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Imagine wearing four dead animals around your shoulders. That’s the average number of Chiru antelopes it takes to make just one shahtoosh shawl. And the Chiru, today, is on the brink of extinction.

The shah of shawls

Shahtoosh literally means the ‘king of fine wool’ in Persian. It is made from the down fur of the Chiru antelope found in India, China and Nepal. It lives at an altitude of 5,000 metres and above and has extremely light fur that is incredibly warm as well.

Chiru are shy and solitary by nature that makes creating an accurate assessment of their population difficult.

Because of its fine quality, it was also hard to weave into a cloth but the artisans of Kashmir, who were already making fine pashmina shawls (made from the wool of the pashmina goat), had the skills to weave this fine fur into a fabric. It is said that Mirza Muhammad Haider Dughlat, who ruled Kashmir from 1540 to 1551, was the first one to introduce shahtoosh weaving to the region. To this day, this craft of weaving fine pashmina and shahtoosh shawls is almost solely restricted to this region.

With their arrival into the subcontinent, the British were the first ones to recognise the importance of, and introduce, fine pashmina and shahtoosh shawls to the world. And with the decline of the popularity of mink and fur coats in the United States in the early 1980s, the shahtoosh took their place as a highly coveted and prized wardrobe accessory.

Today, a shahtoosh shawl can sell for anywhere between Rs 300,000 to Rs 1,500,000 depending on its quality and embroidery. A shahtoosh shawl is so fine that a standard one-by-two metre shawl can be pulled through a finger ring.

Unfortunately, unlike the pashmina shawl, which can be made by shearing off wool from live pashmina goats, the down fur of the Chiru can only be obtained by poaching and murdering them. Due to this trade, the animal has almost become extinct in Nepal.

Chiru: here today, (almost) gone tomorrow

According to a World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) estimate, there are around 75,000 to 100,000 Chirus living in the wild today.

“That is not a huge population for an antelope, especially a slow-breeding one like the Chiru,” said Uzma Khan, the Director Biodiversity at the WWF in Pakistan, “they give birth to one offspring per year and half of those die within two months of their birth.” In the past 20 years alone, there has been an alarming 50 per cent decline in the antelopes’ population.

Drop that shawl: the ban on shahtoosh

“Usually provincial wildlife laws prevent exploitation of local species and for special exotic species there are bills,” related Uzma Khan. Shahtoosh was banned internationally when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) came into force in 1975. It is banned in over 150 countries around the world. Possessing a shahtoosh shawl (without a permit) in these countries can result in the imposition of a heavy fine and imprisonment.

A high-profile campaign from the mid to late 1990s in the United States where several celebrities and socialites were targeted and asked to surrender their prized shawls popularised the ban. It was banned in India in 1991 and formally in Jammu and Kashmir in 2000.

“It was approved early last year,” related Uzma Khan talking about where Pakistan stood on the ban, “The ban was made under a convention of which Pakistan is a signatory.”

What about those who already possess a shahtoosh shawl? “If it was bought as a personal item many, many years ago, then it’s fine to keep one,” responded Uzma Khan, “But if you have shahtoosh and intend to use it for commercial purposes, then you require a Cites permit. It’s illegal all over the world.”

Demise of a centuries old family tradition

When the trade was banned in Jammu and Kashmir in 2000, thousands of workers not only lost their livelihoods but also a very important tradition — the craft of weaving shahtoosh shawls had been passed down through generations for centuries.

“When a species has declined to an extent that its trade has been banned, that essentially means that it was badly exploited,” said Uzma Khan, “Conservation is never against taking animals as long as it is done sustainably. WWF supports trophy-hunting programmes because they sustain communities and protect wildlife. There are other options (perhaps other animals such as sheep) that these families can adapt their skills and trade to.”

Can these antelopes be bred in captivity?

Advocates of the shahtoosh industry claim that a possible solution would be to breed the antelope in specialised farms to increase their population.

“Chirus are solitary animals that are found on mountains and steep slopes,” responded Uzma Khan to the suggestion, “It would be very difficult to breed them because they live in a very special environment that is hard to replicate.

“Animals that are solitary, as the Chiru, are usually very shy. Experience tells us such species are hard to breed,” she emphasised adding that efforts to breed the Grey Goral, another species of small mountain antelope, found in Pakistan and on the brink of extinction, haven’t been successful.

Alive and underground

A lot of alleged shahtoosh (or ‘toosh’ as they are also called in the local lingo) shawls that are sold in the market are heavily mixed with cashmere or are cashmere shawls being sold to unsuspecting customers. But that doesn’t mean the trade in shahtoosh has ceased completely.

Despite the ban, the underground trade in shahtoosh shawls continues to this day. These precious shawls are often smuggled through Tibet, Bhutan and China, and are still highly coveted by the members of the world’s rich and powerful. In some places, especially in Kashmir, it is a tradition and considered a matter of great pride and prestige for a newly wed bride to have at least one shahtoosh shawl in her dowry.

Before you get tempted to spend money on a shawl so exquisite that it can pass through a ring easily, with embroidery so fine that it makes you wonder whether a divine hand was involved in making it, ask yourself: is there blood on your shawl?