Italian model with luxurious pashmina shawl, made from cashmere goat underwool.
A wild and woolly tale from Tibet: the story of two animals bearing the world’s most sought-after underwool—shahtoosh and pashmina. This is a cautionary tale about how the Tibetan antelope was pushed to the edge of extinction to feed a fashion craze in Milan, Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York. And how the cashmere trade, dominated by China, has threatened to turn the grasslands of Mongolia into desert.
In the 1980s, there was a sudden explosion in demand for shawls and scarves made from shahtoosh, a special wool used by weavers in Kashmir. Shahtoosh shawls have long been a symbol of status—worn by the royalty of India and Central Asia, mostly men. In fact, translated from Persian, shahtoosh means the wool (toosh) of kings (shah).
But which animal did the wool come from? It was a complete mystery. The secret of the wool’s source was as closely guarded by Kashmiri weavers as the origin of silk was by the Chinese. Kashmiris variously claimed that the wondrous wool was picked off bushes in Tibet after the ibex (Tibetan wild goat) passed through, or that the ibex rubbed on rocks, leaving hair behind. Others claimed that shahtoosh came from the down of the “toosh bird,” or the Siberian goose.
In 1991, American wildlife expert George Schaller received a letter from Michael Sautman, a Californian who was running cashmere- processing plants in Mongolia and Tibet. Sautman had received a request from a fashion firm in Italy for 1,100 pounds of shahtoosh, from the Changtang region of north Tibet. George Schaller knew there were few ibex in the Changtang region. However, he had seen a lot of Tibetan antelope carcasses at a nomad camp, and Michael Sautman had seen shahtoosh arriving in Lhasa ready for shipment to Kashmir. Comparing notes, the two men concluded that shahtoosh had to be the underwool of the Tibetan antelope.
Fashion craze for Shahtoosh
In the late 1980s, shahtoosh shawls and scarves became popular in fashion boutiques in the West, sold to socialites and movie stars for up to $5,000 apiece, with larger shawls fetching up to $20,000 each. Tibetan antelopes cannot be raised in captivity—attempts to do this have failed. To get this wool, Tibetan and Chinese hunters shoot the antelope and strip the underwool, leaving the carcass behind. Drop-dead gorgeous: Tibetan antelopes were being shot in large numbers to feed a fashion craze in Milan, Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York.
This came right on the heels of an extensive wildlife hunting era in Tibet, initiated by Chinese settlers and military. From 1950 to 1980, the Chinese occupiers of Tibet decimated huge herds of gazelles, antelopes, wild asses and wild yaks—for food (exported to China) and for sport. By the early 1980s, the massive herds of wild animals that used to roam the grasslands of Tibet had vanished. An eerie silence descended on the grasslands.
Recent research has revealed that shahtoosh is the finest animal fiber in the world—finer than the hair of the vicuña (South America) or the Arctic muskox. The Tibetan antelope’s wool is a special adaptation that traps layers of warm air close to its body so it can tolerate freezing temperatures—the key to its survival in the extreme environment of Tibet. The wool is gossamer in weight and texture, soft as baby’s skin, yet incredibly warm. Shahtoosh is so fine that even a large shawl can be pulled with ease through a finger ring.
Eventually, a specific DNA test was created to identify shahtoosh, even when mixed with other kinds of wool like pashmina. George Schaller mounted a successful campaign to have the shahtoosh trade banned in Kashmir in 2000, and shipments of shawls were seized around the world. With demand down, the killing of antelopes tapered off in the early 2000s. George Schaller calculated that in the 1990s, between 200,000 and 300,000 antelopes were killed. His calculation was based on annual sale figures for shahtoosh shawls in Kashmir: the weaving of a single shawl requires the underwool of three antelopes.
Poaching Tibetan Antelopes
Qualifying as the largest of Tibet’s parks is Changtang National Nature Reserve, with an area of 115,000 square miles, comprising grassland and desert. Established in 1993, this reserve is home to perhaps 70 percent of Tibet’s population of the chiru, the Tibetan antelope. But within the park’s boundaries, not enough has been done to prevent the poaching of the antelope, which is on China’s highly endangered species list. The fleet-footed Tibetan antelope can outrun predators—with the possible exception of the Tibetan wolf—but it cannot outrun hunters with four-wheel-drive vehicles and high-powered rifles.
Who are the poachers? Nomads, officials, truck drivers, miners, military, all out for quick profit. Well-equipped poachers drove jeeps into the Changtang and other regions from Golmud and Xining, hunting at night, freezing antelopes in their headlamps and gunning the confused animals down. Tibetan nomads hunted antelopes for centuries, but they used ancient muskets only capable of bringing down a few antelopes at a time. The game changer was the introduction of fast vehicles and high-powered automatic weapons that could mow down entire herds of antelopes.
It is extremely unlikely that Tibetan nomads would be allowed to buy or use such weapons, or would have access to expensive vehicles. A more plausible explanation is that Chinese settlers and military looked upon the killing of antelopes as a way to boost their income. Significant population influx came from illegal gold mining. Adjacent to Changtang National Nature Reserve in Qinghai are two more reserves: Kekixili and Arjin Shan. The discovery of gold in 1984 in the Kekixili region caused some 30,000 Chinese miners to pour in; rampant poaching of antelopes followed. The same situation occurred when Arjin Shan Reserve was invaded illegally in the early 1990s by more than 50,000 gold miners. Poachers found the calving grounds of the chiru, where the antelopes gathered in large numbers. The antelopes were being slaughtered at the rate of 20,000 a year in the 1990s, according to estimates by George Schaller. Poaching probably continues in Changtang National Nature Reserve, despite the ban on the shahtoosh trade, because of a lack of patrols and enforcement.
When Cashmere Goats Chew up the Grasslands
The solution to the trade in shahtoosh is very simple: just replace it with pashmina. Kashmiris weave fine shawls and scarves from pashmina, which is high-grade cashmere wool shorn from the underbelly of goats in Tibetan and Mongolian regions. This is potentially a sustainable trade, but one that comes with a hefty price for the environment if not managed the right way. In Mongolia, it went the wrong way.
The cashmere goat is domestic: the animal is reared by both Tibetan and Mongolian nomads—and it relies on the grasslands of these regions for sustenance. But somewhere along the line in Mongolia, things went terribly wrong. Chinese officials have been trying to pin blame for erosion and desertification of Inner Mongolia on climate change and on overgrazing by Mongolian nomads. But for this one, the Chinese have only their disastrous experimental policies to blame—and their unbridled greed for cashmere.
By the 1990s, China had cornered the world market on cashmere, which derives from the soft undercoat of the cashmere goat. The cashmere goat only grows this underwool in harsh, cold, wind-swept conditions that are prevalent in Mongolia and Tibet. Catering to huge demand from Western buyers, Chinese officials in Inner Mongolia decided to greatly increase herds of cashmere goats. The wool was processed in Chinese factories and shipped at enormous profits to places like Italy, where it was turned into shawls, sweaters, and luxury clothing items.
One unforeseen problem: cashmere goats are definitely not grasslands-friendly. Unlike yaks, which nibble the grass and graze lightly with minimal impact, cashmere goats graze voraciously—consuming all greenery and ripping grass out by the roots. The sharp hooves of cashmere goats pierce the soil surface—a crust composed of fungi, mosses, lichens, and bacteria that help retain moisture. Once the crust is torn, strong winds in Mongolia can carry away the sand underneath in dust storms.
The end result was that large swathes of Inner Mongolia turned into wasteland, stripped of grass by the increased numbers of cashmere goats—and destroyed by the greed of Chinese entrepreneurs selling cashmere. When Gobi Desert dust started raining down on Beijing, Chinese officials got the message: something disastrous was going on. Officials backtracked and ordered the decimation of cashmere goat herds and ordered more rotational farming. Meantime, a particularly harsh winter in 2010 killed off large numbers of goats.
With a sudden drop in cashmere production from Inner Mongolia, China’s cashmere buyers turned their attention to (independent) Outer Mongolia for supplies. Outer Mongolia’s population of cashmere goats soared. According to one report, the number of goats in Outer Mongolia increased from 25 million in 1993 to 40 million by 2007, by which time cashmere goats accounted for almost half of all livestock. China is the largest buyer of Outer Mongolia’s raw and washed cashmere, taking an estimated two-thirds of all exports—one-third legally, and one-third smuggled to avoid export taxes. And with this comes the same colossal cost: potentially turning the grasslands of Outer Mongolia into desert.
This cashmere goat over-grazing problem has been compounded by massive, rampant mining for rare earths, copper, coal and other resources in both inner and outer Mongolia—to feed China’s voracious industrial complex. So much activity has taken place in recent years that cashmere goats in some areas are now covered in dust—varying in colour, depending on what is being mined nearby.
In Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia, the dust is black, from coal. The region holds an estimated 26 percent of China’s domes- tic coal reserves. Located on theYellow River in Inner Mongolia, Wuhai City used to thrive on grape growing, wine making, and dairy farming. Back in 1998, there were four factories in Wuhai. In 2012, that number skyrocketed to more than 400 factories, mostly connected with coal production. Wuhai, a city of half a million, produced 38 million tons of coal in 2012. Chickens and other animals in the area have turned black from coal dust and pollution, as most of the coal processing takes place right in the city. No word on what colour the cashmere goats are, but the underwool probably needs a good wash before hitting the world market.
—this material has been excerpted and adapted from the author’s book Meltdown in Tibet (Macmillan, NY, 2014) and from the digital photobook Tibet, Disrupted (Apple iBooks, 2016).