The illegal trafficking of rare species is amongst the most lucrative criminal trades in the world and, like other areas of organised crime, involves smuggling across borders.

Tibetan antelopes are listed as an endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

The antelope are killed for their wool, which is woven into the luxury fabric “shahtoosh,” threatening the species’ survival. Some 50 years ago there were upwards of a million chiru on the Tibetan Plateau. Today there are barely 65 – 75,000!

Chiru are skinned and raw pelt collected. It takes up to 30 antelopes to make a single shawl It is then smuggled into India over the high mountain passes from Tibet or via Nepal. In the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir hair is plucked from pelts and shawls hand woven, after which they are illegally transported to fashion capitals in wealthy countries where they sell for $2000 to $15,000 or more depending on size and quality.

Shahtoosh (also written Shatush) – is a Persian word meaning “Pleasure of Kings” – and was the name given to a specific kind of shawl, which was woven with the down hair of the Chiru or Tibetan Antelope, by the weavers of Kashmir. These shawls were originally very few and it took very skilled artisans to weave the delicate hair (which measured between 9 and 11 micrometres). These factors made Shahtoosh shawls very precious. Shahtoosh are so fine that an average size shawl can be passed through a wedding ring!

The Tibetan antelope has the most stringent legal protection there is to offer, whether international, national or local. It has been listed in Appendix 1 of CITES (no commercial trade permitted) since 1979, as a Class 1 protected species in China (same category as the giant panda) and similar high levels of protection in Nepal, India as well as, in the state of Kashmir, where the prized shawls are manufactured.

But despite all this protection, the poor Chiru is still suffering. Clandestine trade persists and it’s possible for the wealthy to buy shahtoosh in markets around the world whether it’s Milan, Madrid, Paris, London, Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, Delhi or the UAE.

So the next time you go to buy a shawl….make sure what you are buying!

Remember: BUYER BEWARE!

Until next time…Commander Zorro signing off!