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What if ‘shahtoosh’ were to come out of hiding?

The parliamentary committee on environment and climate change has suggested lifting the ban on 'shahtoosh' trade in Jammu and Kashmir

A file picture of ‘shahtoosh’ shawls seized by Delhi Police in Chandni Chowk on 17 March, 1999. A total of 96 shawls were seized. Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Protection Society of India
A file picture of ‘shahtoosh’ shawls seized by Delhi Police in Chandni Chowk on 17 March, 1999. A total of 96 shawls were seized. Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Protection Society of India

Over dinner, the wife of a social acquaintance unwittingly spilled the beans that a huge portion of her earnings was spent on objects of high fashion, including a shahtoosh shawl. There were uncomfortable glances all around.

For shahtoosh, popularly known as the “king of wool", is procured from the skin of the chiru, a Tibetan antelope found on the Tibetan plateau.

The story of shahtoosh shawls is a gory one. The animal is poached in the wild and it is said that four-five chirus have to be slaughtered to make one shahtoosh shawl. One adult animal yields about 125-150g of wool.

It is estimated that around 20,000 chirus used to be slaughtered annually to meet the demands of the shahtoosh trade.

Legend has it that a shahtoosh shawl, processed and woven from the super-fine soft wool, can pass through a ring—it is a status symbol for the rich and famous. Only a handful of weavers in Kashmir are known to have the skills to weave such a shawl.

In 1975, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) banned all trade in Tibetan antelope wool. Trade in shahtoosh was banned nationally in the early 1990s.

So, the chiru is a protected species in India, China and Nepal. In the early 2000s, the Central government announced a time window for the declaration of ownership of shahtoosh products, bought or acquired through inheritance, and their certification.

Recently, and controversially, the parliamentary committee on environment and climate change has suggested lifting the ban on shahtoosh trade in Jammu and Kashmir. The reason: It would help revive the economy of the state and restore the livelihood of shahtoosh weavers. Mushtaq Ahmed Wani, president of The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I), says the ban has disrupted the livelihood of thousands of artisans and weavers. According to a KCC&I press release, the parliamentary panel’s recommendation has raised hopes of people who were once in the shahtoosh trade.

While the turmoil in the Kashmir Valley continues to make news headlines, the suggestion made to the Union environment ministry, ignoring the international and national laws on wildlife conservation, has largely gone unnoticed in the national media.

“Although the ban exists on paper, shahtoosh trade is making a comeback and a section of Kashmir polity wants the ban to be lifted because of the huge money associated with the trade. Internationally too, the demand and surreptitious supply of shahtoosh products, especially shawls, remains in spite of the ban in trade," says a wildlife expert in Srinagar, requesting anonymity.

The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), a non-profit, recorded the seizure of 738 shawls, two kurtas, two scarves and 461kg of shahtoosh wool between 2000 and 2014 in India. According to WPSI’s programme manager Tito Joseph, “It’s a well-organized crime—right from procuring shahtoosh wool from Tibet, weaving in Kashmir, transporting to different airports and illegal export of goods."

One of the main handicaps in monitoring and tracking the shahtoosh trade is the fact that very few people can actually identify a shahtoosh product. Very fine pashmina (procured from Cashmere goats) is frequently traded as shahtoosh. It is only by observing the fine fibre diameter—10-12 micron for shahtoosh and 12-16 micron for pashmina (procured from Cashmere goats)—that the two can be differentiated. But pashmina, however exquisite, fails to satisfy high society’s shahtoosh addiction.

The nimble chiru, with its pointed ears and magnificent lyre-shaped horns, has a geographical range that extends from Ladakh in the west to Ngoring Hu (China) in the east. It is a migratory species of the cold desert, moving seasonally between lower and higher altitudes, and can be found between 3,700m and 5,500m. In India, the species has been recorded at two places—Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) in the Karakoram range and the Chang Chenmo Valley in Ladakh.

A 2008 report, “Mountain Migrants", by the Wildlife Trust of India put the chiru population at 230-275 in Karakoram and around 60 in Chang Chenmo. The report states, “Let alone captive breeding, even captive stock of this species has not been possible thus far, as the animal is extremely shy and has low tolerance to living in captivity below its altitudinal range. To do anything other than give it protection would be both ecologically insensitive and futile."

Last November, a 16-year-long court case on illegal shahtoosh trade concluded in Delhi’s Tis Hazari court. The accused was held guilty under the Wildlife (Protection) Act and let off with a Rs1 lakh fine—the law, which affords the chiru the highest category of protection, recommends imprisonment for at least three years and a fine of at least Rs10,000. The story goes back to 1998, when a Delhi Police special cell team and a well-known wildlife conservationist, the late Ashok Kumar, raided a shop in Hauz Khas, Delhi, and seized 46 shawls and a scarf. All except five items were made of shahtoosh.

Conservationists are unsure of the road ahead. What will the parliamentary committee’s suggestion mean for the protected chiru? What about the international and domestic laws and long-pending court cases on the shahtoosh trade? Will this sound the death knell for the shy chiru?

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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