The shahtoosh trade was a classic example of the interplay between biodiversity and fashion. It was as much about an endangered species being driven to the brink of extinction by luxury fashion, as it was about the fashion community coming in aid of the species.

A ringside story.

It was arguably one of the best-kept secrets anywhere—that straddled the seemingly far-flung worlds of wildlife crime, exquisite artisanry, illegal trade and high fashion. Till a wildlife scientist joined all the dots, figured it all out, and blew the lid off a monstrosity that flummoxed enforcement officials and policymakers and sent conservationists into a huddle.

The scientist was George Schaller, a field biologist known among other things for his seminal work in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. In 1993, he stumbled across carcasses of the Tibetan antelope, also called chiru. The carcasses, strewn all around and left to rot, had been skinned and the fur with the skin were missing. The animals were certainly not being killed for meat. It did not take Schaller to figure out that the antelope were being killed for the fur. He found that this was being sent across to India via Nepal. He amassed tonnes of photographic evidence—from those of bales to nomads ferrying them on yak back. He got in touch with Indian conservationists, urging them to investigate further.

Schaller's understanding was that the chiru were being killed for their fur which would be woven into the exquisite shahtoosh shawls that were indigenously handcrafted in Kashmir Valley. The findings were met with utter shock and sheer disbelief. No one, till that point, had any clue that the shahtoosh shawl was crafted after the killing of an animal, that too a species like the chiru.

By Schaller's own estimates, about 65,000-72,500 individuals of the species were left in the wild at the time, down from 1,000,000 at the turn of the last century. And according to Chinese enforcement officials, around 20,000 of the chiru were being slaughtered every year, primarily for the shahtoosh shawl. Each shawl would need 4–5 chiru to be killed. At that rate, it was apprehended that in another 4–5 years the antelope would go extinct. The alarm bells went ringing.

The battle to save the chiru was fought on three fronts: bringing poaching to a halt, working at the policy levels in different geographies, and building up a campaign that would make buyers shun the shahtoosh. It could not have been a more difficult task. The animal was being killed in Tibet/China, the transit route was through a porous Nepal, the shawl was being woven as an heirloom in Kashmir, and the biggest buyers were to be found in the swanky high streets of the West. It had to be an international campaign, and luxury fashion was as much a part of the canvas as was wildlife crime.

The shawl, the animal, and the crime

The point was where to start. At the front end, it was the shahtoosh shawl of Kashmir. Contemporary shawl-weaving in Kashmir started in the 15th century, when ruler Zainul- Abidin was said to have brought home very skilled weavers from Turkestan. Literary sources, however, give a different date. According to Kshemendra, a writer of medieval Kashmir, shawl-weaving was already a cottage industry in 11th century Kashmir, and the one with the best quality was one tus shawl.

The tus shawl recurs in the Ain-i-Akbari (an account of the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar by court historian Abul Fazl). One copy of the manuscript provides an eerie description: “His Majesty improved the (shawl) department in four ways. The first is visible in tus shawls, which are made of the wool of an animal whose natural colours are black, white, and red, but chiefly black. Sometimes the colour is pure white. This kind of shawl is unrivalled for its lightness, warmth, and softness. People generally wear it without altering its natural colour: His Majesty has had it dyed. It is curious that it will not take a red dye”. The so-called tus shawl was made from the hair of the tus goat. There are other historical references and many more later, all of which were lost to the ravages of time till Schaller's discovery sent a new wave of research to the mystery cloaking the shahtoosh.

During the time of Schaller’s finding, in 1993, shahtoosh trade was at its peak, having boomed since the 1970s. Myths abounded on the origin of the shahtoosh. Traders would insist that the wool had either come from shorn domestic goats, or feathers from some mythical bird, or simply by amassing tufts of wool caught on bushes and rocks. The Kashmir government had even, in a brochure published in the 1980s, contended that the wool was from the ibex (Capra ibex), a species of wild goat that lives in the mountains of the European Alps.

But what passes through word of mouth into myths can easily be dispelled by science. The clue to knowing the garment that was at once so coveted and expensive was knowing the animal itself.

The Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) is a medium-sized deer-like animal classified under the Antilopinae sub-family, but more closely related to goats and sheep of the sub-family Caprinae. It is the only large mammal endemic to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and is a keystone species of the Chang Tang ecosystem. It is frail-looking, but at the same time one of the world's hardiest animals in that it can survive in temperatures as low as -40oC. It survives such brutally cold climate because of the presence of a layer of dense, fine  wool next to the skin. The chiru are endemic to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, but their range also extends into a small region of Ladakh in north-west India. They are mostly found at elevations above 4,500 m and have been recorded up to 5,500 m.

The chiru is a migratory animal that traverses huge distances during the summer months of May to July, with males and females following completely different routes during the process. The females head for traditional birthing areas where they give birth to single calves. Little was known about these summer calving sites until 1998 when antipoaching squads visited these areas.

The males have slim, slightly curving black horns (the females don't). The colour of the coat of the adult male changes between the summer and winter months. In summer, the coat is reddish fawn with light grey and brown tones that grades into white on the underside. In winter, this changes into a lighter shade of grey and tan with white tones that turns into white on the underside of the animal running from the chin to the belly region. The female is fawn—almost pink—with a rust-brown nape that blends into a white underside. The young have the same colour palette as the female. The description has close resemblance to the ones found in the Ain-i-Akbari.

Myths began to be dispelled one after another. Since the hair and wool of every species of animal are structurally different from another, microscopic examination of the hair from the Tibetan antelope and the fibres of the shahtoosh shawl were matched, clinching the tiniest evidence possible. Plus, the wool from the chiru cannot be sheared or combed like that from sheep or goat; it has to be plucked off with the skin. Therefore, it would be necessary to kill the animal to take its wool. The claim that the wool would be meticulously collected off bushes and rocks by nomads and shepherds did not hold; it could not—not in the icy plains of the plateau known for its fierce winds.

The shawl that became a shroud

It took time for the conservation movement to take shape. As evidence began to be gathered both as scientific documentation as well as unravelling the crime/trade routes, there were a number of organisations that played key, and often different, complimentary roles. It started with TRAFFIC India and the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), followed by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). The WTI collaborated with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), particularly for campaigning against the shahtoosh at the international level. This is where the big market was, with the shahtoosh fetching as much as $20,000 for a single unit.

In the 1980s, the shahtoosh shawl was a sought-after item in fashion circles. Top designers would speak highly of the shahtoosh; it appeared in a Valentino show; and the British edition of Vogue featured the shawl in an article. Since it was fashion that was driving international demand, the IFAW/WTI campaign devoted much of their efforts to designers, starting with the publication of an initial report, Wrap up the trade, in February 2000. The London Fashion Week of September 2000 was when fashion designers started chipping in. The global report was launched in June 2001.

Enforcement efforts continued in parallel. In 1997, officers at the Metropolitan Police Wildlife Crime Unit, raided the premises of an Indian company in Mayfair, London and seized 138 shawls with a retail value of 353,000. As seizures continued to be made worldwide, particularly in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, the shahtoosh word started getting blackened. Coming in the backdrop of the glitzy events, this helped: no one wanted to be associated with shahtoosh anymore.

In India, the fashion week circuit was just starting. The WTI was able to rope in the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) to help generate awareness. Among those at the forefront was doyenne Ritu Kumar. Designers joined the campaign in droves, and it became the talk of the town (2000–02). The support of the design community was significant, certainly in the amount of media coverage it generated, thereby helping the public awareness campaign against the shahtoosh.

The anti-shahtoosh campaign came to an end, and the population of the Tibetan antelope has been rising. The 2016 Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) classified it as Near Threatened (NT), down from Vulnerable (VU) in 1996 and Endangered (EN) since 2000. The population is said to have doubled, but is not out of the woods yet.

Sporadic reports of shawls being siezed in some part of the world or the other still trickle in.  Occasionally, there are reports of some group or another trying to legalise the shahtoosh trade, always under the mistaken belief that the Tibetan antelope can be farmed and that its wool can be shared like that of a sheep. The outside threat remains.

Many animals, mainly mammals for either their hide or fur or both and reptiles for their skin, have been killed either just for clothing or for luxury apparel.

The tale of the shahtoosh remains a classic.

This article was first published in the April 2021 edition of the print magazine.