Chiru: an antelope under threat for our craze for shahtoosh

Chiru: an antelope under threat for our craze for shahtoosh
There were about 10 lakh chirus residing in the Tibet plateau some 50 years ago, according to reports. Now, this number has reduced to a mere 75,000. Chiru is a Tibetan antelope, which also exists in Ladhakh region of India and China’s Tibet plateau. 90 per cent decline has been due to uncontrolled poaching, which is done for the wool obtained from this antelope. The wool is called shahtoosh, (meaning ‘king of the fine wools’ in Persian). Shawls are made out of shahtoosh wool, which use the delicate hair of chiru. Some people even say that such a shawl can pass through a finger‘s ring easily.

The process of shawl making is not a recent one; it has been carried out since the time of the moguls. The shawls are still made illegally and sold, which may be worth more than Rs10 lakh in the illegal market. To make a shawl, three chirus have to be killed. There may be a question as to why do they have to kill the chiru to obtain its hair? Can’t the hair combed out of the live animal? The answer is that the shahtoosh comes out of the under coat of the animal and it cannot be harvested without killing it. Many wildlife organisations created campaigns to showcase how cruelly the animal was killed to make a luxury item such as shahtoosh, but traders even used this to lure customers into paying high prices. The traders also told customers that the chiru rubbed its neck on rocks and its hair fell off which were collected by hunters and used for making the shawl.

Actually if the pashmina made out of goat wool and the shahtoosh made from chiru wool are to be compared, the shahtoosh wool’s diameter is 10-12 micron while the pashmina’s is 12-16 micron. However, the pashmina is warmer and more beautiful. So why is the shahtoosh used by people? Perhaps, the only reason is that it is rare. However, there are many animals that have lost their lives to fulfil people’s fantasy of possessing rare objects.

This animal lives on 3,250-5,500 metre elevation. Its predators such as wolf, lynx, snow leopard and red fox are predators of chirus and their young calves. Their rutting season begins during the snow-filled months of November and December. A male chiru can have up to 12 females in his harem. In the breeding season, the chances of them being poached is more as they are seen together and are more relaxed from threats around them.

This antelope is considered to be close to the goat family. Countries like the US, India and China have been working on stopping this cruel trade of shahtoosh shawls, but this is still a big problem in the Tibetan region. However, the number of staff needed to monitor the region and stop the poaching is not present. On the other hand, poachers are much more equipped and are ready to hunt. The crux of the matter is that the animal cannot be saved until the demand for their wool does not stop.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)


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