“Soft gold”—that’s what poachers call the soft underfur of the Tibetan antelope, also known as the chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii). The fur is woven into yarn to make luxurious shawls known as shahtoosh, which sell for anywhere between $4,000 and $40,000. All of this trade is illegal.
The shahtoosh’s high price comes with an equally high cost: Three to five antelopes die for every shawl.
The high demand for these extravagant shawls nearly wiped out the Tibetan antelope. Their population plummeted from nearly a million at the beginning of the 20th century to about 70,000 in 2000.
But that year is also when a wide range of protective measures kicked in. The primary habitat for the antelopes, Changtang Nature Reserve, became a national protected area that year. China, which controls the Tibetan Plateau, brought rangers in to protect the chiru (no easy task in a park that encompasses more than 334,000 square kilometers). The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society helped to finance a guard post and also pushed to protect the species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which banned interstate shahtoosh sales in the U.S.
The protective measures did the trick. Today about 200,000 chiru roam the Tibetan Plateau, according to a joint report from the China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. That population is enough, China says, to assure the antelopes are no longer at risk. Last week the Tibetan antelope was removed from China’s endangered species list.
This phenomenal recovery doesn’t mean the chiru is out of the woods. Poaching still occurs, although it is rare in Tibet. The Xinhua News Agency reported that 346 cases of poaching were investigated in the nature reserve over the past five years. There may have been more: Each member of the ranger team has to patrol an average of 500 square kilometers, so it would be hard to record every poaching event.
Things are worse outside of China. The Tibetan antelope also exists in small numbers in India as well as in Azad Kashmir, a territory administered by Pakistan. Poaching is still rampant in each country. A 2014 investigation by the Guardian reported that shahtoosh can be seen in Pakistan “draped over many a sari and salwar kameez at lavish weddings and dinner parties at exclusive venues.” Last month a man in New Delhi was convicted of possessing five shahtoosh shawls. Seizures and arrests have also been reported in the U.K., U.S. and other countries.
The chiru’s recovery in China, although extremely notable and commendable, doesn’t change much outside of China’s endangered species list. The species remains legally protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as well as in the U.S., India, Pakistan and other countries. That probably won’t change anytime soon—unless shahtoosh suddenly become fashionable again.
For now, though, let’s celebrate the victory—and keep shahtoosh shawls off the market.
Photo: An 1894 painting by Philip Sclater. Public domain