NEW DELHI — "Help me, please," pleads the chiru on the poster that adorns several up-market boutiques across this capital city and beyond.
The chiru, or Tibetan antelope, indeed requires help, and the poster goes on to explain why. "Five chiru are slaughtered to make one shahtoosh shawl," making the wild animal a highly endangered species. "Say no to shahtoosh."
Alarmed conservationists in India have launched a massive campaign to encourage weavers of shahtoosh to organize themselves to promote an alternative fashion brand: the pashma, a handcrafted, traditional Kashmiri pashmina made from the wool of non-endangered, domesticated Himalayan goats.
"Many traditional craftsmen still feel that weaving shahtoosh is their birthright," wildlife activist Aniruddha Mookerjee said. "No government would be able to enforce a total ban unless you provide alternatives."
Mookerjee, a senior director with the New Delhi-based Wildlife Trust of India, believes that the pashma shawl, if promoted well, would enable traditional weavers in India's northern Jammu and Kashmir state to benefit economically by producing a legal, high-quality hand-woven pashmina that could become internationally recognized.
"Pashma will provide consumers with a true alternative that safeguards the livelihoods of traditional shahtoosh weavers and the future of the chiru," Mookerjee said.
Jammu and Kashmir, in the Himalayas, borders Tibet, where an estimated 100,000 chiru are fighting a losing battle for survival. In the upper reaches of the Tibetan plateau, these animals face intensive poaching for their under-fleece, which yields the finest of wool used for making shahtoosh shawls.
Jammu and Kashmir's chief wildlife warden, A.K. Srivastava, said that 7,000 to 8,000 chiru were killed in Tibet every year.
"At this rate, the animal would be extinct in another eight years," he warned.
Mookerjee puts the chiru poaching toll even higher, at as many as 20,000 animals a year. The figures may not be so surprising considering that five Tibetan antelope must be killed to make one white shawl, for which a customer shells out more than $2,500. The darker-colored variety comes cheaper, at about half that price.
Conservationists blame the dire predicament of the chiru on the popularity of shahtoosh among wealthy consumers in Asia, the U.S. and Europe from the 1990s onward. Seizures of shahtoosh shawls, each weighing less than 6 ounces and hyped for their warmth and snob value, have been made in the fashion capitals of London, Rome and New Delhi, as well as in China, Japan, France, Dubai and Switzerland.
The shawls are so valued that counterfeiting is common.
"Very often, the shahtoosh sellers do not even give genuine shahtoosh to their customers," Mookerjee said. "It is mixed with pashmina or other materials."
Even though the Indian government outlawed trade in shahtoosh in 1977, residents of Jammu and Kashmir could still legally work with derivatives from the animal until very recently, as long as they had licenses. In 2002, the state finally followed the central government's example and upgraded the Tibetan antelope to its most restrictive classification of protected species, toughening punishment for violations and turning hunting of the chiru or use of its derivatives into a non-bailable offense.
The fact that antelope were slain to make shahtoosh shawls was not well known among Indian conservationists until the early 1990s, when an American wildlife scientist sounded the alarm and made a point of contacting international conservation officials.
But shahtoosh traders and weavers remained unconvinced, "clinging to the age-old myth that shahtoosh wool is shed by an animal and collected from rocks and bushes by their people," said Ashfaque Matoo, an activist with the Wildlife Trust of India in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. "At times, it was even claimed that it was from the shed breast feathers of a bird."
A survey by the Wildlife Trust of India and the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare found that some 15,000 weavers, three-quarters of them women, were involved in shahtoosh production in 2001 to 2002. After the state ban in 2002, about 55% of the weavers reported a complete shift from shahtoosh to pashma.
The pashma is made from the under-fleece of domesticated Changra mountain goats, which are reared at heights of more than 15,000 feet in the scenic Ladakh area of Jammu and Kashmir. The fleece is harvested by combing, and the animal is not harmed.
Although fine pashminas, a word that comes from the Persian term for soft wool-like hair, are also produced in China, Mongolia and parts of central Asia, Kashmiri master weavers believe that the finest wool comes only from Ladakh.