Farm chirus, save shahtoosh

The shahtoosh shawl is the most prized of all, beloved of Mughal emperors. It is very warm, yet to soft and fine that it passes through a ring. But buying a shahtoosh shawl today is illegal, and the industry is dying.

Why? Because the animal that yields shahtoosh, the chiru or Tibetan antelope, is becoming extinct through relentless hunting.

Shahtoosh should not be confused with pashmina, the fine fleece of the pashmina goat. Pashmina can be combed out of the coat of the live animal. But shahtoosh comes from the undercoat of the chiru, lying beneath the outer coat, and cannot be harvested without skinning (and hence killing) the animal.

Once, traders spread the myth that the chiru rubbed its neck against rocks, shatoosh fell off, and was gathered by hunters. This was a plain lie. In fact hunters had to kill the animal, and needed to kill at least three chirus to get enough shatoosh for a full shawl.

In this context, the chiru is more like the mink (which also has to be killed to harvest its fur) than the pashmina goat (which can be sheared without harming it).

Once, millions of chirus roamed the high Tibetan plateau. Today the number is down to some thousands. There is a global ban on hunting chirus and trading in shahtoosh. Yet illegal hunting continues unchecked.

The official ban has simply driven the market for shahtoosh underground. Prices in the black market have gone sky-high ($ 20,000 or Rs 9 lakhs for one shawl). At these prices the profitability of poaching overwhelms any official ban. The few existing guards are speedily bribed and become part of the poaching racket. So, the chiru (and the shatoosh industry of Kashmir) seems doomed to extinction.

Is there a way out? Yes, a very simple one. Instead of continuing with a ban that does not work, the government should permit the chiru to be farmed in Ladakh, with local farmers getting the profits and not poachers. There are many international precedents for saving animals from extinction through farming.

The softest, warmest down in Europe was always eider-down, the softest, fluffiest feathers of the eider duck. It was hunted relentlessly for eider-down, and became extinct in some European locations. But in Iceland a law was enacted in 1281 making eider ducks the property of farmers on whose land they bred. In consequence, Iceland’s farmers have always protected their eider ducks from natural predators (foxes, ravens) and poachers. The farmers harvest down from the live birds, and eider-down has become a billion-dollar business in Iceland. The down is stuffed into pillows and quilts and sold at fancy prices.

In Africa, the elephant and rhino were hunted to near-extinction. But today these animals are protected in large game reserves, many privately owned. Even in government reserves, local people are given a percentage of tourism and hunting fees, to give them a stake in protecting the animals. In consequence, the elephant population has risen so massively as to threaten farmers, so elephants are being culled to control their numbers.

In South America, the vicuna and alpaca, relatives of the llama, both yield fine wool. The vicuna was hunted to the verge of extinction despite a ban on all hunting. By contrast, the alpaca population today runs into millions because it is farmed. Alpaca farmers and weavers both earn good incomes.

In India, Nepal and China, the pashmina goat is farmed, and supports thousands of farmers and weavers. The pashmina population is growing and the pashmina trade is flourishing. By contrast the chiru population is shrinking and shahtoosh weavers are becoming extinct.

The solution is obvious. We must allow the chiru to be farmed and harvested. The farmed chiru will have to be killed selectively, just as minks are killed for their fur. Because of this, chiru farming is opposed by two groups of animal lovers.

One group opposes any animal killing on ethical grounds. However, the same opposition is not voiced to killing goats and buffalos, and using their skin for shoes, wallets, hand-bags and jackets. Farming chirus will be no more unethical than farming goats for meat and skin.

Other critics say that if chiru farms are allowed, poachers will pass off wild chirus as farmed chirus. The risk undoubtedly exists. But it can be reduced by allowing shawls to be woven only within regulated farms, and certifying these as farm-based. Anyway, chirus barely exist in India: they are almost all in Tibet.

If chiru-farming spreads quickly, the price of shahtoosh shawls will crash. This will make poaching less profitable and attractive. Low shahtoosh prices will greatly reduce the money-power of poachers that today enables them to buy all officials. In any event, farm-rearing will ensure that the chiru flourishes in farms, and does not become extinct.

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