them,” she wrote. “I only know that they are highly sought after in the European fashion industry and are expensive. The Tibetan antelope is a nationally protected wild animal in China.”

Since 1975, the shahtoosh trade has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but continues on the black market. Each year, up to 20,000 chiru are poached to supply the demand for shahtoosh shawls among wealthy buyers outside India.

The animal is now extinct in Nepal, but 75,000-100,000 still live along the Himalayan border between China and India.

Chiru are different from pashmina rabbits or cashmere goats that can be domesticated and bred, said Angela Jey, the founder of Angela Jey, an ethically-sourced Indian pashmina retailer in Hong Kong.

“They live in the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau, so they cannot be farmed – that’s why they are killed for their hair,” she said.

Chinese tourists fined US$15,750 for chasing endangered Tibetan antelopes to take photos

Chiru are often caught and slaughtered in Tibet, their hair then smuggled into northern India by Tibetan and Nepalese traders. Manufacturing then takes place in regions like Jammu and Kashmir, where many local communities depend on cottage industries for handicrafts and textiles.

“Everybody knows it’s illegal, this is why many weaver families in Kashmir no longer make it,” said Jey. “For them, they are struggling with the transition of this industry from legal to illegal … [it was] their bread and butter.”

Last year, an Indian parliamentary panel recommended ending the ban on the shahtoosh trade, arguing that thousands of families and communities in the north of the country depended on it for their survival, according to the Hindustan Times.

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These days, shahtoosh continues to be popular among wealthy foreigners. In a widely-lambasted interview with The New York Times last year, celebrity chef and entrepreneur Martha Stewart said she was a fan of the scarves and rarely travelled without one.

“I always take a very comfortable shawl, a shahtoosh. They weigh almost nothing and they’re as warm as a down comforter. It’s paper thin, it goes through a wedding ring,” she was quoted saying. Stewart later retracted her remarks, claiming that she had been speaking about cashmere rather than shahtoosh.

As a luxurious fashion accessory, shahtoosh – which means “king of fine wools” in Persian – became popular in the West during the 1800s, when European royalty including Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, donned the fabric.

Over time, shahtoosh has become as controversial as it is sought-after. While shahtoosh scarfs are illegal to possess and carry out of India, local families who bought their scarves before the ban are allowed to retain them so long as they are stamped and declared.