Endangered Species Handbook

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Tibetan Antelope

      Few people have ever heard of an antelope known as the Chiru, or the Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), yet it produces shahtoosh, a wool far more valuable than gold.  This statuesque animal is native to treeless steppe above 5,000 meters in Chinese Tibet and adjacent northwest India.  Its extremely lightweight, delicate wool has traditionally been woven into shawls and sold in a limited trade in Tibet and Kashmir, India.  Within the past few decades, however, a growing market has developed in major cities in India, Nepal, several western countries and Japan (Schaller 1998). 
      The Chiru has been listed on Appendix I of CITES since 1979, a listing which bans commercial international trade, and CITES Parties passed a resolution (Resolution Conf. 11.8) on the “Conservation of and control of trade in Tibetan antelope” in 2000.  It is totally protected by Indian (Kumar 1993) and Chinese law (Schaller 1996).  Until recently, however, the major trading state of Kashmir in India allowed trade in shahtoosh, in defiance of a ban included in the national Indian Wildlife Protection Act (Currey 1996).  In Tibet, illegal hunting, even by government officials, supplies the trade, with many thousands of Chiru killed each year--with the wool smuggled to India (Schaller 1998).
      Populations in India probably do not exceed 200 animals, while in Tibet these antelope were estimated to number fewer than 75,000 animals in the mid-1990s, reduced from an estimated million animals a century ago.  Great herds were seen on the steppe in the 19th century (Schaller 1998).  The 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals listed the species as Vulnerable.  In the 2000 version of the list, the species was upgraded to Endangered.  Illegal trade and continued killing have pushed the species closer to extinction, with an estimated 20,000 killed per year.
      In spite of this antelope's remote habitat, the enormous prices paid for shahtoosh (up to $1,250 per kilogram), and low fines for infractions, have fueled this illegal trade (Kumar 1993).  Dr. George Schaller, who has conducted many years of research on Himalayan wildlife, found this wool being illegally traded in a Nepalese town on the Indian border in the early 1990s (Kumar 1993).  Forty shawls of shahtoosh were seen in several shops in New Delhi in 1993; half of these were in one shop, which is state-owned (Kumar 1993).  Indian tradesmen have misrepresented the wool as obtained from bushes that the antelope rubbed up against; in fact, Chiru are killed to obtain the wool (Schaller 1996).  In the early 1990s, shawls retailed at $2,000 to $8,500 in western markets.  A single Chiru provides about 150 grams of wool, and each scarf represents at least two dead Chirus, according to Schaller (1996, 1998).   In 1992, the wool of at least 13,000 Chirus was confiscated in India (Schaller 1996), and in 1993 and 1994, the wool of at least 17,000 Chirus reached Indian markets (Schaller 1998).  In June 1993, Indian Customs officers at Delhi airport seized a shipment of 105 kilograms of shahtoosh arriving from Katmandu, Nepal (Kumar 1993). 
      Large numbers of Chiru are poached near the Chang Tang Reserve, established in 1993 to preserve Tibet's wildlife, and smugglers trade shahtoosh for Tiger skins and bones, providing conduits through which the contraband travels (Currey 1996).  Schaller saw Tibetans in the early 1990s with truckloads of Chiru hides, and at least one driver was arrested with 300 hides.  Families moved into the Aru Basin, a great stronghold for the species within the Chang Tang Reserve, specifically to hunt Chiru in 1991 (Schaller 1998).  These previously impoverished nomads were able to purchase a truck from the profits of their sale of Chiru hides, which they offered to Schaller (1998) and his group in 1992 for the equivalent of $28 each (Schaller 1998). In 1999, government officials came upon seven herds of just-slaughtered Chiru, including many females and newborns.  Several wildlife organizations are organizing anti-poaching teams, but in such an enormous territory, patrolling every herd will not be possible.  The herds are in constant motion, migrating from summer to winter areas.  The Tibet Forest Bureau began an effort in the early 1990s to stop the shahtoosh trade, raising the fine for killing Chiru to $118.  Ten poachers were arrested in a two-month period in 1993, and checkpoints were set up in several areas (Schaller 1998).  In 1995-1996, patrols in remote portions of Qinghai in western China encountered Chinese hunters armed with high-powered rifles and confiscated more than 1,600 Chiru hides (Schaller 1998).  China's State Council issued a directive in 1996 that Chirus must receive better protection (Schaller 1998).
      A record shipment of 400 kilograms of shahtoosh that had originated in Tibet was seized in northern India in January, 1994.  Samples were sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory, which verified them as wool from the Chiru, according to TRAFFIC International (1994).  Indian courts released the 400 kilograms of seized shahtoosh in May 1996 after requests from tradesmen who claimed that the wool was perishable, according to TRAFFIC India.  This decision was challenged by TRAFFIC India to India's Supreme Court which overturned the lower court's decision, keeping the wool in the possession of Customs authorities until the case was decided.   
      Research by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in Delhi uncovered large quantities of shahtoosh being sold in the mid-1990s, having been manufactured in factories in Kashmir (Currey 1996).  A Delhi salesman offered to supply 200 to 300 shahtoosh shawls every three months, claiming that his best customers were Germans, French, Italians and Japanese, who provided a demand that exceeded supply (Currey 1996).  In Bombay and Calcutta, likewise, this wool is readily available and openly sold, marketed at $1,085 a shawl, with bulk orders of 15 shawls sold for $805 each (Currey 1996).  One Calcutta dealer alone offered to supply 10 shahtoosh shawls every three months, and even instructed on methods of smuggling them abroad labeled as "handicrafts" with double invoices.  Shahtoosh shawls offered at a government emporium in Bombay had official Kashmir Government labels and stamps and came with a certificate of authenticity (Currey 1996).  The Bombay store offered 50 shawls per month (Currey 1996).  Illegal trade has not stopped in spite of new education campaigns and a tightening of national legislation.  The Indian Government appears to have little interest in enforcing its own regulations prohibiting sale of shahtoosh, although Kashmir finally banned sales in 2000 after much publicity on their role in endangering this animal.  Elsewhere in the world, shahtoosh is still available.  On January 22, 1997, for example, 21 shahtoosh shawls were confiscated in Hong Kong from a hotel room after a raid; the guilty party was fined $2,580 two years later, in 1999 (TRAFFIC Bulletin 1999).
      The New York luxury department store, Bergdorf Goodman, advertised shahtoosh in 1995 as a "royal and rare" fabric, making incorrect statements about the wool having been obtained from the Mountain Ibex goat of Tibet which "sheds its down undercoat by scratching itself against low trees and bushes" from where it is gathered by local shepherds (Schaller 1998).  This misinformation created the false impression that the wool was legally obtained --without hurting the animals--by hardworking, indigenous people, in order to market it as a "politically correct luxury item" (Schaller 1998).  Subsequently, scarves and shawls were removed from the shelves of luxury stores in the United States, and the CITES Authorities in Italy and France took action against several major fashion houses.  In February 1997, police in London seized 200 shahtoosh shawls worth an estimated $500,000 (Schaller 1998).  Many famous and wealthy New York City socialites have worn these shawls, and in the late 1990s, many were interviewed during an investigation to find the stores illegally selling the shawls.  By 1999, the price of a shahtoosh shawl had risen to $10,000. 
      This situation is very dire for the Tibetan Antelope.  A major campaign is needed to stop this trade.  Efforts to guard wild herds and police markets for shawls and other goods made from this wool have been underfunded.  The idea of ranching Chirus for their wool has been proposed, but Schaller considers such an idea disastrous for this species (Kumar 1993).  Schaller has been interviewed by CNN several times about this situation, and he has expressed his extreme concern about the trade, stating that tens of thousands of Chiru are being killed, threatening the very survival of the species.

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