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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 April, 2003, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
Fears grow for rare antelope
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Indian officials have made what is thought to be the largest-ever seizure of wool from the highly endangered Tibetan antelope.

Antelope, Ifaw
Tibetan antelope also called chiru
Shoulder Height: 80-100 cm
Habitat: Tibetan steppe at elevations of 3,700-5,500 metres
Undercoat consists of shahtoosh - Persian for "king of wools"
They confiscated 215 kilograms of pure shahtoosh wool, used to make luxury shawls for the international market.

Conservationists say the haul means about 3,000 animals must have been killed.

They believe only about 50,000 Tibetan antelopes, known locally as chiru, survive in the wild.

The wool was seized in the last few days by the Delhi state wildlife department.

The shawls woven from shahtoosh sell for up to 11,000 each: the wool is so fine the shawl can be passed through a wedding ring.

Deterrent demand

Jenny Hawley is campaigns officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw). She said: "This is devastating news - 6% of the entire population of Tibetan antelopes has been wiped out to satisfy the demands of fashion.

"Ifaw applauds the Indian authorities for this seizure, but it shows that shahtoosh shawls are still in great demand in India and internationally."

Antelope, Ifaw
The authorities are working hard to crack down on the trade
Ashok Kumar works for the Wildlife Trust of India, Ifaw's campaign partner against the shahtoosh trade. He said: "Despite all the ongoing efforts to prevent the trade, and new legislation banning it in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, further action is clearly needed."

Ifaw wants the people trading in the wool just seized to be given deterrent sentences. It says more resources should go into law enforcement in China, Tibet, Nepal and India, the antelope's range states.

Globally, Ifaw says, customs officers need to do more to stop imports and exports of the shawls.

Extinction threat

To help them, it has produced shahtoosh identification kits, available from the UK Government.

And it urges consumers to buy alternatives like cashmere and pashminas.

Antelope, Ifaw
Demand for shahtoosh is taking the species to the brink of extinction
The Tibetan antelope is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), and under wildlife laws in China and India.

Around 1900 there are thought to have been about a million animals on the Tibetan plateau.

With Chinese officials estimating that 20,000 are killed annually, they look likely to vanish within the next two or three years, Ifaw says.

Between three and five animals are needed to make one shawl.

Livelihood concern

Gill Sanders of Ifaw told BBC News Online: "They're wild animals, so you couldn't shear them like a sheep.

"If you want the wool, you have to kill them. And they live at about 14,000 feet, which is why they grow this wool - without it they'd die.

Antelope, Ifaw
Previous hauls have been destroyed
"People have talked about farming them, but that would mean moving them to lower altitudes, and that wouldn't be practical."

When the ban on the shahtoosh trade was introduced in Jammu and Kashmir in June 2000, workers said the livelihoods of more than 500,000 people could be harmed.

They said the business was more than 600 years old, and the species had survived so far.

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