Shahtoosh, the finest wool in the world, comes from Tibetan antelope. Its trading is banned in India because many animals must die to produce one shawl. But in Srinagar and Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, counter sales still continue, though secretly.
Mohd Irshad Khan, a pashmina shawl dealer in Srinagar, says many Italians, Americans and Kuwaitis ask for shatoosh shawls and are ready to pay a handsome amount, but we refuse. “If they discover that I am selling shahtoosh shawls, they will apprehend me and imprison me for five to six years,” he added.
The production of shahtoosh shawls is a brutal, bloody business. Four to five Tibetan antelopes have to die for a single scarf, and many more for a shawl. The animals are covered under the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since 1979, and their trade is strictly prohibited. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 90 per cent of all Tibetan antelopes disappeared in the last century. Their population has now recovered slightly, which experts attribute to the strict protection.
FASHION INDUSTRY DEMAND
In India, there are severe penalties but many traders still take the risk. Shahtoosh is worth a lot on the black market. Inspector A, Pragateesh of India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the number one shahtoosh investigator in the country, says there is high demand in the fashion industry throughout the world. Shawls are smuggled into countries such as Italy and Arab countries for a variety of reasons. There is a high demand somewhere, animals can be found somewhere, and weaving is done somewhere else; so it’s a unique and interesting trade.
The dead animals’ raw wool is trafficked from China into India. The weaving of the shahtoosh is not easy. Not many craftsmen can do it; shahtoosh weaving is a unique technique done only in Kashmir, and it is hand-woven.
Many wealthy people in India own shahtoosh shawls, which some of them inherited. Due to their high smoothness and warmth, shahtoosh shawls are highly expensive. The prices range from Rs 3 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. “It’s so light and warm you don’t even realise you’re wearing it,” says Vimla Sareen, an elderly lady in Delhi’s posh Golf Links.
The person who is buying certainly knows the value of the animal, which lives at elevations of 3,000- 4,000 metres above the sea level in an intense cold environment. Shatoosh’s hair acts as an insulator
This fascination is what draws people to shahtoosh, also known as the ‘King’s Wool’. It’s a sort of a status symbol for Indians – many Bollywood stars and politicians wear these shawls. The person who is buying certainly knows the value of the animal, which lives at elevations of 3,000-4,000 metres above the sea level in an intense cold environment. Shatoosh’s hair acts as an insulator. “They are wearing the blood shawl, not the shahtoosh shawl”, says Pragteesh. Till the demand is there, it will be very difficult to stop this trade because illegal wildlife is a demanddriven trade, he says.
BUSINESS SHIFTS ONLINE
The pandemic has shifted business online; especially on Instagram one can find users bragging about the forbidden textile. Inspector Pragateesh’s job is to follow the digital tracks and identify the places where the scarves are traded. A vast network of informants also tips the Bureau about the airports used by smugglers to transport the wool out of the country. His efforts seem to be paying off as hundreds of shahtoosh products have been withdrawn from circulation in the past four years. Pragateesh also travels across the country to train Customs officials.
Three registered societies that are exporters, producers, traders, and artisans of pashmina shawls filed a complaint with the Delhi High Court recently regarding a criminal investigation launched against them for allegedly having exported consignments that contained items believed to be shahtoosh. A division Bench of the HC has sought responses from various Central Government ministries and the matter is listed for next hearing on February 14, 2023.