Tibetan Antelope, a Protected Species, Becoming Fashion Victim

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In 2004, Ke Ke Xi Li, a Chinese movie that tells the story of a volunteer patrol team’s struggles to protect Tibetan antelope against poachers, stunned both domestic and overseas audiences. The truth behind the tale, however, is much more astonishing: due to the robust demand for its wool in the United States and Europe, Tibetan antelope, an endangered species at the top of both China’s and international protection lists, has been decimated by poaching—the population shrank sharply from an estimated 1 million in 1900 to around 75,000 in 1999, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Tibetan Antelope, known as Chiru, is native to the grasslands of China’s Qinghai, Xinjiang and Tibet, and famous for its dense fur that is soft and wool-like. The fine fur is woven into scarves and shawls called shahtoosh. To save this species from extinction, international authorities have listed Chiru among the world’s most protected species and it is illegal worldwide to kill or harm Chiru or to trade in their pelts. As early as 1979, international trade in Chiru products has been wholly banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and China has listed the species as Class-A of protected animal species in its National Wildlife Protection Law since 1989. However, the Chiru population has continued to fall in recent years due to the continuing illegal trade and increasing demand for shahtoosh shawls ignited in the late 1980s.

Three to five Chiru pelts are required to make one shahtoosh shawl. Xinhua Net reports that during between June and August of 2005, a total of 537 shahtoosh shawls were seized, meaning at least 1,600 to 2,700 Chiru were poached within that period. With little sign of waning, the fashion-driven demand for shahtoosh has caused the poaching of as many as 20,000 Chiru a year. Fashion magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, advertise shatoosh as a luxury item—and socialites in Europe and the United States have become the most voracious consumers of shahtoosh, making the Chiru a true fashion victim.

The robust demand for Chiru scarves and shawls makes it a high-ticket item. According to the Wildlife Protection Society, shatoosh shawls sell for $5,000-$30,000 dollars each around the world. Such huge profits have made poachers able to arm themselves with advanced hunting equipment. This enhanced capacity to slaughter the Chiru has exacerbated the difficulty in enforcing existing laws to protect the species.

With a string of international interests cashing in, China has become the world’s largest exporter of fur clothing. As the fur industry is booming in China, it obtains 25 to 30 percent of the country’s fur from wild animals, which does not include the fur from illegal seizures, such as that from Chiru.

Chinese efforts, such as the production of Ke Ke Xi Li and the establishment of the Altun Mountain and Qiangtang national nature reserves to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope, have been complemented by of the addition of the Chiru as a protected species under the U.S. endangered Species Act. However, more joint efforts among the concerned countries—including China, where the largest populations of the species live, India, the major producer of Chiru shawls, and the European countries that purchase shawls—would enhance and expand anti-poaching activities. Further actions by the Indian Central government and the State governments of Jammu and Kashmir to check the illegal trade would go a long way in mitigating the problem, while extensive and in-depth publicity and education campaigns could inform more consumers of the illegality of the trade.