Inside the Illegal Trade of $20,000 Shawls Made From an Endangered Animal
Mushtaq Beigh remembers the first time his hands touched the feathery light yarn of shahtoosh. It was decades ago, during winter, when the cloud-like wool would land in his house in Srinagar, located in what is now the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, India. Inside their home, Beigh's parents would teach him how to work each strand before spinning it.
"It's as thin as the hair on your head," the 58-year-old Kashmiri shawl artisan and trader told VICE, with an unmistakable nostalgic tinge in his voice about the time decades ago. "Only the most delicate and soft hands could weave them."
While most people are aware of the exquisite Kashmiri pashmina, whose reputation abroad helped bolster its lucrative trade in India, only the wealthy are likely familiar with the shahtoosh. "A pashmina is plain in front of it," said Beigh. While a pashmina fiber's thickness is around 12 microns, a shahtoosh's stands at around 10. To put that into perspective, the famed merino wool is around 18 to 24 microns, while a human hair is approximately 70 microns. "There's nothing quite like the shahtoosh, and there never will be."
While most people are aware of the exquisite Kashmiri pashmina, whose reputation abroad helped bolster its lucrative trade in India, only the wealthy are likely familiar with the shahtoosh.
Shahtoosh, which is Persian for the "king of wool," is spun from the hair of a Grade A endangered species, a category that affords the animal the highest level of protection. The Tibetan antelope – locally known as chiru – is usually found in subzero temperatures in the Changtang area in Tibet. If you’ve never heard of shahtoosh, it's probably because its derivatives have been banned since 1975, triggered by an alarming discovery by top wildlife conservationists that mass numbers of chirus were brutally killed to sustain the trade.
Despite the ban and severe punishments linked to flouting its rules, wildlife and border authorities continue to seize hundreds of shahtoosh items, especially shawls, across the world every year. Experts say that the illicit trade still thrives and threatens the dwindling population of chirus.
Studies found that it took hair from about four chirus to make one shahtoosh shawl or scarf. Since chirus can't be domesticated, the only way to get the wool is to kill them and strip the hair off their carcasses. National Geographic reported in 2019 that the global demand for shahtoosh wiped out 90 percent of the Tibetan antelope population, which was in the millions in decades past. A 2020 report in a state-run newspaper in China said the figure now stands at around 200,000. However, this was after the species almost went extinct, and this figure was hailed as a victory made possible by dedicated efforts. In the neighbouring Trans-Himalayan desert in Ladakh, India, the chiru population stands at around 300.
National Geographic reported in 2019 that the global demand for shahtoosh wiped out 90 percent of the Tibetan antelope population, which was in the millions in decades past. A 2020 report in a state-run newspaper in China said the figure now stands at around 200,000.
Shahtoosh has since become somewhat of a myth, especially with stories such as Beigh's – a fourth-generation Kashmiri craftsman who is himself a rarity for having inherited the tradition of shahtoosh weaving from his family. But the ban meant Beigh had to shift to making pashmina instead.
At some point, owning a shahtoosh was somewhat of a status symbol, with the world's rich and mighty willing to shell out $20,000 a piece. Shahtoosh has been immortalised in history books, cherished by Mughal emperors such as Akbar and Shah Jahan, who wore it flamboyantly and gifted it to kings and queens across the world.
Today, owning or selling a shahtoosh product will most definitely land you in jail, or cost you a hefty fine of $5,421 in Switzerland or $100,000 in the U.S. In India, the fine is a meagre $66. "The shahtoosh was, and still is, a class symbol. It's an object that only the aristocracy could afford," said wildlife conservationist Ananda Banerjee, who has researched the shahtoosh trade in India. "Even now, some pashminas are passed off as shahtoosh, or its replicas are found on street markets. But the pure shahtoosh is on a different level, of both wool and craftsmanship."
After the ban made the cruelty of the trade widely acknowledged, confessing to owning a shahtoosh slowly started becoming non-PC. In the mid-1990s, The New York Times reported that Hermès and Yves Saint Laurent "discreetly" removed shahtoosh shawls from their collections. In one infamous interview, American TV personality Martha Stewart told NYT that she always travels with her shahtoosh shawl, to which an editor's note was later added to say Stewart's shawl is "not an actual shahtoosh."
The rich and powerful came under tough scrutiny, too. In the U.S., Vanity Fair reported over a hundred "dowagers, heiresses and trophy wives" receiving subpoenas to give up their shahtoosh items, while another investigation found the rich women of Hong Kong subverting laws to retain their shahtoosh shawls. In India, a dramatic raid took place in 1999, when the country's elite were gathered at a five-star hotel for an auction, which included a shahtoosh product. They were raided, and the auctioneers taken in police custody.
Tales of the exquisite craftsmanship of shahtoosh are still narrated in whispers – more so because of its illicit status. On November 24, five Kashmiri men were convicted for possessing shahtoosh shawls and selling them from a shop inside a luxury hotel in the Indian capital of New Delhi. Eight shahtoosh shawls were recovered from them, which could mean around 32 dead chirus.
It was not an isolated incident. Between 2000 and 2014, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) recorded the seizure of 738 shawls, two kurtas, two scarves and 461 kilos of shahtoosh wool. One raid in 2013 took place in Nepal, where 1,000 kilos of shahtoosh was recovered – the largest-ever haul for the country, and which meant around 10,000 dead chirus. The consignment was headed for India.
Arrests of shahtoosh traders every year prove that this prized fabric continues to be part of a murky, illegal and transnational trade. And despite being frowned upon, it's thriving.
Tito Joseph, the programme manager of the WPSI, an NGO that provides intelligence on the illicit shahtoosh trade to the government, told VICE that around 300 shahtoosh shawls were seized by the customs authorities in India between October 2018 and June 2019. That's equivalent to over a thousand dead chirus. "There is a well-established network behind this illegal trade, where the product ends up from India to countries like Thailand, Switzerland and Dubai," said Joseph. "Raids are still going on, even after so many restrictions in different countries."
"There is a well-established network behind this trade, where the product ends up from India to countries like Thailand, Switzerland and Dubai. Raids are still going on, even after so many restrictions in different countries."
Dr Saket Badola, the India head of global wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, said the demand for shahtoosh comes from elite buyers in West Asia, Switzerland, Hong Kong, China, the U.K., Italy, the U.S. and Japan – all through a sophisticated network of traders and sellers. "There are indications that the contact between a seller and buyer has recently moved on to cyberspace, as it provides a much safer and wider platform for making connections," he said.
India remains the weaving and producing hub for shahtoosh. "There are buyers who are ready to pay a fortune for the shawl, and there are people who are ready to make it for a huge profit. It's as simple as that," said Jose Louies, who looks into the wildlife trade for the Wildlife Trust of India. There are shahtoosh shawl weavers in Kashmir even today, he added. "Our contacts [there] already have evidence."
Badola added that while it's not proven, the continuous shahtoosh seizures strongly indicate that informal shahtoosh weaving infrastructures aid its illicit production.
In Kashmir, most traditional weavers like Beigh say they gave up the shahtoosh weaving tradition when the ban came into effect. Sheikh Ashiq, the president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), told VICE that after the ban, some 20,000-25,000 shahtoosh weavers and craftspeople shifted to pashmina. "No matter what field, there will always be illicit activity around it. The ones who indulge in these activities hurt everyone, including the ones who had it as a centuries-old tradition," he said.
Joseph said that the illegal shahtoosh trade has a new trend, wherein manufacturers mix shahtoosh wool with pashmina and other kinds of wool. "The mixing of shahtoosh wool has led to the traders using legal loopholes to convince the court that it's not really shahtoosh," he said. "Unofficially, they’re also putting pressure on the wildlife officials to let them go."
The trade route has evolved, too. "The shahtoosh wool continues to come from Tibet, and is mostly turned into products in India," said Joseph. But the wool, he added, is now coming via different routes such as through Nepal or Uttarakhand, where borders are porous. Louies added that in the recent past, the exit routes have changed to multiple Indian airports, as opposed to Delhi, which used to be the main exit route.
The airports are the prime sites of shahtoosh seizures in India, Badola added. "Air cargo/couriers are fast emerging as the preferred mode of trafficking these products," he said. "Common practices of misdeclaring the shahtoosh products as pashmina or cashmere wool, or concealing them in a large consignment of woollen products are the usual practices employed by traffickers."
"Common practices of misdeclaring the shahtoosh products as pashmina or cashmere wool, or concealing them in a large consignment of woollen products are the usual practices employed by traffickers."
This poses a challenge to law enforcement, especially given the limited manpower to check wildlife consignments, Joseph said.
"What we haven't been able to do is break that chain of supply," he said. "We don't see weavers or wool carriers getting caught. We only find traders, who are perhaps just above the customer in this supply chain. There may be so many others before them, which we’ve not cracked due to lack of manpower and coordinated intelligence with other countries."
Last October, the Indian government announced it would set up labs in the New Delhi and Srinagar airports to check pashmina shawls for shahtoosh strains. India is the top country to detect shahtoosh products, added Joseph, followed by Switzerland. A 2019 National Geographic investigation, in which the reporter was embedded at the Switzerland-Italy border with the border patrol unit, found over 800 shahtoosh products between 2015 and 2018 from travellers from Italy, Germany, the U.K. and the Middle East. The investigation also found that modern designs suggested that some of the shahtooshes were newly made and not vintage products passed down as heirlooms.
Meanwhile, figuring out the current status of the chiru is tricky because tracking its poaching or smuggling trends largely depends on China, where the majority of the chiru population lives. Louies said there's not much cooperation between countries on the conservation effort, especially on the part of China.
China's Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which looks into illegal animal trades, has previously claimed that great strides have been taken to increase the chiru population and control poaching. VICE reached out to WCS for the latest data but has yet to receive a response.
However, Louies doubts much could be gleaned from China's data, "I don't think China has a good reputation when it comes to sharing accurate data on poaching or illegal wildlife trade."
In this story, efforts to conserve an endangered species have collided with the question of livelihood for former shahtoosh weavers from Kashmir and the conservation of what they regard as a traditional art form.
Some former weavers told VICE that the shahtoosh ban has killed a centuries-old tradition and pushed them into poverty. Sheikh Ashiq of KCCI said that a shahtoosh shawl was traditionally a dowry item that used to be gifted to brides, and every other family had one as an heirloom. "It has never been proven that the Tibetan antelopes are killed to make shahtoosh shawls," he said. Ashiq's organisation has been pushing to end the shahtoosh trade ban.
Shahtoosh shawl was traditionally a dowry item that used to be gifted to brides, and every other family had one as an heirloom.
Beigh, the former shahtoosh weaver, said that they never killed animals to get the wool. "The animal needs to be alive for its wool to produce warmth," he claimed, pointing to the fact that the shahtoosh shawl provides inimitable warmth. Weavers say chirus come down to India's Ladakh region from Tibet during winter. "When it comes here, it rubs itself against the sand and bushes, and that's how it sheds its hair," he said. "Our people used to pick that up and bring it to us."
Musadiq Shah, the senior vice-president of the Kashmir Pashmina Organisation and a fourth-generation craftsman who also inherited shahtoosh weaving, said that if chirus are being killed in China, it is "unfortunate."
"But we know that as Kashmiris, we collected the wool ethically," the 56-year-old told VICE. "We don't need the hide, just the fleece. It's a natural process. The shahtoosh is a big part of our spinning tradition, over 700 years old, which nobody else in the world can do."
Ashiq said that a big part of the industry were women, whose soft hands were perfect for weaving the shahtoosh shawl. "It empowered so many women, and the ban affected them the most," he said.
Weavers like Shah also believe that just like mink and vicuna, the chiru, too, can be domesticated, and that may help revive the livelihood of thousands of weavers. "This was a cottage industry. So people used to do this at home," said Shah. "I remember, as a child, my grandfather used to make shahtoosh shawls and we had Hermès as one of our clients. We didn't even know who these people were until much later. These were the kind of customers we had."
"I remember, as a child, my grandfather used to make shahtoosh shawls and we had Hermès as one of our clients. We didn't even know who these people were until much later. These were the kind of customers we had."
Riyaz Ahmed from the Wildlife Trust of India, who carried out a seminal census of shahtoosh workers in Jammu and Kashmir, told VICE that Kashmiris weren't directly tracking the animals but were just getting the wool. "Before the 1970s, shahtoosh wasn't even the main trade, but it all changed when shahtoosh became famous internationally," said Ahmed. "Shahtoosh was so expensive that they made a lot of money out of it."
Additionally, the weavers he interviewed claimed that the wool that used to come from Tibet was clean, but a few years later, they started noticing blood on the wool. After the ban, however, the shahtoosh trade went underground, and while traders continue to benefit from the trade even now, the weavers were left in a lurch. "Now, in the illegal trade, there's a trend that the traders sell it to only those people whom they know closely," Ahmed added.
Most wildlife experts, however, denounce the idea of legalising the trade to protect the livelihood of traditional artisans. "The logic is as good as the complaints of a cannabis or poppy cultivator, who says that income from fruit trees is lesser and makes him a poor man," said Louies.
Badola said that most of the claims of ethically procuring shahtoosh get discredited by the fact that one animal hardly yields 125-130 grams of wool, and the amount needed for one shawl is at least four. Plus, the area where the chiru lives is devoid of foliage, which means that the argument of chirus rubbing themselves against bushes leading to their hair shedding might not hold water. "Scientific research has clearly demonstrated that the killing of the animal is the only way to obtain the large quantity of wool demanded for making shawls," he said.
But in the meantime, the lack of timely data and monitoring insights mean very little is being done to track the illicit trade. "We should look into the markets and hotspots. There's some information already, but monitoring what scale it is happening in now is important," added Ahmed.
In an email interview, the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – the international treaty that banned shahtoosh trade, of which India is a signatory – told VICE that it is going to submit a document on the chiru at the 74th meeting of its standing committee, scheduled between March 7 and 11, 2022. "This document will include the latest illegal trade trends in Tibetan antelope specimens," said the CITES secretariat, without detailing the findings of the report. The last CITES report on the shahtoosh trade was released in 2019.
Ashiq put the value of the current shahtoosh market at nearly $20 million. The whereabouts of a trade of such magnitude, he says, should be clear to all.
"This product is a worldwide name. People should know the truth behind it."
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.