A rare antelope is being killed to make £15,500 scarves

The luxury market for shahtoosh is imperiling the Tibetan antelope.

By Dina Fine Maron
Published 26 Apr 2019, 12:29 BST
Tibetan antelope are poached to make luxury wraps, called shahtooshes, from their soft, warm underfur. Four ...
Tibetan antelope are poached to make luxury wraps, called shahtooshes, from their soft, warm underfur. Four of the animals are killed to make a single shahtoosh—Persian for “king of wools.”
Photograph by Xi Zhinong, Nature Picture Library

Giovanni Albertini is accustomed to opulence. At this checkpoint on the Switzerland-Italy border, a two-hour drive from Milan, he spends his days evaluating well-coiffed travellers and scouring their Gucci and Louis Vuitton luggage for contraband. He and his Swiss border patrol colleagues have assessed diamonds, pricey wines, and caviar, among other luxuries.

But the drab scarf spread out before him now would not immediately impress. Wrinkled, beige, speckled with tiny, crinkly hairs, its only embellishment was a small fringe at each end. And yet this seemingly unremarkable wrap could be another valuable piece of contraband.

Two hours earlier, Albertini had glimpsed it around the neck of a middle-aged Italian woman traveling with her husband in a silver Audi. The corporal pulled their car over because he suspected the shawl might be shahtoosh—the “king of wools” in Persian—a very expensive, ultrasoft, ultrawarm wool that is almost always illegal to import, trade, or even own.

Shahtoosh comes from the short, warm fleece of the rare Tibetan antelope, a species found almost exclusively in the Changtang area of Tibet, on the Tibetan Plateau. It takes four animals to provide enough wool for just one shahtoosh shawl or scarf.

Because the antelope are wild animals that can’t be domesticated and shorn, the only way to get the wool is to kill them and strip it from their carcasses. Smugglers then sneak the raw wool into India, where artisans in Kashmir weave it into neck-warming wraps.

Global demand for shahtoosh wiped out 90 percent of the Tibetan antelope population during the previous century, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which sets the conservation status of wildlife species. Once a valued dowry item in India, shahtooshes are now sought primarily by Westerners, who may pay as much as £15,500 for a single shawl of the right size, colour, and design.

The origin of shahtoosh long was shrouded in rumour. One common myth was that it came from the down of a “Siberian goose.” Another was that the Tibetan antelope naturally shed its wool, and those hair clumps were then gathered up by nomads. Yet researchers have learned a lot about what goes into the shahtoosh trade, and they’ve seen the carnage from poaching.

Conservation biologist George Schaller, who has studied the Tibetan antelope since the 1980s as part of his work for the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society, says the sight of Tibetan antelope in the wild is exhilarating. “The males are spectacularly beautiful with their long, thin horns and black and white winter coats,” he says, adding that when the tan females and their young start moving en masse, it looks as if an entire hill is in motion. The phenomenon is all the more stunning, he says, because it happens in such a wild, remote landscape. “You have thousands of square miles with no people at all.”

On the move, a herd of Tibetan antelope raises the dust in China’s Qinghai Province.
Photograph by Xi Zhinong, Nature Picture Library

I first ran a shahtoosh through my fingers in a basement room tucked away in a residential neighborhood of Bern, Switzerland, surrounded by thousands—if not millions—of confiscated wildlife products. The locked room was located off a hallway that smelled like rotten cheese (government food-safety tests were under way nearby).

In one corner, a display case held hundreds of shahtooshes of varying shapes and sizes. “This very small one is likely for a child,” explained Lisa Bradbury, pointing to an item about the size of a handkerchief. Bradbury advises the Swiss office that enforces the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Switzerland. (CITES is the international treaty that regulates cross-border trade of protected wildlife.)

Most of the shahtooshes she showed me were quite large—about three feet by six feet. I wrapped one, an unadorned royal purple shawl, around my shoulders and took in its delicate weave and buttery softness. I could see why someone might want a shahtoosh—if you didn’t know about the animals killed for it.

Global demand for shahtoosh wiped out 90 percent of the Tibetan antelope population during the previous century.
Photograph by Xi Zhinong, Nature Picture Library

Tibetan antelope once may have numbered about a million, but by the 1990s their numbers had fallen to 75,000. They began recovering in the first decade of this century, with stronger habitat protections in China and better enforcement of the animal’s strict CITES listing, which bars any international trade of the species.

Even so, Swiss officials say they’ve been seeing a lot of shahtoosh lately. Between 2015 and 2018, customs officers seized the equivalent of more than 800 Tibetan antelope from the necks or luggage of travellers primarily from Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East. Modern designs, including elaborate embroidery and patterns, suggest that at least some of the shahtooshes were newly made.

The week before my February visit to the Castasegna checkpoint, Swiss customs discovered three more shahtooshes—the equivalent of 12 dead Tibetan antelope.

“Shahtoosh is one of the main priorities for our office,” Mathias Lörtscher, the head of the team charged with enforcing CITES in Switzerland, told me when I met him in his office in Bern. And he doesn’t think his country is the only one with a shahtoosh problem—at two recent international CITES meetings, in 2016 and 2017, Switzerland called for immediate study of shahtoosh trafficking and increased vigilance around the world.

How can you know it's a shahtoosh?

Identifying shahtoosh requires a level of skill. Usually officials look for guard hairs, the long, crinkly hairs that keep Tibetan antelope dry in the wild. These hairs, unlike the antelope’s soft underfur, aren’t essential to a shahtoosh scarf’s characteristic texture, but often they’re both apparent and difficult for weavers to remove.

When magnified, they look “kind of like a flagstone pattern,” says forensic morphologist Bonnie Yates, now retired and living in Oregon. In the mid-1990s, when she worked at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Forensic Laboratory, in Ashland, Oregon, she devised a way to distinguish the guard hairs of Tibetan antelope from those of other animals. Under the microscope, she found that a Tibetan antelope guard hair is filled with minuscule air bubbles that give it the flagstone look. A single guard hair from the domesticated Capra hircus goat—the animal used to make legal pashmina scarves—is entirely different, however. It’s a thick, dark strip with white edges, almost like a freshly paved street with pale gutters.

At the Castasegna border checkpoint, Marco Zarucchi peered through a microscope at one of the guard hairs from the seized brown scarf Albertini had handed him. Zarucchi, once an Olympic skier and now a sergeant major at Swiss customs, has confiscated 19 shahtooshes during the past five years.

After a few moments’ study, he and a colleague were confident that they had another. “Yes,” he told Albertini, “this is a shahtoosh.”

It meant that the Swiss government would take the scarf, and the now former owner would eventually have to pay a fine as high as several thousand dollars.

Zarucchi broke the news to the woman, whose identity I agreed not to reveal because of Swiss privacy law. He handed her an official government information sheet about shahtoosh. The Tibetan antelope, it explained, has the “same international level of protection as for example elephants, tigers and rhinos.”

Without raising her voice or begging for her shawl, the woman offered Zarucchi an explanation: She’d inherited the scarf from a dear friend who died in December 2017. She had no idea it was shahtoosh—she’d never even heard of that word, she said.

Zarucchi wouldn’t budge. This wasn’t just a Swiss restriction, he repeated. Shahtoosh is regulated under CITES.

And so, two hours after the couple had pulled in to the checkpoint, they were permitted to enter Switzerland—carrying a receipt for the roughly $1,800 deposit they’d paid against the fine that would later be set by officials in Bern. The shahtoosh stayed behind in an evidence bag.

Enforcement officers in Switzerland confiscate shahtooshes at locations including airports, border crossing checkpoints, and clothing stores.
Photograph by Denis Balibouse, Reuters

Lisa Bradbury has trained many of the Swiss customs officials whose task it is to identify and seize shahtoosh. After they make a positive identification, they must send the scarves to her and other officials at the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office, in Bern, for confirmation testing. (About a week after Albertini’s seizure at the Italian border the team analyzed the brown shawl and certified that it was indeed a shahtoosh.)

Shahtoosh was first listed for CITES protection in 1979, but that didn’t immediately send the trade underground. During the 1990s—the peak of the global trade—shahtooshes were still sometimes offered for sale in shops around the world and even openly advertised, according to various media reports. In 1994, £78,000 worth of shahtoosh shawls were also sold illegally at a U.S. charity auction to raise money for cancer patients—leading to the country’s first criminal prosecution for shahtoosh sales. (The shahtoosh smuggler, who brought in shawls worth about £200,000 in total, pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act as well as CITES, and a U.S. District Court judge in New Jersey imposed a sentence of five years’ probation and a $5,000 fine.)

As recently as October 2017, Martha Stewart told the New York Times that when she travels, “I always take a very comfortable shawl, a shahtoosh. They weigh almost nothing, and they’re as warm as a down comforter…it goes through a wedding ring.” (She was referring to the “ring test,” used to distinguish shahtoosh from thicker fabrics like pashmina.) Stewart later walked her statement back, saying that what she actually meant was that her shawl was shahtoosh-like. (Stewart’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

Lately the U.S. shahtoosh trade has quieted, or perhaps gone unnoticed. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency tasked with tracking wildlife trade, to seek details about any seizures of shahtooshes or other goods made from Tibetan antelope dating back to 2007. It returned no entries.

A case holds confiscated shahtoosh in a basement room in Bern that serves as a warehouse for other illegal wildlife products, including fur coats, shoes, taxidermied animals, and elephant feet.
Photograph by Dina Fine Maron

Switzerland: a shahtoosh hotspot

When it comes to publicly acknowledged confiscations of shahtoosh, Switzerland tops the list. Within its borders, shahtooshes are often nabbed at a tiny airport a few miles from the posh ski resort town of St. Moritz. The day after the shahtoosh bust at the Castasegna border crossing, two dozen private jets were scheduled to land between late morning and mid-afternoon. Many were searched for shahtoosh and other illegal goods.

Around 2 p.m., when three adults and four children disembarked from their flight, their bags were loaded into a small white shipping container to be searched. Zarucchi, the customs official, quickly found a suspicious-looking scarf buried beneath layers of carefully folded blouses and pants. It was navy green with an embroidered trim in orange, red, and pink. Initials, likely those of the weaver, were sewn in the corner of the soft, smooth fabric. To Zarucchi, the wrap looked and felt like a shahtoosh.

The scarf’s owner—a petite British woman with sunglasses tucked into her hair, perfectly applied pink lipstick, and a toddler expertly angled on her hip—pursed her lips. “This is not a shahtoosh,” she declared, unbidden. She continued, “Everyone knows what a shahtoosh is. This is pashmina!” Her scarf, she added, doesn’t fit through a ring.

Saying he’d have to do a secondary check with a microscope, Zarucchi took the scarf to a back room in the main customs building. He tried the ring test—using my wedding ring—and it passed through easily. But when he peered at the scarf under the microscope, he saw no guard hairs; this one wasn’t a shahtoosh. (The ring test is a good guide but not fail-safe.)

Zarucchi brought the scarf back to the woman and told her that, yes, she was right—it’s not a shahtoosh. Of course not, she retorted. “I’ve seen shahtoosh on friends, so I know what it is.”

Shahtoosh has become infamous in Switzerland. In 2003, the Swiss government received a tip from the CITES secretariat—the Zurich-based coordinating office for the 183 parties to the treaty—that a shop in St. Moritz had been selling hundreds of shahtooshes. The store, which kept meticulous records, had moved nearly 550 shahtoosh shawls during the previous decade. One wealthy Greek family had bought about 60 percent of the stock. (Swiss privacy law barred officials from telling me the name of the shop or giving further details about the case.)

“These shawls arguably constituted the world’s most significant case of illegal trade in these products,” Heinrich Haller, director of the Swiss National Park (the country’s only national park), noted in his 2016 book about wildlife crime.

More incidents followed. Swiss officials snatched 24 shawls from commercial shipments in Basel in 2010 and then eight more from a Swiss fair in 2013. That’s when they “realised this problem is not gone,” Bradbury says. And in 2016 in St. Moritz alone, 26 were seized from shops.

Yet the main shahtoosh hauls in Switzerland continue to come from border patrol seizures. In 2014, 29 shawls were found in travellers’ bags. The next year it was 72, and in 2016, another 61. “If you look for them, you will find them,” Bradbury says.

China and Tibetan antelope

To help the Tibetan antelope population rebound, China has expanded Changtang National Nature Reserve, the protected area in and around which the animals calve. In 2015, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Chinese Academy of Sciences classified Tibetan antelope as “near threatened” in the country’s National Red List of Vertebrates. The next year, guided by that determination, the IUCN also downlisted the animal, from “endangered” to “near threatened,” and estimated that 100,000 to 150,000 remain in the wild.

The tricky part in assessing how well Tibetan antelope are doing, says George Schaller, is that no full census of them has ever been done, so any population figures are rough estimates. The indomitable Schaller, who turns 86 in May, continues to make regular trips to the region. “In the areas I’ve seen,” he says, “they seem to be increasing, but it’s difficult to count them because they travel long distances. You can’t use an airplane like you can to census animals in East Africa because it’s China, and it’s a sensitive area. Most of the time I’m not allowed to even take another foreigner with me,” he says.

Aimin Wang, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China country director, notes that China’s government has said, informally, in recent meetings that Tibetan antelope now number 300,000—a fourfold increase over their estimated population during the 1990s. Wang says those numbers may be a bit optimistic and that the count is likely closer to 250,000. But, he adds, based on the Tibetan antelope’s improvements, the IUCN listing change seems to have been reasonable.

Switzerland questions China’s numbers. “We’ve asked for the science, but we haven’t seen the population study—the population census—that allows us to say the population has strongly recovered,” Lörtscher said. In addition to being Switzerland’s CITES representative, Lörtscher is the chairman of the international CITES Animals Committee, which assesses trade and scientific data for CITES-listed animal species.

“We need to see more to be convinced here in Switzerland,” he said. “I’ve told my Chinese counterpart this as well. They should talk about it and show it if they are really doing good stuff. I’m not saying it isn’t happening, but we’ve seen no data.” (Multiple requests for comment to Wu Zhongze, China’s CITES official charged with enforcing the international treaty, got no response.)

Entrenched culture

Weaving shahtoosh has been illegal in India since the 1970s. A. Pragatheesh, an instructor in the wildlife crime bureau at India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, says the government is investigating how the wool is smuggled into the country, but because demand for shahtoosh comes from abroad, efforts are mainly focused on ramping up training programs for India’s border guard agencies.

In 2018 alone, according to the ministry, 35 shahtooshes were confiscated in India—the highest number since 2011, when 55 were seized. (Schaller, based on his knowledge of the trade, believes the shahtoosh traffic is much larger than those numbers suggest.)

To evade the authorities, Pragatheesh says, shahtoosh artisans have gone into hiding in Kashmir, and “it’s challenging to find them.” There’s great incentive to keep their work going. Switching to pashmina cuts weavers’ profits in half, according to a documentary by the Wildlife Trust of India, an India-based conservation nonprofit. Workers who clean the raw wool also depend on what they earn to support their families.

But making shahtoosh isn’t just about the money, Pragatheesh says. Shahtoosh weavers were once highly respected, and the culture is entrenched. Each shahtoosh is painstakingly crafted, a process that can take years, and knowledge about how to work with the delicate, brittle wool is passed down through the generations.

Unusual designs are a feature of modern shahtoosh, made by weavers in Kashmir and smuggled to markets in the West. Swiss officials call for international vigilance to help protect the rare Tibetan antelope.
Photograph by Dina Fine Maron

The industry is evolving, however, making law enforcement work even more challenging. To boost their profits and respond to changes in fashion, shahtoosh weavers often now mix in more pashmina, Pragatheesh says.

As a result, the scarves can support more intricate designs and look and feel more like a pashmina. “If you make a shahtoosh shawl with just shahtoosh wool, it’s very light and fragile, so by mixing it with pashmina, you can do more embroidery,” Pragatheesh says. This hardier wool also allows for machine production, helping weavers save time on work that would otherwise take years, he adds.

In the hybrids, however, Tibetan antelope guard hairs may also be hard to find. I remember one confiscated scarf Lisa Bradbury showed me in the basement storeroom in Bern. It was black with tiny red skulls and crossbones—reminiscent of a kitschy pirate flag. It had a short fringe like other shahtoosh I’d seen but otherwise looked very dissimilar. No guard hairs were apparent to the naked eye, perhaps because of the preponderance of pashmina in the weave. If this scarf hadn’t been found along with others that were obviously shahtoosh, Bradbury said, it might have avoided testing and slipped by, altogether unnoticed.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
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