India's Kashmir Govt to Fight Ban on Shahtoosh Wool
SRINAGAR, India India's Jammu and Kashmir state plans to fight a global ban on the trade in super-fine shahtoosh wool, which environmentalists say is produced by killing a rare Tibetan antelope.
The wool comes from the chiru antelope and shawls made from it fetch many thousands of dollars in the West. International wildlife organizations say five of the animals are shot and skinned to make one shawl, which is so soft that it can be pulled through a wedding ring.
Huge demand for the luxurious wool caused numbers of the antelope to plunge in the wild, prompting an international ban in 1979 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
"Our finding is that the chiru is not killed for its wool. We will fight against the ban and try to convince the world. There is a need to remove this misconception," Ghulam Mohiudin Sofi, the state's forest minister, said.
"If they (environmentalists) provide us with concrete evidence that the antelope is butchered, we will completely stop the shahtoosh trade in Kashmir," he added but would not say how the state government planned to fight the ban.
Nearly 50,000 former shahtoosh weavers who have lived off the business for generations have been struggling for survival since India's federal government banned the 600-year-old trade about seven years ago.
Environmentalists say chirus are shot and skinned for their hair in remote areas of Tibet and their raw hide is then smuggled to Kashmir to make shahtoosh scarves and shawls that fetch as much as $17,000 in trendy boutiques in London and New York.
But traders in shahtoosh Persian for "king of wools" say the antelope sheds its wool naturally by rubbing itself against shrubs and rocks in summer and it is these wisps of shahtoosh that are collected in the remote Himalayan plateau.
Officials in Jammu and Kashmir hope a CITES meeting of 166 countries in Bangkok next month will take a fresh look at the international ban on shahtoosh.
Animal activists estimate the number of chirus has fallen to only about 75,000 from one million 50 years ago and the number is falling fast because of the underground trade in the wool.
A nearly three-meter shawl weighs barely five ounces and Kashmiri legend has it that French emperor Napoleon presented a shahtoosh shawl to Josephine more than 200 years ago.
Activists dismiss the Kashmir government's stance on the trade.
"Even if the animals were shedding such large quantities, it's impossible to follow the antelope in such mountainous terrain and with high velocity winds," an activist at the New Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India told Reuters.
"To make shahtoosh, you have to kill chirus because that's the only way of collecting their wool. Besides, one animal can only shed about 100 grams of its hair."
Despite the ban, weavers risk spending years in prison or paying a huge fine if caught because they say that's all they know.
"The main market of the shahtoosh shawl is Western countries, but now over 140 nations are signatories to the ban which has resulted in the virtual collapse of the trade," said 65-year-old Mohammad Subhan, a former shahtoosh dealer.