The tragedy of a Western fad

The Chiru, the Tibetan antelope, is now a contender for the endangered species list. The reason? Westerners have discovered shahtoosh shawls, known as “ring shawls” because the fabric is so fine a shawl can easily pass through a ring. One shawl requires killing at least three Chiru. Shahtoosh shawls were produced for centuries for Indian high society–a staple in dowries–and for the rich in neighboring countries. Their demand was nothing in comparison to what happened when Westerners started paying $2-15,000 for one shawl. With Western high society dollars floating towards Jammu and Kashmir, the only location in the world that permits shahtoosh trade, the tradition boomed into a business.

Shahtoosh consumption now appears to be highest in Europe, with the United States and developed East Asia in close contention. Shahtoosh seizures and trials in Hong Kong have now pushed China, previously just the animal’s range state, into the consumer state category.

In the United States, the Tibetan Plateau Project and the Wildlife Conservation Society have filed a petition to list the Tibetan antelope as an official endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. An outcome is expected at the end of the year that should reduce the underground trade in shahtoosh, but western governments and NGOs need to be much more vigilant.

ICT is urging European governments to crackdown on underground shahtoosh sales. The most troublesome player may turn out to be the local government in Jammu and Kashmir, where it is legal to produce and sell shahtoosh. The autonomous government in Jammu and Kasmir can override national Indian law. Some in the Kashmiri government deny that poaching is a major problem and challenge the basic assumptions of protecting endangered species: that an endangered species in one country should be afforded protections in other countries. A Kashmiri official said that the Chinese aim to discredit shahtoosh because it poses a threat to China’s pashmina industry. Pashmina is a fine woven cashmere and has gained popularity as of late. Shawls are Kashmir’s third largest industry.

In Chinese and Tibetan areas, there is no denial as to the cause and extent of the threat among officials. However, there are major shortcomings in combating the poachers and a major lack of resources to do so. The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala needs to take more pro-active measures to combat Tibetan participation in antelope poaching and in the wool trade. Tibetans in exile have no police or enforcement power, but there is much room to assist Indian authorities in identifying who is engaged in this deadly trade. Moreover, a clear and forceful message from the Dalai Lama would carry much weight inside Tibet and would likely be broadcast by Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

While traditional levels of hunting chiru may have been sustainable, today’s automatic weapons and trucks are decimating the Chiru population. Tibetans are joined by Chinese and Muslim poachers, who appear to be coming out of the woodwork in areas of the Tibetan plateau, which used to see only Tibetan nomads.

A trouble with the shahtoosh craze is that even if Western demand is quickly reduced, it may not have an immediate affect on antelope poaching. After Western fashion divas have had their fling and a new market alternative is created, the temptation of their dollars still echoes in the ears of poachers. It could take two to three years for the market value to affect poaching patterns. Even poorly funded anti-poaching squads are more likely to stop poachers than market/fad fluctuations.

With estimations at 20 years until antelope extinction, two to three more years of steady poaching puts the antelope at an increased stress that they may not endure.

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