Shatoosh, scarves of an endangered species
Shatoosh is the name for both a certain type of wool and the fabric that is woven from it. The fabric is considered to be Kashmir and is of very fine quality. Shatoosh is also very exclusive and in fact only scarves are made of it. Unfortunately, they are scarves that come about in a cruel way. The only way to get the wool is to kill a now critically endangered species. These are the chiru, an antelope species that lives on the Tibetan plateau.
- What is Shatoosh?
- The chiru, an endangered species of antelope
- History of a prohibited trade
- Pashmina, a worthy alternative
What is Shatoosh?
Shatoosh is a very light and soft wool that still gives a lot of warmth. The same applies to the scarves that are woven from it. The scarves are so fine in texture that you can easily put them through a wedding ring.
‘Shatoosh’ is a Persian word meaning ‘from nature and fit for a king’.
The wool comes from a species of antelope, the chiru, which lives on the Tibetan plateau. The problem is that the wool can only be obtained by shooting the antelopes and then poaching their fur. A single coat provides about 100 grams of wool, while one scarf requires 300 – 500 grams of wool. So 3 to 5 chiru must be killed per scarf!
In the meantime, the hunt for the chiru has resulted in these antelopes becoming one of the most endangered species in the world.
Due to the very high quality of the fabric and the rarity of the wool, the scarves are exceptionally expensive. Usually, the price for a scarf is between $ 3,000 and $ 5,000, but it can go up to $ 15,000 for larger ones.
However, it should be understood that hunting the chiru as well as trading the wool or scarves is prohibited.
The chiru, an endangered species of antelope
The chiru (chiroe, tschiru) are an antelope species that only live on the Tibetan plateau. That’s why they become common Tibetan Antelope (pantholops hodgsonii). The plateau is about 2500 meters above sea level, which is above the tree line. It is therefore cold and dry; the temperature rises above freezing for less than 60 days a year. Moreover, a hurricane-like wind blows almost constantly over a practically barren plain.
It is these harsh conditions that have allowed the chiru to develop such a special coat. It consists of a double coat: the wiry top coat protects the antelopes from the elements, while the light, soft undercoat keeps the animals warm. It is this undercoat that shatoosh is made of. And with that it is this unique coat that threatens the chiru’s survival.
Keeping and breeding chiru to be able to collect or shear the wool afterwards is not possible. The animals are so shy of humans that they do not allow themselves to be captured, let alone domesticated. They are also very fast, like many antelope species; they can run faster than wolves and dogs. Hence, shooting the chiru from a distance is the only way to get the fur. That was not such a problem in the old days. The population was one million animals and the only hunters were nomads who hunted on foot with inadequate means. Today things are different. Poachers cross the plains in off-road vehicles and have automatic shotguns that allow them to strike easily over long distances.
The population of the chiru has since been reduced to no more than 75,000 copies. It is estimated that there are 20,000 victims per year. To protect them from extinction, the chiru are included in Appendix 1 of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Animals and Plants. As a result, the buying and selling of products from the chiru is prohibited in all member countries. These include countries directly involved such as China, Nepal, India and Hong Kong.
History of a prohibited trade
The chiru are draft animals that roam the area in which they live. In earlier times, the story went, they were chased by nomad tribes. These slaughter some animals to provide all kinds of necessities, including eating the meat. They also used the coats and thus got to know the excellent qualities of the chiru hair. That would have given them the idea of collecting the wool that the chiru lost each spring as a result of a natural moulting period and that remained all over the plains behind rocks and bushes. Because the nomads could not weave this wool themselves because of its fine structure, they sold it to the Indian weavers in Kashmir. They already had a lot of experience with weaving pashmina, also a wool of very fine quality. Thus Kashmir became the place where shatoosh was woven and where it is still woven.
The story turned out to be largely a myth. As far as the chiru lose their coat during moulting, it doesn’t get stuck behind all kinds of rocks and bushes at all. There are no rocks and bushes on the Tibetan plateau, but there is that hurricane-like wind. Falling out pieces of chiru skin are therefore quickly disappeared. The antelopes are indeed killed for nothing but their fur.
That fact has long been a well-kept secret for many involved. The Native American weavers, for example, didn’t hear the bad news until 1993. That was such a shock to them that they did not want to believe it and continued to deny it for a long time. The buyers of the scarves were often unaware of the gory background of their new showpiece. Ultimately, it was not until the beginning of this century that the truth would be generally recognized. Hopefully, more awareness about the origin of shatoosh will seriously reduce demand. After all, that is the best way to stop illegal practices.
At one point, however, the shatoosh trade flourished, especially in Hong Kong. Of course, that did not just stop after the ban took effect. Governments, especially those in Hong Kong, tried to restrict trade, but ran into a number of problems. The poachers turned out to be difficult to control. The territory of the chiru is inhospitable and the size of all of France. About 7% of their habitat is in a Chinese reserve, the Arjin-Shan reserve, but that hardly helps either. The staff here have only a handful of cars and are no match for the poachers’ equipment. Apart from that, itinerant nomadic tribes still play a shadowy role in transit and trading the furs.
There were also legal problems. This was because confiscated scarves could not be shown to have been woven from chiru wool.
However, that would change. In 1996, a chemist from the Hong Kong forensics laboratory contacted the National Fish and Wildlife Forensiscs Laboratory in the US. Together they developed a diagnostic test for recognizing chiru hair. It turned out that the chiru’s stiff topcoat could never be completely removed from the rest of the coat and that it was precisely the microstructure of this topcoat that differs significantly and recognizably from goat hair and from the fur of other closely related ungulates. The difference is already clearly visible with an ordinary microscope, so the identification of shatoosh can now be done easily, quickly and cheaply.
Since then, the investigation and conviction of traders in shatoosh has become a lot easier. For the time being its trade has not been eradicated, but hopefully the survival of the chiru will now be assured by their own fur.
Pashmina, a worthy alternative
Pashmina is a type of wool whose quality is comparable to shatoosh, but does not require the slaughter of animals. Pashmina is woven, also in Kashmir, from the wool of the Pashmina goat. Unlike that of the chiru, the fur of this goat can be collected in the spring.
‘Kashmir’ is not a type of wool in itself, but is a collective name for different types of fabric that are woven in Kashmir. Pashmina is considered one of the finest types of cashmere.
Nevertheless, a side note must also be made on pashmina. Lately, this fabric is increasingly woven mechanically, instead of by hand. This causes great unemployment among the local population in Kashmir. A beautiful scarf that is woven entirely by hand is therefore preferable in more ways than one.
Several animal organizations have made efforts to publicize the situation regarding shatoosh. In particular, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) have raised the alarm through a joint campaign. That is already starting to bear fruit, so that the demand for shatoosh is now declining in favor of pashmina. Of course, it would be best if pashmina could take the place of shatoosh altogether.