U.S. Proposes to List Tibetan Antelope as Endangered

WASHINGTON, DC, October 14, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that listing the Tibetan antelope as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act is warranted.

Populations of Tibetan antelope, locally called chiru, have "declined drastically over the past three decades" because the animals are being killed illegally in large numbers for their wool, known in the international marketplace as "shahtoosh" or "king of wool," the agency said last week.

Every year some 20,000 endangered Tibetan antelope are killed to meet the demands of illegal trading in their undercoat. Unlike other cashmere wool, which can be sheared off an animal, the antelope's sought after shahtoosh, or underwool, can only be harvested after it is killed.

Since 1979, international trade in shahtoosh and shahtoosh products has been forbidden under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), so it is already illegal to commercially import shahtoosh products into the United States.

Listing the Tibetan antelope under the Endangered Species Act would prohibit the sale or offering for sale of shahtoosh products in interstate or foreign commerce. This would give U.S. prosecutors additional means of fighting shahtoosh smuggling and the illegal market within the United States.

The Tibetan antelope is native to the Tibetan Plateau in China as well as small areas of northern India and western Nepal. As recently as 40 to 50 years ago, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tibetan antelope roamed the Tibetan Plateau. Today, the agency estimates, antelope numbers could be as low as 65,000 individuals.


This baby Tibetan antelope is a prime target for poachers. (Photo courtesy IFAW)
China says the antelope is recovering because of a government crackdown on poaching, and China's most recent population estimate is about 100,000 antelope.

But now, the antelope face another threat, the Fish and Wildife Service says in its listing proposal. "Habitat impacts, especially those caused by domestic livestock grazing, appear to be a contributory factor in the decline, and could have potentially greater impacts in the near future," the agency said.

Shahtoosh is prized as one of the finest animal fibers in the world. Shawls woven from the wool are so fine that an entire shawl can be passed through a finger ring. Since the 1980s, expensive shahtoosh scarves and shawls, often called ring shawls, have become high fashion status symbols.

"Tibetan antelope are always killed to collect their wool," the U.S. agency says. "No cases of capture and release wool collection are known, nor is naturally shed wool collected from shrubs and grass tufts for use as is often erroneously stated, primarily by people within the shahtoosh trade."

Wool is smuggled from China to the states of Jammu and Kashmir in India, where it is woven into shawls and scarves and exported illegally to markets in the U.S. and Europe.

Marshall Jones, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said the finding that the Tibetan antelope warrants listing as an endangered species was made in response to a petition submitted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Tibetan Plateau Project of the Earth Island Institute.

On October 6, 1999, the service received a petition requesting that the Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) be listed as endangered throughout its entire range from the Bronx Zoo based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) written by Dr. Joshua Ginsberg, director of the society's Asia Program, and renowned zoologist Dr. George Schaller, who serves as WCS director of science. They were joined by Justin Lowe, director of the Tibetan Plateau Project, an endeavor of the Earth Island Institute.

In China, the chiru is a Class 1 protected species under a law which prohibits all killing except by special permit from the central government. China has expended considerable effort and resources in an attempt to control poaching, the FWS acknowledges, but has been unable to do so because of the "magnitude of the poaching, the extensive geographic areas involved, and the high value of shahtoosh, which gives poachers great incentive to continue their illegal activities."

Several times, China has appealed to other governments and organizations to eliminate the demand for and production of shahtoosh products.

At the April 2000 meeting of Parties to CITES, a resolution sponsored by China on the conservation of Tibetan antelope and control of trade in their parts was approved.

The resolution urges CITES signatories to reduce poaching and smuggling of Tibetan antelope parts and wool, prohibit shahtoosh processing, establish and enforce internal trade controls, and adopt penalties to deter illegal trade.

Following the meeting, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced a status review to list Tibetan Antelope on the U.S. Endangered Species List.


A shahtoosh shawl in the custody of the U.S. Customs Service (Photo courtesy U.S. Customs Service)
Environmental organizations around the world have been campaigning to save the antelope. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has been building a coalition of groups in India to target the illegal process and market there.

A two year campaign against the manufacture and use of shahtoosh by IFAW and its partner group the Wildlife Trust of India, resulted in a six month wildlife products amnesty scheme which wrapped up today.

People in possession of illegal shahtoosh items had until today to register and declare their shawls and scarves without penalty. Those who registered were given an ownership certificate.

The applicant has to declare that the specimen of wildlife or derivative shall not be transferred to anyone other than by inheritance, not by sale or gift. The amnesty scheme does not apply to illegal wildlife traders, who are covered under a different law. The maximum penalty for such illegal trade can be as high as seven years imprisonment and a high fine.

But, says the Wildlife Trust of India, two weeks before the deadline, wildlife product owners were still battling with dilemmas such as whether there is a permissible number of wildlife items that can be declared at a time or whether declarations will lead to income tax raids.

When the Indian wildlife advocacy organization contacted some shahtoosh shawl owners in Delhi, they only agreed to speak about the issue on the condition on anonymity. "A woman with over 10 shahtoosh shawls said she might not declare all her shawls for fear of confiscation. Another lady was worried about the kind of stamp that the authorities will use and whether it will be an indelible ink stamp that will leave her shawls stained forever. People with wardrobes full of shahtoosh shawls are uncomfortable declaring their lot since they could be branded as 'traders' and therefore land themselves in 'trouble.'”

The Chief Wildlife Warden’s office in Delhi has more than 580 applications, a majority seeking to register shahtoosh shawls. Since the law gives no guidance on how many can be legalized, the Wildlife Trust of India says, people’s worries only seem to increase.

In Nepal, the antelope is listed as an endangered species. Smugglers use Nepal as a transit route from China to India, and recent investigations by WWF Nepal Program and TRAFFIC India have documented the routes used.

Although Nepal has made some effort to stop the illegal trade, including the confiscation of several shahtoosh shipments, it has been unable to eliminate or control the trade. This has, in part, resulted from the lack of CITES implementing legislation at a national level, which has now been introduced.

Public awareness of the plight of this antelope is the key to conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says. Recognition through listing under the Endangered Species Act is expected to result in public awareness, and this in turn encourages and results in conservation actions by federal and state governments, private agencies and groups, and individuals.

Shoppers can help safeguard the Tibetan antelope, says IFAW, by purchasing alternatives such as pashmina, that do not endanger wildlife and are much cheaper. Pashmina cashmere is the fine hair underlying the thicker outer wool of the Himalayan Kashmir goat which lives in the world's highest mountain range. Goats are not killed for the manufacture of pashmina garments.