The two Chinese women face potential fines of up to 450,000 yuan (US$64,800) each and between three and seven years in jail, according to Chinese media. Their Crime ? Trying to leave the country with US$574,000 worth of shawls made from a species of endangered antelope.

The Chinese embassy on Sunday confirmed it had contacted the families of the women and offered them legal advice after they were arrested last week.

Indian media reported that the Chinese nationals, who entered on tourist visas, carried 15 shahtoosh shawls worth about US$38,000 each.  The value of over half a million dollar leaves serious questions as to the “tourist” status of the two women and their intent for the shawls once back in China.

Taken out the backrooms and offered to tourists

Embassy director Zhao Jun warned mainland tourists not to purchase shahtoosh shawls made from the fine underhair of the Tibetan antelope, or chiru. The animal is listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union, as well as by China and India.

“Chinese citizens are now going to India for tourist season …[We] issued a reminder to Chinese citizens to strictly abide by the Indian wildlife protection law and other regulations, and they must not carry prohibited wild animals and plants,” Zhao told a media briefing on Sunday.

shahtoosh shawl india
A trader shows off a shahtoosh shawl in Srinagar, India in 1997. Photo: AP

Each finely-knit scarf, which requires the slaughter of three to five chiru, ranges in price from about US$3,000 for a plain, un-dyed version, to tens of thousands of dollars for intricately-woven, colourful variations.

On Weibo, Chinese tourists have written about being offered such illicit items during their travels through India. User Misty Ocean wrote about being offered a shahtoosh scarf in a local shop.

“I drank the tea, and the clerk took out a suitcase. He opened the box … I put my hand gently on a scarf … it felt different from any fabric I have ever touched,” she said of the garment priced at 3,600 yuan (US$500).

Almost driven to Extinction

Kashmir authorities banned its production in 2002, reluctantly bowing to pressure from wildlife conservation groups. The Tibetan antelope, whose under-fleece is used for weaving the ultra-fine and luxurious wool, was at risk of becoming extinct within 10 years if the trade continued.

tibetan antelope poacher china
Suspected poachers accused of slaughtering Tibetan antelopes in China in 2003. Photo: Xinhua News

With fur more valuable than gold it is hardly surprising that back then around 20.000 were poached every year. The Tibetan antelope’s hair is said to be six-and-a-half times thinner than human hair. The animal developed this underfleece to protect it against freezing winters in the remote plateaus that it inhabits. Their population plummeted from nearly a million at the beginning of the 20th century to about 70,000 in 2000. After protection measure were put in place across their habitat, largely in China, the Tibetan Antelope population is bouncing back. Indeed it is estimated that there is now around 200 000 of them in the world. Chiru are often caught and slaughtered in Tibet, their hair then smuggled into northern India by Tibetan and Nepalese traders. Manufacturing then takes place in regions like Jammu and Kashmir.

Illegal but Popular around the World

Since 1975, the shahtoosh trade has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but continues on the black market.

These days, shahtoosh continues to be popular among wealthy foreigners. In a widely-lambasted interview with The New York Times last year, celebrity chef and entrepreneur Martha Stewart said she was a fan of the scarves and rarely travelled without one.

“I always take a very comfortable shawl, a shahtoosh. They weigh almost nothing and they’re as warm as a down comforter. It’s paper thin, it goes through a wedding ring,” she was quoted saying. Stewart later retracted her remarks, claiming that she had been speaking about cashmere rather than shahtoosh.

As a luxurious fashion accessory, shahtoosh – which means “king of fine wools” in Persian – became popular in the West during the 1800s, when European royalty including Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, donned the fabric.

 “Shahtoosh shawls are luxury goods, so seizures often take place where wealthy people enter Switzerland or spend their time,” said Stefan Kunfermann, spokesman at the Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office that tracks seizures. Between 2015 and 2017 Swiss customs agents seized 131 shahtoosh shawls.

Confiscated shawls made with "Shahtoosh", of the protected Tibetan antelope, are pictured at the Swiss Food Safety and Veterinary Office in Bern, Switzerland
Confiscated shawls made with “Shahtoosh”, of the protected Tibetan antelope, are pictured at the Swiss Food Safety and Veterinary Office in Bern, Switzerland, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Over time, shahtoosh has become as controversial as it is sought-after.

 

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