Hope for Chiru, as Pashmina shawls make comeback

December 26th, 2008 - 11:56 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Dec 26 (IANS) There was a time when the Tibetan antelope Chiru used to be slaughtered en masse for wool to make expensive Shahtoosh shawls. But today more and more Kashmiri artisans who produced these are switching to Pashmina, giving the endangered species a new lease of life.Officials said this transformation - aided by the government and community groups which are helping artisans market Pashmina - is a positive step towards protecting the Chiru in their main home in China’s Changthang Nature Reserve.

In the past, these animals were killed in large numbers to obtain its wool for making shawls. Chiru wool, famous for its softness and warmth, is called Shahtoosh. Fuelled by global demand, the illegal Shahtoosh trade continued despite a government ban.

Today “their (Kashmiri craftsmen) perceptions that higher incomes are possible only in Shahtoosh have been changed in a major way”, said Aniruddha Mookerjee of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), an NGO.

“In the last three years, we have proved to workers that they can earn more through Pashmina than through Shahtoosh, if Pashmina is rightly positioned in the market. At the same time, the artisans have more control over the production process.”

Pashmina shawls are made from the wool of Changthangi or Pashmina goat. These goats are farmed in the Ladakh and Lahaul Spiti regions of Jammu and Kashmir. The wool is combed to derive Pashmina, through a process that does not threaten the lives of the goats.

Each combing of an adult male goat yields 250-270 gm of wool each year during summers.

Pashmina goats are also found in Tibet, China, Mongolia and some other central Asian countries.

In 2001, a study conducted by WTI found that 15,000 people were directly working in Shahtoosh and 50,000 people were partially affected by the ban.

Not all of them have switched to Pashmina. Some still occasionally work on Shahtoosh that still has demand in the clandestine market.

“Most of these artisans are still lured by high remuneration in the Shahtoosh industry, although the production has seen a major decrease in the past five years,” said Ashok Kumar, member of the advisory committee of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau under the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

“At least five Chirus are killed to obtain the wool for making a single shawl for a man. Only the workers in the Kashmir Valley have the know-how to make the shawl,” he added.

To promote Pashmina as an alternative to Shahtoosh, WTI and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) helped the artisans form the Kashmir Handmade Pashmina Promotion Trust (KHPPT).

Till date, 35 groups with some 450 members are affiliated to KHPPT. A majority of these groups are in Srinagar and adjoining areas where Pashmina is mainly produced.

“Many of the workers who were previously reluctant to join our process have joined us after realising our success in different craft exhibitions in which we participated,” said Mookerjee.

Further, to boost workers’ confidence, the Jammu and Kashmir government had recently listed the handmade Pashmina as GI (Geographic Indication of Origin), which is a name or sign used on certain products that corresponds to a specific geographical location or origin.

Major post-weaving processes of Pashmina include clipping, washing, dyeing and embroidery. These processes are again divided into 30 sub-processes.

The spinning process employs 70 percent of the workforce, mostly women. Each loom requires at least 10 regular spinners to support it with enough wool.

The most common size of a Pashmina shawl in the market is 1×2 metres, but now smaller sizes have been introduced for stoles, scarves and special ladies shawls. People nowadays are also offering Pashmina apparel.

“As a consumer one must be aware that anything that sells in the name of Pashmina is not Pashmina. Many times normal woollen shawls made on mechanised looms, treated with silicon softeners in Ludhiana or Amritsar are passed off as Pashmina,” Mookerjee told IANS.

The genuine plain Pashmina shawl sells for Rs.8,000-12,000 depending on the quality of weave, style and design. A fully-embroidered Pashmina shawl can cost up to Rs.100,000.

“We have been working to market Pashmina in the European markets, but this needs resources as well as time. This year we have got some small orders from aboard. It’s a good start,” said Mookerjee.

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