Kochi: In less than a month, enforcement authorities have seized almost 400 illegal shahtoosh shawls over two separate operations.
On May 12, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and the Punjab forest department obtained 186 shahtoosh shawls from shops in Amritsar and Pathankot. Earlier, on April 23 and 24, the WCCB and Ladakh’s forest officials seized 213 shahtoosh shawls from traders in Leh, said sources.
Shahtoosh shawls are made out of the fur of the chiru or the Tibetan antelope, a species that has faced a huge population decline due to hunting, and is afforded the highest legal protection in India.
The illegal shahtoosh trade
The high mountain reaches of the Tibetan plateau in some parts of China, Bhutan and India are home to an antelope slightly larger than a goat: the chiru, or Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii). While the animals have soft underfur, or shahtoosh, that helps them survive in the cold harshness of the Himalaya, this fur is also its bane. Weavers fashion shahtoosh into luxury shawls; and the only way to lay your hands on shahtoosh is to kill a chiru.
As per some estimates, it takes the underfur of three or four dead chiru to make a single, pure shahtoosh shawl. Chiru, therefore, were hunted extensively. According to one estimate, their global population dipped severely in the 1980s and early 1990s and there were fewer than 73,000 left by the mid 1990s. Protection (including chiru being protected under international and national laws such as the CITES – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – and Wild Life Protection Act 1972) has helped those numbers rise slightly.
But poaching is still a threat for the chiru. Being in the shahtoosh business can be lucrative: a single shawl can fetch an easy USD 20,000 in the international market. In India, they can cost between INR 50,000 and INR 4,00,000, depending on the quality of the wool.
The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB, a statutory body under India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change) had commissioned a dedicated enforcement operation codename “Operation Soft Gold” from October 2018 to September 2020 to bring the issue of illegal shahtoosh trade to enforcement agencies within India and beyond. Along with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) the WCCB imparted capacity building and hands-on training on how to identify shahtoosh products and wool, to more than 450 officials of different enforcement agencies of Indian Customs, State Forest departments and Border Guarding Paramilitary Forces deployed at various border entry and exit points.
During a joint operation conducted by the WCCB and Ladakh forest department on April 23 and 24 this year, officials seized 213 shahtoosh shawls from traders, Ritesh Sarothiya, Regional Deputy Director, Northern Division, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, confirmed to The Wire.
On May 12, another joint operation with the Punjab Forest Department resulted in the confiscation of 186 shahtoosh shawls from shops in Amritsar and Pathankot in Punjab, Sarothiya said.
According to sources of the Wildlife Trust of India, an wildlife conservation organization which also monitors wildlife crime and implements programmes to curb this, the shops from where the confiscations were made were the same that were reported about in 2018-19, as part of a joint project undertaken by the WTI and the UNDP, under their “Secure Himalayas” initiative.
Though experts with their teams can distinguish shahtoosh shawls from others after careful visual assessment, samples have been sent to the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, for laboratory confirmation too, Sarothiya said. If that comes through, this set of two seizures in less than a month may be the biggest haul of illegal shahtoosh shawls India may have seen in recent times.
Such huge seizures of shahtoosh shawls are “not common”, Sarothiya told The Wire.
A WCCB study published in December 2022 had analysed the illegal trade in shahtoosh from 2009 to 2020 and confirmed 62 cases in India during this time. Most of the cases were detected at exit points, and were intended for international smuggling. The Indira Gandhi International airport New Delhi in India was the most preferred airport, and Air Cargo and Air Courier were often used by the traffickers, the study found. The illegal trade in shahtoosh often transits through and reaches the countries of Oman, China, Japan, Pakistan, United Kingdom, Spain, Hong Kong and Switzerland, it found.
“It is startling that the Tibetan Antelope is still being hunted in such huge numbers, despite the CITES ban that came into effect in 1975. It takes between three and four Tibetan antelopes to be killed to collect the wool (fine hairs of the underbelly) for a single shawl,” said Jose Louies, Chief of Enforcement, Wildlife Trust of India, in a press release.
According to some estimates, at least 1,400 chirus may have been killed for the nearly 400 shahtoosh shawls seized over less than a month. However, that may be difficult to estimate because pure shahtoosh shawls are very rare and weavers often combine it with pashmina (wool from the famed pashmina goat, a breed cultivated for its wool in the Himalaya), Sarothiya told The Wire.