Dead Chic


The Tibetan antelope, or chiru, may be nearing extinction. According to reports by environmental groups, the numbers of the high-altitude ungulate, whose millions were reduced in recent years to an estimated 75,000 worldwide, have recently plummeted. The proximate cause is poaching, but the underlying pathology is consumerist.

Three months ago, the Voice reported warnings from the Wildlife Conservation Society that the international trade in shahtoosh, a shawl woven of hairs from the undercoat of chiru was posing a serious threat to the species. The trade is being driven by fashion. Over the past several years, shahtoosh have become a ne plus ultra luxury item. So fine that they can allegedly be drawn through a finger ring, the mesh shawls are typically dun colored and can cost thousands apiece on the black market. They’re the rich person’s pashmina. Yet, from a fashionista’s viewpoint, they’re even better than these fine cashmeres since they are so seasonlessly gossamer they can be worn year round.

Despite being protected since 1975 by CITES (the United Nations’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), as actively enforced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the trade in chiru continues unabated. Since the first article on shahtoosh appeared, the Voice has visited several local shops selling shahtoosh under the counter, and learned of a Manhattan socialite who regularly stages private parties where illegally imported scarves are sold at prices starting at $2000.

And last week, Chinese police seized 1000 pieces of antelope hides in a crackdown that left one poacher dead, two wounded, and led to 42 arrests. The bust was part of a government initiative, “Hoh Xil Number One Action,” named for the Mongolian Green Mountains (Hoh Xil). The Environmental News Service reported that Chinese police had also picked up 300 antelope skulls, a number of bear paws, and the heads of wild yaks in addition to the pelts. A dozen transport vehicles, nine rifles, and 8000 rounds of ammunition were part of the haul. Aside from the poacher’s needless death, the most troubling aspect of the slaughter was the fact that it occurred during springtime, when the rare animals congregate in highland meadows to graze and calve.

The chiru is considered a Class 1 protected animal in China. That puts it in the same category as the lovable giant panda. Unlike pandas, however, chirus aren’t warm and fuzzy and have virtually no zoo profile in the West. Few have heard of them, much less seen one. The heady cachet of owning a hard-to-obtain luxury commodity appears to induce in Western consumers a fairly familiar form of delusion. Most shahtoosh owners, if asked, will say they were unaware that the raw materials for their scarves were provided by a creature perhaps doomed to follow the
dodo. The prevalent fantasia holds that nimble mountain people pluck the wool from bushes where the antelopes rub themselves. In reality, the antelopes are always killed.

In April, a Hong Kong court fined an Indian businesswoman $39,000 and sentenced her to a suspended term of three months in prison for trading in shahtoosh. It was the first in a series of what conservationists call hopeful signs. When arrested in a Chinese hotel in 1997, Bharati Ashok Assomull claimed to have no knowledge that the 130 shawls in her possession were shahtoosh— despite an estimated market value for the goods of close to $600,000. “You failed by a long way,” Hong Kong magistrate David John Dufton told Assomull. “You simply took no steps to inquire.” In fact, Assomull had been advertising her shahtoosh sales in a flyer sent to Hong Kong’s top hotel. “The whole world is watching Hong Kong to see how it deals with this,” Judy Mills, director of the monitoring group Traffic East Asia, said hopefully. “We will see similar prosecutions and sentences follow this.”

Conservationist Dr. George Schaller, director of science at the Wildlife Conservation Society, seemed less sanguine about the fine’s deterrent effect: “A big shawl may cost $10,000, smaller ones cost $5000, so $39,000 equals about half a dozen shawls.” And, according to Manoj Kumar Misra, a senior official at the Indian office of the World Wide Fund for Nature, “trade in shahtoosh has gone up by 50 percent since the late 1980s. On any given day in New Delhi, you can find between 2000 and 2500 shawls on offer.” This violation of 1972 law calling for a minimum of a year in jail and a $588 fine for anyone caught trading in the shawls is so blatant that shahtoosh can sometimes be openly obtained from merchants operating in New Delhi’s official state stores.

Nearly all shahtoosh are woven in Kashmir from wool smuggled out of China; the Kashmiri government has consistently refused to ban the trade. And last month the Chinese National Forest Public Security Bureau sent an emergency telegram to forest security bureaus in Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Tibet: “In recent years, the amount of poaching activity . . . has been increasing dramatically. This trend has been noticed by the central government and by people overseas [italics added]. In order to protect the endangered Tibetan antelopes, the National Forest Public Security Bureau has decided to issue the following order. From April 10 to May 10 . . . officials will pool their resources to combat the poaching organizations.”

Given China’s abysmal environmental record, the missive was not necessarily cause for celebration. And the problem is not China’s alone. “Every person who wears a shahtoosh,” Schaller said in February, “has the bloody bodies of at least three Tibetan antelopes” on his or her shoulders. “Chirus cannot endure such unrestrained killings,” says Schaller of the current rate of slaughter. Chic kills.