Friday, September 16, 2005

Saving the shahtoosh, not the chiru

Turns out the point is to save the shahtoosh, not the chiru, or at least that's what Swaminathan Aiyar tells us in his Sunday ToI column this week.

As you may know, the chiru, or the Tibetan antelope, is a species in danger of becoming extinct because of relentless hunting. Once hunted, its skin is made into shahtoosh shawls. About three chiru are killed to make one shahtoosh shawl. Here is a summary of the chiru issue.

And what's so great about the shahtoosh shawl? Well, I've never (shudder) seen one, nor do I ever want to - but I presume it's warm, because each shawl is after all made from the skin of three of these beautiful animals that lived - before they were killed and skinned - in sub-zero temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau.

Oh, and apparently you can put each of these shawls through a ring, if you care for that sort of amusement.

The chiru lives on 11,000 to 18,000 feet altitudes at temperatures of -40 degrees F. As this report points out, its numbers have come down to 70,000 from an estimated 1,000,000 in the earlier part of the last century, and 20,000 are killed every year:
Traditionally, the animal is trapped prior to killing. However, with today’s increasing demand, contemporary poachers have devised innovative, cost and time effective ways to kill. At night, they shine bright lights at whole resting herds. The innocent animal, baffled by this new experience, freezes - and thereby signs its own death warrant. The poachers let loose their automatic weapons at these sitting targets.
Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar suggests a solution for the problem of the vanishing chiru: farm the chirus, and save the shahtoosh. Of course, it isn't as if he is the first to have suggested this: chiru farming is one of those ideas that seem totally bizarre to me, but yes, it's been discussed.

Aiyar harks back to other examples, including that of the eider duck farming in Iceland, and a law enacted in 1281 making eider ducks the property of farmers on whose land they bred. But hello: eider ducks are now a protected species, and farmers in Iceland use a technique of collecting the down without harming the bird. And no, it is not possible to obtain the shahtoosh wool without killing the chiru.

Here is Aiyar's suggestion, make what you will of it:
We must allow the chiru to be farmed and harvested. The farmed chiru will have to be killed selecively, just as minks are killed for their fur...Farming chirus will be no more unethical than farming goats for meat and skin.
Why do this? He says:
If chiru-farming spreads quickly, the price of shahtoosh shawls will crash. This will make poaching less profitable and attractive. Low shahtoosh prices will greatly reduce the money power of poachers...In any event, farm-rearing will ensure that the chiru flourishes in farms, and does not become extinct.
To me, it's impossible to justify killing three beautiful wild animals every time you want to push a length of shawl through a ring, blah blah. And to farm them just to kill them for shawls. Farm them and kill them to protect them from becoming extinct?

Meanwhile, here is a detailed factsheet about the chiru and its regulatory status.

Cross-posted on Indian Writing. Chiru picture Earth Island.

26 Comments:

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7:35 AM  
Blogger Sakshi said...

Its just sad to see...people meant to be saving..are killing in the name of saving.

6:45 PM  
Blogger uma said...

Sakshi: yes, it's horrific.

3:58 AM  
Blogger Mridula said...

Such a sad state of affairs. I know it is very difficult to achieve but I wish the demand for these shawls goes away, but it has never before.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmm... one has to take all the aspects into consideration before reaching any conclusion... did anyone think abt the weavers who weave these shawls

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer Leaf said...

The idea that they have to be killed in order to harvest the fiber should be reexamined. In fact, I don't see any reason why they have to die. I feel qualified to say this because I have extensive experience with goats, including fiber goats. Other fiber bearing animals, such as musk oxen, cashmere goats, angoras goats and the changra goats, are all either combed (most common in order to avoid harvesting the longer guard hairs) or shorn. The undercoat sheds naturally each spring. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by killing them, in terms of fiber production. My best guess for why they are killing them instead is that they cannot get close enough to the animal to comb the fiber out, so they simply kill them. In this sense, farming them would solve the problem, but if farmed, they should not be killed.

The next obvious issue is that it seems morally wrong to farm the chriu. However, if it will save the chiru in the long run by farming a restricted fraction of them commercially and in a *sustainable* (i.e., not killing them to harvest the fiber) manner, then farming them (again, only a restricted and highly regulated number of them) may in fact be the answer.

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