By Albert Samaha
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As luxury items go, it's almost disappointing. The undyed color is mouse brown. The texture resembles surgical gauze. It costs as much as a Rolex and yet has no label glitz and little high-concept value. In fact, it's so reverse chic you'd notice it only as a shred of pale wool knotted casually under a Gucci raincoat, or tucked into one of Commes des Garcons' down-filled "shirts."
It's a scarf called shahtoosh, and is the must-have accessory this season, touted in Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Elle. No self-respecting fashion editor is without one. So gossamer that it can allegedly be drawn through a wedding ring, shahtooshwill be the most popular item warming the dewlaps of the fashionistas as Seventh on Sixth convenes this week. What the glamour herd may be unaware of is that they're draping themselves not so much in luxury as in a complex and bloody international battle involving illegal trade in endangered species and conservationists' attempts to halt the slaughter of a rare and embattled animal.
Everyone knows the whims of fashion are heedless. American robber barons built fortunes on a continental fascination with beaver, as trappers decimated native populations of these intelligent and social mammals. A turn-of-the-century fad for white egret feathers drove the birds to the brink of extinction. So it is with the chiru, a compact, long-horned antelope inhabiting the arid, treeless, and nearly inaccessible steppe of the Tibetan Plateau in China at elevations of 14,000 feet. For centuries, wool from the chiru was exported from Tibet to Kashmir, where artisans wove it into shahtoosh. With prices that currently begin at more than $1000, scarves made from the so-called King of Wool have long been collected and treated as heirlooms by the subcontinent's super-rich. Over the past two decades, however, a taste for shahtooshhas moved West on a tide of exoticism. While ravers and budget travelers return from India hauling souvenirs of tie-dye and fake Nepalese amber, the cognoscenti stuff their Prada totes with dun-colored scarves costing thousands each.
On a trip to India last year, one European fashion editor bought six of the scarves and then had them dyed to match the jewel tones of her wardrobe. The daughter of a Greek shipping tycoon recently spent $20,000 on an even dozen. A revered Japanese designer once distributed shahtooshto influential fashion editors as Christmas presents. And a famed English painter makes a shahtooshpart of each new boyfriend's trousseau.
But anyone with the money can purchase shahtoosh under the counter at various Manhattan retail stores, through a network of local wholesalers, and on the Web. In their excellent report on the shahtooshtrade, Fashioned for Extinction, Belinda Wright and Ashok Kumar found numerous international traders dealing over the Internet in "ring shawls."
Tibetan antelopes are listed under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, have been included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1975, and are listed under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Yet buyers somehow remain ignorant of the fact that each scarf equals the lives of several rare antelopes. Unlike sheep groomed for cashmere and pashmina, the chiru is killed. Smuggling shahtooshis illegal in the United States, India, Europe, and Japan, and yet, "I always thought they were overstating the case a little," as one fashion editor recently said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I thought it was just one of those pet projects of the eco-nags."
A prevalent fantasy about shahtooshis that coveted "chin hairs" shed by chiru are plucked from bushes by nimble mountain folk. "Pure nonsense," says Dorene Bolze, the Wildlife Conservation Society's former director for policy. In fact, it is the winter undercoat of the chiru that's prized. Leghold traps are the method preferred by hunters on the Tibetan Plateau. Gold prospectors in Xinjiang and Qinghai have been linked to wholesale machine-gun slaughters. And, while certain of the migratory herds spend part of each year within the protected boundaries of the 334,000-square-kilometer Chang Tang Reserve in Tibet, poachers still manage to make off with thousands of hides.
In the winter of 199596 alone, says a report by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an antipoaching patrol in Chang Tang confiscated the pelts of over 1600 dead chiru; each would fetch about $50 on the black market. By the time it reached market as finished product, however, the worth of a dead chiru would soar by eye-popping multiples. A horde of shahtoosh seized two years ago in London were valued as high as $17,600 apiece.
"The killing and smuggling continues," says Dr. George Schaller, director for science of the Wildlife Conservation Society, despite the fact that "in China, the chiru is considered a Class-I protected animal, in the same category as giant panda." Every person who wears a shahtooshshawl, says Schaller, "has the bloody bodies of at least three Tibetan antelopes" on his or her shoulders: "Chirus cannot endure such unrestrained killing." To make matters worse, poachers are known to trade antelope wool for the body parts of other endangered species tiger bone and musk, bear gallbladders used in Chinese medicine. And some reports have linked the lucrative trade to the support of militant rebels in Kashmir.
Yet there is no sign that the killing driven by demand from the international fashion industry will end anytime soon. "Almost from my feet, away to the north and east, as far as the eye could reach, were thousands upon thousands of doe antelope with their young," Captain C.G. Rawling, an early Western visitor to the Tibetan Plateau, was moved to write in 1903. "We could see in the extreme distance a continuous stream of fresh herds steadily approaching; there could not have been less than 15,000 or 20,000 visible at one time." According to Wright and Kumar's report, there were perhaps 1 million chiru as recently as a decade ago. At last count, fewer than 75,000 survive.
Research assistance by Vrinda Condillac
At least three chiru are killed to make one shahtoosh scarf.
photo: ©Dr. George Schaller / WPSI