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Shawl Smugglers' Sentence Piques Antelope Protectors

March 02, 2001|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

Protectors of a rare Tibetan antelope are disappointed by the sentence given to smugglers of contraband shahtoosh shawls made from the animal's ultra-fine wool.

In the first U.S. felony case to be prosecuted over illegal trade in shahtoosh, a U.S. District Court judge in New Jersey last week handed Navarang Exports of Bombay, India, five years' probation and a $5,000 fine, though the maximum fine allowed is $500,000. The company pleaded guilty in July to illegally importing shahtoosh shawls worth nearly $250,000.

"This sentence is inadequate to deter others from becoming involved in the illegal shahtoosh trade," Justin Lowe, director of the Tibetan Plateau Project, a San Francisco-based conservation and economic development agency, said.

The sentence was "hugely disappointing," said Ginette Hemley, vice president of species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund. "I think it is a slap in face for the countries and organizations that are trying to promote this species," she said. "It sends the wrong signal and suggests that illegal wildlife trafficking is essentially a business write-off. Five-thousand dollars is the price of one of the shawls."

American wildlife biologist George Schaller estimated in the mid-1990s that the chiru antelope herd numbered about 65,000, down from about 1 million a century ago. Conservationists fear that the animals may be near extinction in the next few years, given that poachers take up to 20,000 animals a year.

Anti-poaching efforts have always been considered uneven and underfunded. In January, China's Wild Yak Brigade, a ragtag anti-poaching group, was ordered to disband and be absorbed into a Chinese central government unit, despite the group's eight-year record of uncovering nearly 100 poaching operations.

The anti-shahtoosh forces note that though the Navarang case had a disappointing outcome in court, it raised awareness about the protected chiru and the illegal practices that contribute to its demise.

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