Shahtoosh Trade

Shahtoosh Trade Puts Endangered Antelopes, Other Wildlife at Risk
by Adam Roberts

"Fashioned for Extinction" is an enlightening new report from the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), in which authors Belinda Wright and Ashok Kumar expose the danger facing the endangered Tibetan antelope, or " chiru."

Traditionally, the chiru has been poached for its meat and the males' horns, which are used in traditional medicine. "Shahtoosh," the undercoat, or down of the chiru, literally translated from Persian means "king of wool." Today, the international illegal trade in this incredibly valuable fiber is the main driving force behind the poaching of the species.

Sadly, in order to get the rich, soft, warm wool, the chiru face a cruel fate. WPSI's report vividly describes the leghold traps traditionally used to catch chiru. The foot traps have "small pointed sticks projecting toward the center .... When an antelope or gazelle steps into the trap and tries to withdraw its leg, the sticks dig into the skin, holding the animal fast. Once ensnared, the animal is shot by the trappers."

In 1995, it was estimated that there were roughly 75,000 chiru left throughout its range across the Tibetan Plateau, although there are undoubtedly many fewer today. As a result of the intense pressure on the remaining chiru population, the species is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES),and products such as shahtoosh are prohibited from international commercialization.

However, in the past year alone, shahtoosh products have been seized in India, China and the United Kingdom. Most notably, an ongoing sting operation by the London Metropolitan police department dubbed "Operation Charm," resulted in the confiscation of 138 shahtoosh shawls with an estimated value of half a million dollars. The garments were exported from India to Britain.

The profitable black market trade in shahtoosh -- a single shahtoosh shawl can fetch well over $1,000 threatens not only the chiru, but other threatened and endangered species as well. Tiger bone, bear gall bladders and musk deer pods are all valuable products in traditional Asian medicine and are traded for the high-priced chiru wool. As long as this wildlife barter system functions without strict enforcement, all the species involved in this lucrative wildlife trade are at risk.

Debbie Banks, of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) explored the illegal trade in shahtoosh during her presentation to the 40th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, on March 4, 1998. Ms. Banks described the following:

Raw shahtoosh wool, carried on the backs of mules and yaks, is brought to China's borders with India and China by Tibetan nomads. There it is traditionally bartered at remote Himalayan passes. For the past ten years the preferred barter items have been wildlife products -- tiger bone, bear gall bladders and musk.

The profits in this barter trade are enormous, up to 600%,and the increasing demand for shahtoosh is proving disastrous for the tiger! More recently control of the trade has passed into the hands of sophisticated traders and smugglers. There is now a strong connection with the narcotics trade. Militants are also known to smuggle shahtoosh from Nepal to Pakistan and then back to Kashmir in India....

It is unrealistic to believe that the illegal trade in shahtoosh can be curbed unless consumer nations world-wide increase public awareness and enforcement efforts.

AWI joins EIA and WPSI in calling upon the governments of India, Nepal, and China to take immediate steps to end the trade in endangered chiru and tigers. Part of WPSI's recommendations focus on an enhanced information campaign to educate consumers about the increased dangers to wildlife when one purchases shahtoosh. Specifically, WPSI is urging the Indian government to require all shops selling shawls to post a notice describing the conservation risks involved in the illegal shahtoosh trade. All relevant governments must vigorously enforce the prohibition on the trade in products from the chiru and all other Appendix I CITES species, especially the highly endangered tiger.

Without extraordinary pressure from animal protection advocates to ensure the governments' will both to educate consumers and to enforce the international prohibition on the shahtoosh trade, the chiru could disappear forever, taking other fragile wild species into extinction with them.

Copies of Fashioned For Extinction: An Expose of the Shahtoosh Trade are available from:

The Wildlife Protection Society of India
Thapar House
124 Janpath
New Delhi 110001 India



AWI Quarterly Winter 1998, Volume 47 Number 1, p. 9