Antelope

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Many cultures do not make a distinction between deer and antelope, especially with regards to symbolism.  The antelope is mainly distinguished by its elusiveness.

The Black Buck antelope  (Cervicapra Linnaeus kaliar) is the one with the 30-inch twisty ringed horns. Mahasiddha Naropa is often portrayed holding such a horn, but it could also be a chiri horn. (One etymology of Naropa's name is horned-one and nayro is also the word for the Tibetan "long-O" vowel sign that resembles a pair of horns.)

The Black Buck is found all across north India and Nepal but its numbers are rapidly dwindling.  When young it is dark on top and white underneath, but as it matures the males become more and more black.  For this, and other reasons, it is considered sacred to the moon. 

Chiru

The Tibetan antelope or chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni) is a symbol of innocence and generosity.  Its pelt is often pictured in tangkas as the shawl, or seat cover, of great yogis such as the Buddhist master Naropa.  Perhaps it is one of those horns he holding.  

The range of chiru includes Tibet, China and northern Kashmir.  This animal is the source of shahtoosh, the most precious natural fiber in history known even in ancient times.  Its source was such a closely guarded secret that the 'myth' arose of an elusive toosh bird.  

Ironically, the late 20th-century fashion for Kashmir shawls and "pashmina" may have developed as a result of the desire of the rich and famous not to appear to be cruel fur-wearers.  One-upmanship led to the discovery of shatoosh [also, shahtoosh.]  

The wool of the rare Tibetan antelope or chiru [<video & photo] is much finer, softer and warmer than lambswool or even cashmere.  The word Shah-toosh [king of wool] is used also for the shawl itself.  They have been known as " ring shawls" at least since Victorian times, when the fineness of the fabric permitted a yard-wide piece to be drawn through a lady's wedding ring. 

The dry mountain air of Kashmir is essential to the spinning of this fibre.  The weaving is meticulous work, extremely hard on the eyes and a blanket can take a year to complete.  The Kashmiris succeeded in producing a fabric so light and transparent it needed to be starched to embroider.  Unfortunately, few craftspeople today can match the fine Kashmiri embroidery in the auspicious mango designs called paisley, after the British nobleman who introduced the shawl to Victorian England.  

At first, chiru were hunted for meat, their elegant horns used for ritual objects or even as gun mounts.  Only secondarily were their pelts sold to wool traders.  One antelope skin yields only 150 gm. of wool. 

The fibers were graded according to color: 

The darker brown hairs are the newest and softest but the pure white is the most prized and most rare.  Half again as thin as the finest cashmere, shahtoosh possesses some remarkable properties. An egg wrapped in a shawl and left in the sun would be cooked in a few hours.  

 ~ Royal Cashmere  site

Shawls were traditionally woven in three natural pastel shades -- white, beige and ivory.  One alone can require the death of from 2 - 7 animals since a kilo yields only around three short (78") shawls.  Nevertheless, the trade was once worth $160 million to Kashmir.   

It is estimated that about 20,000 chiru are killed every year for their skins. 

According to the WTI and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, chiru wool usually enters India through Nepal, with New Delhi the main centre of the trade. 

Though India has banned trade in the shawls and other such products, Kashmir, the home of shahtoosh production was exempt amid concerns that it  would affect the livelihood of too many.  According to the WTI, about 30,000 Kashmiri weavers depend on the trade. 

In 1994, World Tibet Network stated that a kilo of shahtoosh cost Rs. 45, 000 and around 2,500 kg. was smuggled into Kashmir via Nepal.  In 1997, a consignment of 138 shawls, some as long as  3 meters, was confiscated at London airport.  The Renaissance Company was fined less than $2, 500 in spring 2000.  But in Delhi 2001, possession of a shahtoosh shawl "with intent to traffic" became a serious offence.

In the past, out of confusion (with the cashmere goat,) or ignorance, or as a result of deception, it was believed that Tibetan nomads collected clumps of shatoosh left behind on bushes as the antelopes ran through.   But that is a complete falsehood; to obtain the wool the animals have to be slaughtered.  A churi cannot be caught and shorn, nor can its wool be plucked as from angora rabbits. 

It is unlikely that studies being done on the possibility of domestication will meet with the results that have been achieved with the vicuna of South America.

Attempts to Ban the Trade

As the demand increased, it led to poaching of the antelope, which is listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Preservation) Act of 1972 forbidding trade in rare animals, or derivatives. 

By 1991, as chiru were faced with extinction, any hunting of them had been officially banned in China.  Following the seizure of a shipment of shatoosh at London airport in 1994, China renewed efforts to enforce the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES.)  Then World Wildlife Fund helped co-ordinate a campaign against poaching in the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve in western Qinghai.

In 1992, the Chinese appointed a special force, the Kekexili District Protection Administration, made up of former members of the Wild Yak Brigade to patrol the 45,000 square km. Kekexili, China's largest uninhabited area, against poachers who, in 1998 alone, may have killed more than 25,000 chiru.

However, those [same] 8 wardens were later arrested for selling 94 pelts which they had seized.  Each person got 4,000 yuan (HK$3,760) from the sale (South China Morning Post, Beijing, Mar. 29, 2001.)

Despite efforts, churi meat appeared in Shanghai restaurants, according to Australia's The Sunday Telegraph of Feb. 23, 2000.

Finally in spring 2001, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) called for a common strategy by India, China and Nepal to fight the lucrative but illegal trade, but it continues.

What Every Prospective Shatoosh-buyer Should Know

The habitat of chiru is at 14, 000 feet (4, 200 metres) above sea level.  How can the antelope brush against bushes there? There are no bushes at that altitude.  Therefore, one shawl means killing five antelopes, as no chiri has ever been captured alive, as far as we know.

Though a recent estimate by Wildlife Conservation Society biologist George Schaller put the current population of chiru at between 65, 000 - 72, 500, many experts believe that there are in reality, far fewer.

Consider the corpses of those last few chiru wrapped around your shoulders.


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