Parliamentary panel seeks lifting of ban on shahtoosh trade in Jammu and Kashmir

New Delhi | By
Apr 24, 2017 10:27 PM IST

The committee favours withdrawal of ban to provide livelihood opportunities to many in the conflict-ridden state.

A parliamentary panel has recommended lifting of a ban on the trade in shahtoosh shawls, woven from the fur of an endangered Tibetan antelope, to provide livelihood opportunities to many in conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir.

The shahtoosh trade was banned globally in 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to which India is a signatory.(Shutterstock)
The shahtoosh trade was banned globally in 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to which India is a signatory.(Shutterstock)

The shahtoosh trade was banned globally in 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to which India is a signatory.

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The antelope is listed in Schedule I of the India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, granting it the highest level of protection.

The Jammu and Kashmir government, which was initially reluctant to impose the ban on the ground that thousands of families were depended on the trade for their living, eventually extended the restriction in 2000 after a drastic fall in the number of antelopes, locally called chiru.

Shahtoosh, which literally means “king of wools” in Persian, is woven from the underfur of a chiru and is considered one of the finest wools because it is light yet warm.

The weaving of Shahtoosh is a skill that is traditionally unique to Kashmiris.

The parliamentary committee headed by Congress MP Renuka Chowdhury suggested that the environment ministry “should conserve and breed the chiru goats” on vast tracts of land and give the antelopes to weavers for collecting wool.

The rationale is that regulated farming of the animals will not only revive the industry but also the chiru population.

Traders in the valley welcomed the proposal, but it drew flak from environmentalists and animal rights activists, who fear the move would promote the hunting of the endangered species, leading to its complete extinction.

“It will be good if the ban is reversed because a large section of people was dependent on the industry,” said Sajjad Gul, spokesperson for the Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation (KTMF).

On the concerns raised by the conservationists, Gul claimed it’s not necessary to kill the animal to extract its fur for the wool. But he admitted that poachers do kill chirus for wool.

PETA India’s chief executive officer Poorva Joshipura, however, rubbished the claim that animals need not be killed to collect fur.

“Those who peddle shahtoosh have long been attempting to fool consumers into believing that the animals are not killed,” Joshipura said.

Three to four chirus are killed to make a shawl that is allegedly sold for $1000 to $5000 and sometimes even up to $20,000 in the international market, according to research. There are other similar estimates too.

The animal is classified as “near threatened” under the IUCN’s red list as its population has dwindled to about 75,000 in recent years.

They are found mostly in the Tibetan plateau, all over China, and in smaller numbers in north-eastern Ladakh. They have disappeared from Nepal, where they were earlier found.

Their underfur allows them to keep themselves warm in the chilly upper reaches of the Himalayas in India.

Environmentalists argue that even if it was possible to extract the wool without actually killing the animals, snatching their protective cover amounts to “cruelty.”

“Using chirus for the very product that have made them endangered is cruelty, not conservation,” Joshipura said.

Kashmiri traders said it was part of their traditions for centuries, sustaining many families who are now left in the lurch because of the ban.

The parliamentary panel echoed this view in its report.

“The committee feels that Jammu and Kashmir has been the conflict region for long and many women there are unable to leave their homes and go out for livelihoods,” it said.

“Livelihood opportunities are very low for the people of Jammu and Kashmir because of the extreme climatic conditions there and shawl making contributes a lot towards sustainable livelihoods of these people,” the report added.

Many in the state even viewed the ban as an anti-Kashmir move.

“Some people have an anti- Kashmir agenda and they spread this kind of propaganda about the animal being killed to take out fur without any basis,” said the KTMF spokesperson.

He said locals recognise the need to save the depleting chiru population. But it’s the government that should ensure there is no illegal hunting, he added in the same breath. “An ordinary Kashmiri cannot guarantee that,” he pointed out.

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    Malavika Vyawahare tells science and environment stories using words, photos and multimedia. She studied environmental journalism at Columbia University and is based in Delhi.

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