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<-Back to WTN Archives Butchered by the score ... for a shawl (TO)
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Sunday, March 21, 2004

5. Butchered by the score ... for a shawl (TO)

The bloody - and deadly - trade that has brought a much-prized Tibetan
antelope to the brink of extinction

March 21, 2004
The Observer - England

A nervous salesman spreads out five shawls on the bed in a Delhi hotel. He
thinks he is dealing with an affluent Dubai businessman and his American
wife. In fact, the shawls are contraband and his 'customers' are a trustee
of the Wildlife Trust of India and an Observer reporter.

The salesman asks for a small fortune. These are shahtoosh - literally
translated from Persian as 'king of woven cloth' - and they are fashioned
from death.

Trading in shahtoosh risks a lengthy jail sentence and a substantial fine.
Men have been murdered in this trade and an entire species, the chiru, a
Tibetan antelope, is threatened with extinction as each shawl requires the
death of three to five animals.

The shahtoosh resembles a deluxe pashmina, but feels very different. It is
made from the chiru's undercoat of fine fur that protects it from the
Himalayan winter of -40C.

The chiru roam the plateaus of western China and the Indian province of
Ladakh. For 25 years, this antelope has had the highest legal protection
under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
Harming or trading in chiru is illegal worldwide. Yet the population, once a
million strong, has fallen below 70,000. Lately, the level of killing has
risen sharply. Conservationists warn that the species faces extinction
within five years.

In 1999, the Metropolitan Police's Wildlife Crime Unit seized 138 shawls
worth £353,000 from a shop in Mayfair. The owner was fined. This summer, the
penalty for dealing in shahtoosh will rise from three to five years.

In India, the authorities have become more proactive. Thus the network -
encompassing China, Tibet and India, as well as New York, London and Paris -
has been driven even further under ground. But it still flourishes. 'People
with money always want to buy something that's different; something that
nobody else can have,' said Andy Fisher, head of the Wildlife Crime Unit,
'no matter what the cost.'

Care for the Wild International (CFTWI), an animal welfare and conservation
charity based in Britain, has funded an investigation into the shahtoosh
industry led by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the International Fund
for Animal Welfare.

'How soft does a scarf have to be that it warrants the death of an entire
species?' asks Dr Barbara Maas, the CFTWI chief executive. The investigation
has traced the routes of the chiru smugglers and hunted down the traders.

The sting has become a vital part of that strategy, using westerners as
bait, since Delhi shahtoosh dealers have grown wary of homegrown customers.
CFTWI asked if I would help in a sting, hence my appearance as 'the wife'.

The dealer shows us a man's shawl: 'Only the very best.' He squashes the
shahtoosh in his hand and it springs open like the bloom of a flower at high
speed. Also in the room is my 'husband', Ashok Kumar, 68, the charismatic
(unpaid) head of investigations, a WTI trustee. He has fought the illegal
wildlife trade for two decades. Seven years ago, a colleague had his head
hacked off, following a successful investigation into a trade in tiger
skins. Here too is my 'son-in-law', Dipankar Ghose, 31, an enforcement
officer at WTI. Ghose is an expert in the tragopans (pheasants) of
north-east India, and fresh from closing down three factories making brushes
of hair from the mongoose - also an endangered species.

Kumar examines the wool. Chiru wool has a unique corkscrew twist and shreds
easily. A price is agreed. It is the equivalent, in Indian terms, of more
than £1,500.

The 'son-in-law' is sent to get the money. Instead, he returns with three
detectives, headed by Sub-Inspector Shalender Tomar. Tomar has worked
undercover before with Kumar. 'He is so brave,' said Kumar 'He can take a
bone from a tiger's mouth.'

An arrest is made. Some traders are dangerous: this one weeps. Ghose, aware
that I may be softening, brusquely suggests that instead of shawls, I
envisage 25 bullet-ridden chiru spread out on the bed. The 'poor' trader, as
he describes himself, is wearing a designer wardrobe.

The Indian criminal justice system means he will spend an uncomfortable
fortnight in prison until bail is agreed, followed by an eight-year delay
before his case comes to court. 'Our main aim is not to punish the
criminals,' Ghose said, 'but to stop the trade. One arrest sends out a
warning to other traders. It buys time in the fight to save the chiru.'

Traditionally the shahtoosh has been handed down as an heirloom from mother
to daughter in affluent Indian families. The makers maintained it was made
either from the wool of the ibex goat or the neck feathers of the Siberian
geese or harvested from the wool shed by the chiru and caught on bushes. 'An
Indian government report proved you could spend hours collecting and gather
about enough to make a single sock,' said Kumar scathingly.

Historically, poachers have killed only in winter. Five years ago, a Chinese
research team discovered that calving females were also being targeted. Qica
Zhabaduojie, a Tibetan who for years led the fight against poachers,
described one massacre: 'Antelope bodies everywhere, pregnant females,
babies starved to death and half-eaten by vultures. Some baby chiru were
still suckling on their mother's dead bodies.' Zhabadoujie was later shot,
it is suspected by poachers.

The vogue for pashminas has increased demand. Poachers are difficult to
catch because the area is vast and the Chinese forces poorly equipped.
Another sting we attempted gave a clue to the ease of trade. This time my
partner was Christopher Totman, a New York designer.

We visited a luxury shop in a five-star hotel. This sting is backed by
Superintendent Shekhar Bajaj of the Criminal Bureau of Investigation. The
CBI has a fast-track legal process to bring a case to court within two

The shop-owner shows us cotton, silk and wool pashminas - prices from £50 to
£150. No, we insist, we want something very special. We show him a shahtoosh
we've been loaned. He disappears into the rear of the shop and emerges with
a shahtoosh.

He says the price is £350 - almost a year's salary for many Indians. He
hardly flinches when we say we'd like 35 or 40. The next afternoon, he
arrives late, empty-handed and suspicious. More reassurances and he
reappears an hour later with a second man and 35 shawls. When I give the
code word, the room is immediately filled with armed police. But the sting
fails. The man has brought pashmina and tried to trick us into paying treble
the price.

For years Kumar has waged a legal battle to force the state of Jammu and
Kashmir to abide by international law and protect the antelope. Next week
the Supreme Court of India will make its final decision, hopefully forcing
the state to take action.

∑ For more details on CFTWI's shahtoosh appeal, visit

Massive funding helps improve ecology in Tibet

LHASA, March 21 (Xinhuanet) -- The Tibet Autonomous Region in westChina has
so far poured nearly 400 million yuan (48 million US dollars) in ecological
and biodiversity conservation as part of local efforts to improve the local

The region has established five state-level and 13 regional nature reserves,
putting 402,700 hectares of local areas under protection.

From 1990, local efforts turned over 336,000 mu (22,400 hectares) to green
areas in valleys of the Yarlung Zangbo River, and Nyangqu River and Lhasa
River, two of its tributaries.

In addition, vegetation has been restored on 424,000 mu (28,286hectares) of
uncultivated beaches and flood lands in the valleys.

A 10-year surveillance with satellite remote sensing technologyindicates
that forest planting and water conservancy construction have played a
pivotal role in preserving local the ecological environment.

As a result, many wildlife on the brink of extinction, such as Tibetan red
deer, have re-emerged in the region.

Tibet is home to 488 avian species, 22 of which are exclusive to the region.

Thousands of bar-headed geese and ruddy sheld duck winter in Tibet. Tibet
has about 4,200 black-necked cranes in winter, accounting for more than 75
percent of the world total.

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Commemoration of Tibetan National Uprising Day in Hungary
  2. Shoulder to shoulder Armenians and Tibetans band together in solidarity
  3. Richard Gere to produce film on Tibet (IANS)
  4. Church storm over Tibetan monks (TBT)
  5. Butchered by the score ... for a shawl (TO)

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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