The government of the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir announced on August 23, 2002, that it has banned the manufacture and trade of shahtoosh shawls – a luxury fashion item made from the fine wool of poached Tibetan antelope.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which has been conducting a campaign to save the Tibetan antelope, said the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature assembly passed an act which places the Tibetan antelope or chiru (Panthelops hodgsonii) in Schedule I of the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, giving it the highest protection, thereby making any use of its derivatives punishable by law. The chiru was previously placed in the schedule II of the act, which made trade, or the use of its derivatives possible with license.

“This is the final step in the fight against Shahtoosh,” said Mr Ashok Kumar, a trustee of the Wildlife Trust of India, which, in partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), has been at the forefront of this international campaign.

According to official Chinese estimates, fewer than 75,000 Tibetan antelope exist, while as many as 20,000 are killed annually for the manufacture of shahtoosh shawls. At current rates, experts note that the species could be extinct in less than 10 years. In Kashmir, this wool is woven into gossamer thin shawls weighing less than 150 grams that are warm enough for sub-zero temperatures. The shawls, which were originally worn by traditional north Indian families, became a fashion statement in the West, which led to a mass scale slaughter of the chiru.

About 15,000 people, mainly women, are employed in the manufacture of shahtoosh, an essentially urban cottage industry in the Kashmir valley, an area affected by civil strife. A complete census of shahtoosh workers by WTI-IFAW suggested that workers be given alternative livelihoods in pashmina by creating a niche brand for Kashmir pashmina called Kashmina.

Mr Kumar, who was first made aware of the shatoosh issue by the American biologist George Schaller working in the Tibet in 1992, has been fighting for the ban in Kashmir since then. “All this was made possible with the cooperation of the government of India, especially its head of wildlife, S.C. Sharma, as well as the courts, which exerted enough pressure on the government of Kashmir to act,” Mr Kumar said.

The chiru is on Appendix-I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), making international trade illegal, and it has the highest level of protection under the laws of China, Nepal and India. However, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the epicenter of shahtoosh weaving in the world, had a different set of laws, which made the manufacture of shahtoosh shawls possible with permission.

For more information on other wildlife and environmental organizations and their efforts to save the Tibetan antelope click here.