NEW DELHI — It lacks the allure of fur and looks downright plain to the unpracticed eye, but wealthy buyers know a shahtoosh shawl is a royal wrap.
And Indian environmentalists know even one means the death of at least three endangered antelopes. They call it a national disgrace.
"It shocks and upsets me that in a country where nature is worshiped, a socialite will arrive at a party practically wearing three or more dead animals," says Iqbal Malik, a noted environmentalist.
Six centuries of tradition dictate that the finest shahtoosh shawls are woven in the Indian hill city of Srinagar. The wool comes from the chiru, an endangered antelope species that wanders in the icy heights of the Chinese province of Tibet.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates 18,000 chirus are killed every year to meet the demand for shahtoosh shawls, which can cost hundreds of dollars.
Shahtoosh, which means "king of wools" in Persian, is considered the warmest natural fiber in the world. The shawls are renowned for providing enveloping warmth while being thin enough to be pulled through a finger ring.
The chiru grows its coveted wool to protect itself from the harsh climate of Tibet's Changtang Valley. Each year Indian traders illicitly exchange the skin, nails, and bones of endangered tigers for shahtoosh supplied by Tibetans. Tiger parts are highly valued in China where they are considered to have healing properties.
Trade in both tiger parts and chiru wool is banned, but enforcing the law has proved difficult. Traders with goods packed on yaks and mules sneak across the long and inhospitable Indo-Tibetan border unchecked.
Shahtoosh shawls often form part of a wealthy bride's trousseau in northern India. Others find their way overseas despite the trade ban.
Ms. Malik, the environmentalist, says border officials are poorly trained. "The average custom officer or border patrol constable would not recognize a shahtoosh shawl if he saw one," she says.
With a little research and resourcefulness, a shopper can find the shawls in New Delhi.
Prices can be as steep as 50,000 to 60,000 rupees ($1,400 to $1,700), and a shawl smuggled overseas goes for double that.
A single antelope yields only about 150 grams (5-1/4 ounces) of wool and a single shawl requires about 340 grams (12 ounces), meaning three chirus must be killed for every shawl.
The inhospitable terrain makes keeping count of chirus difficult, but their numbers are believed to be steadily depleting.