India Hopes to Breed Endangered Tibetan Antelope
SRINAGAR, India Conservationists in the Indian Himalayas want to set up a program to breed an endangered Tibetan antelope that is slaughtered in huge numbers to make super-fine shahtoosh wool.
Wildlife experts say the number of chiru antelopes has fallen to about 75,000 from 1 million 50 years ago, and as many as 20,000 animals are killed each year to feed demand for shahtoosh shawls, which fetch thousands of dollars in Western boutiques.
"It is high time to save this poor animal, and we have decided to establish breeding centers in Ladakh," said Ghulam Mohideen Sofi, wildlife and forest minister in India's Kashmir state. Ladakh is on the edge of the Tibetan plateau in the east of Kashmir.
The shahtoosh trade has been banned internationally since 1979 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but despite the ban, the slaughter goes on.
Conservationists say five chirus, who live at an altitude of more than 14,000 feet (4,200 meters), are shot and skinned to make one shahtoosh shawl. The material is so fine a shawl can be pulled through a wedding ring.
"We will legally import some chirus from Tibet, and some we will capture in the higher reaches of Ladakh," Sofi said. "Breeding will start as soon as the basic infrastructure is ready early next year," he said. "We will ensure the centers give the antelope the feeling of its natural habitat."
Traders in shahtoosh Persian for "king of wools" say the antelope sheds its wool naturally by rubbing itself against branches and rocks in summer, and it is these wisps of shahtoosh that are collected on the remote Himalayan plateau.
Environmentalists dismiss that, saying the animals are stalked, shot, and skinned for their hair.
Despite the trade ban, some weavers continue to make shahtoosh shawls that fetch as much as US$17,000 in London or New York. A nearly three-meter shawl weighs barely 160 grams (five ounces).
Legend has it French Emperor Napoleon presented a shahtoosh shawl to Josephine more than 200 years ago.
Nearly 50,000 former shahtoosh weavers whose families have lived off the business for generations have been struggling since India banned the centuries-old trade nine years ago.
Sofi appealed to international wildlife groups for help in saving the chiru.
"Our state is currently short of funds. I appeal to international wildlife organizations to fund us for this project. I assure them the chiru can be saved from extinction," he said. "As a Kashmiri, I feel ashamed when we are blamed for chiru poaching or trade of its wool. I think it is our duty to come to its rescue."