Kashmir-made shawls: a woolly conservation issue

Sentencing in New Jersey Nov. 6 is first case in the US for the protection of the Tibetan antelope in China.

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For 10 hours a day, Mushtaz Ahmad weaves one of the world's most precious fibers - wool from the Tibetan antelope, or chiru. So luxuriously soft and warm are the shahtoosh shawls that come off Mr. Ahmad's wooden loom that their retail price runs into the thousands of dollars.

Mr. Ahmad's home state of Jammu and Kashmir, the only place the precious garments are made, has been the lone holdout in the international ban on the shahtoosh trade. The shawls have always been available here, even though trade has been banned since 1975 under a United Nations convention on endangered species. But even as the state government last week reannounced an "in principle ban," implementation may be a long time coming.

In a region where more than a decade of separatist struggles has decimated a once thriving tourist industry, Kashmir officials have long refused to enforce the ban. "We cannot save the animal at the cost of humans and vice versa," says Kashmir's Industry Minister, Shiekh Mustaffa Kumal. Before they attempt enforcement, the state wants an auction of current stocks, amnesty for shawl owners, and a compensation package for the estimated 20,000 weavers, embroiderers, spinners, and sellers in the industry. Dr. Kumal points out that a compensation package for tiger taxidermists took a decade to implement because the central government had to agree to the package and provide funding. Yet the Wildlife Protection Society of India, which brought suit against the state this summer to force the chiru issue, says that ban too has failed: Tiger bones, used in traditional Chinese medicine, are traded for chiru on the Tibetan/Indian border - one bag of bones buys two bags of wool.

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Kashmir traders also maintain that the chiru is not killed to make shawls. At his home in Srinagar, Gulam Hasson Yarr wiggles his impersonation of an animal he's never seen: He says the chiru scratches off its winter coat onto rocks and bushes.

But scientist George Schaller has seen the chiru where they live, and is working to stop the spin on the traders' yarn. On trips to the Tibetan plateau, where the arid landscape allows few bushes, Dr. Schaller says in the late '80s he saw more carcasses piling up in nomad huts, and more dealers carrying sacks of wool. Herdsmen told him that Chinese hunters were shooting the animals. Schaller, director of science for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, says 30,000 chiru could once be seen in a single herd. Five years ago, he estimated that 75,000 were left, and today the numbers are certainly lower.

The shahtoosh trade has undergone increasing scrutiny since Schaller began documenting the chiru's decline. On Nov. 6, two traders and a dealer will be sentenced in New Jersey; the case is the first criminal prosecution in the United States involving shahtoosh. The Bombay-based trader could be fined up to $ 500,000 and the US importers face a fine of $25,000 each and/or six months in jail.

In the green-carpeted parlor of a Srinagar weaving house, men sit cross-legged, sipping tea and trading conspiracies. Seller Hilal Ahmad Bazaz says, "there are some agencies working behind [the ban]. Because Kashmir is demanding freedom, India is taking revenge." Wholesaler Yarr moans that "the Hindus are making a decision against us because we are Muslims." Haji Abdul Hamid Ganaie, president of the Pashmina and Shahtoosh Weavers Association, says the US blames Kashmir for the chiru killings because it is scared of the Chinese.

Today Kashmiris are being told to make more pashmina shawls. But while pashmina is the weave of a renewable resource (farmed goat), it may be an endangered fashion item. British Vogue declared it "out" last August. Furthermore, the proud shahtoosh artisans see pashmina as a major demotion - akin to a poet penning a soap opera and being paid half the money to do so.

As an international fashion fad depleted a species, an international convention on the rights of that animal is unraveling an ancient art and trade. Yarr says people will start braving Kashmir's violence to come and buy his shawls. "This is the softest and warmest material on earth, it's for kings and the common man, it will never leave. This craze, it will never die."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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