To the fashion world, shahtoosh means ultra-chic, ultra-expensive, the "king of wools." To wildlife protection groups, it spells disaster for an endangered Tibetan antelope.
Enlisting the aid of model Shalom Harlow, the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society are launching a campaign today to stop the use of the illegal luxury fiber made from the wool of the Tibetan chiru antelope.
Shahtoosh shawls, priced at up to $15,000, are said to be so fine that even a large one can be pulled through a wedding ring; thus the name "ring shawl," once used only as a traditional dowry item in Tibet.
The campaign comes after reports that a federal grand jury in New Jersey has subpoenaed model Christie Brinkley and dozens of other high-fashion figures in an investigation of antelope poaching. They were said to have bought shahtoosh shawls at a charity function in 1994.
Also, representatives of China, France, India, Nepal, Britain and the United States met last week in China to discuss conservation of the Tibetan antelope.
Trade of shahtoosh items has been illegal in the United States and in most other countries since 1979, but they have shown up recently in exclusive shops around the world and in private sales, the conservationist groups say.
As a fairly luxurious substitute, Harlow suggested pashmina, made from a nonendangered Tibetan mountain goat. The cost would run about $300 for a typical shawl.
Unlike the antelope, the goats do not have to be killed to obtain the fiber, said Kerry Green Zobor, fund spokeswoman.
"Some people claim the fiber for shahtoosh was gathered off rocks and bushes where the animals graze, but that's not true. They're being killed at the rate of 20,000 a year," Zobor said in an interview. With no more than 70,000 in the wild, they could become extinct in a few years, she said.
The antelopes are slaughtered on the Tibetan plateau in China and their hides are taken to Kashmir, India, where the fiber is extracted and woven into clothing bound for clandestine markets in Hong Kong, New York, Paris and elsewhere, Zobor said.
"The demand for shahtoosh is the single greatest threat to the survival of the Tibetan antelope," said Ginette Hemley, World Wildlife Fund vice president for species conservation. "But we can stop this savage trade if consumers refuse to buy and wear shahtoosh."
Last month, a Chinese court sentenced a farmer to 12 years in prison for poaching 88 Tibetan chiru antelope, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. The farmer got the equivalent of $63 each for the rare hides.