WASHINGTON - For the first time in Thailand, Thai authorities busted a major smuggling ring involved in the illegal trade of shahtoosh wool, which is only obtained by killing the endangered Tibetan Antelope. During a raid on three Bangkok stores located in a high-end tourist area, police seized over 250 purported shahtoosh shawls which are well known in the fashion world for their exceptional quality. A single shawl requires wool from three to five dead antelopes.
If all of the shawls prove to be genuine following forensic tests, the haul could represent over 1,000 Tibetan Antelopes that were killed for their wool, with a retail value of several million dollars.
Unlike other wools that can be harvested by shearing or combing, shahtoosh, which means "the king of wools" can only be obtained by killing Tibetan Antelopes (Pantholops hodgsonii, or commonly known as the Chiru), which live almost exclusively in the remote Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Poaching has drastically slashed the Tibetan Antelope population because shahtoosh shawls can command high prices on the black market. In 1900, around 1 million antelopes lived in the wild; today, there may be as few as 50,000.
The raid comes after 4 months of coordinated undercover work by members of the new Association of South East Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) including a division of the Royal Thai police and the Thai Department of Natural Resources with contributions by TRAFFIC, the trade monitoring network for the World Conservation Union and Word Wildlife Fund and by WildAid.
"These are highly organized criminals who have until today operated in Thailand with little fear of capture or penalty." said Crawford Allan, Deputy Director of TRAFFIC North America. "Today's bust is testimony to the value of ASEAN-WEN, which is the world's biggest wildlife law enforcement network and has allowed authorities to create a united front against wildlife smugglers."
The trade route for shahtoosh starts in Tibetan Plateau, where poachers hunt the endangered antelope. The wool is smuggled into the mountainous region of Kashmir, where shahtoosh weaving has a long history. The finished shawls are then sold in India -or they make their way to luxury goods markets in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Some of the stores that were busted in the raid operated out of luxury hotels for wealthy tourists. The dealers claimed their biggest buyers were tourists from the United States, Europe and Japan.
Despite conservation campaigns, strict laws and high-profile criminal cases, demand by wealthy tourists for the super-fine wool continues to drive poaching. Just last year, Swiss officials confiscated 537 shahtoosh shawls, signaling the death of over 2,000 Tibetan Antelopes. Last August, an anti-poaching raid in Tibet uncovered 100 Tibetan Antelope pelts.
There are well-known substitutes for shahtoosh, including pashmina, which is made from the shearing of domestic goats in the Himalayas.
"They may look attractive and luxurious but it is not fashionable or legal to bring a shahtoosh shawl home from a trip abroad," said Ginette Hemley, Vice President for WWF's Species Conservation Program.