Shawls, an antelope and the law

The question is not just of farming chiru. It is about the policy that a country should have towards wildlife conservation, forest dwelling people and the elite

Published: Wednesday 15 November 2000

-- Atul Kaushik
Hats off to Anil Agarwal for his insightful piece on Kashmir and environment. It is such rational thinking that can resolve the trade-environment debate.

Uday Turaga
The column you wrote on the issue and the perspective that you brought to the Kashmir issue is immensly creative and appealing. I've often read and heard about the need to attempt resolving the Kashmir issue through a strong economic revival and the ideas you suggest seem to be a wonderful place to start from.

Valmik Thapar
Noted wildlife activist
What can I say! Anil does not understand wildlife and the fact that the Tibetan antelope cannot be bred in captivity. This is not an issue about pro-poor or anti- poor. It is an issue about fact and fiction. Life and its quality cannot be determined by illusionary economic factors.

The next suggestion could be 'eat the meat of deer and antelope and provide protein to the poor'. This entire note by Anil is not worthy of my comments.

Meeta Vyas
Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer, Worldwide Fund for Nature, India
The article on the ban on the trade in shahtoosh has far too many inaccuracies and half-truths. First, it is a fact that itals shawls, made out of the under fleece of a wild animal called Tibetan antelope are highly incorrect to say that they currently fetch the country foreign exchange of about two hundred crore a ayear. We are unaware of any such figure calculated or quoted anywhere. In any case, the figure is a pure guess because no earning can legitimately be estimated for an item that is internationally banned.

Second, it is incorrect to state that some 50,000 families face the prospect of starvation because of the ban. Field research in Jammu and Kashmir, conducted by traffic India, the wildlife trade-monitoring unit at wwf India has found that no weaver or spinner is solely dependent on shahtoosh . They primarily spin and weave pashmina wool shawls, derived from a domestic goat found in Ladakh, and resort to shahtoosh as and when raw material gets smuggled in from Tibet.

Third, Agarwal's suggestion that Tibetan antelope need not be killed for its wool seems to be based on an apparently limited knowledge of the animal or the terrain it inhabits. Tibetan antelope is a wild animal and inhabits the vast barren cold highlands of Chang Thang in Tibet and Ladakh in India. Shahtoosh , it's under fleece, which it grows in winter, is its only natural defence against the icy winds. So even if one could somehow manage to catch it, shear it and release it back, the animal would be condemned to die any way. On the other hand, any effort to breed Tibetan antelope in captivity, elsewhere, will not produce shahtoosh , since the animal produces its fur only at that height (more than 3000 metres). Also, we know of no successful attempts to domesticate and shear this wild animal. This suggests it is not scientifically possible to do so.

Wildlife Institute of India
Dehra Dun
Anil Agarwal's suggestions, regarding farming Tibetan antelope , need very careful examination in view of the following observations:

In India, there is a very small population of Tibetan antelope that migrates into the northern parts of Ladakh during the summer from July to September) through the Chinese territory of Aski Chin ( sic ).

Tibetan antelope females are known to undertake long migrations of over 250 kilometre to the northern high plateau in order to fawn during summer months. Males also undertake similar migrations during this season, usually to different areas.

It is very difficult to estimate the impact of confinement in enclosures on the reproductive behaviour of this migratory species.

The Changthang plateau is certainly 'vast' but the resources in terms of availability of forage are limited in space and time. For species which travel over great distances to get their requirement of forage, it may be extremely difficult for the management to procure supplementary forage during the long winter.

Tibetan antelope farming exercise, therefore may not be economically viable.

Even if the farming is done, it may be difficult for customs and enforcement authorities of different countries to distinguished between legal and illegal shahtoosh , a case similar to that of African and Asian ivory. This problem may be more acute if the farming is not economically viable. Current legal provisions in India also do not provide for captive farming of wild animals. There is no doubt that the government must look after the welfare of residents of the militancy-torn state, but the shahtoosh traders and skilled weavers need to be rehabilitated with alternatives rather then be allowed to continue with their occupation.

T R Baalu
Union minister for environment and forests
Tibetan antelope is included in Appendix-I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species ( cites) of wild flora and fauna. According to the statutes of the convention, commercial dealing in shahtoosh is globally prohibited. There was a specific resolution at the Meeting of parties of the Convention at Nairobi that India should take action to ban production of shahtoosh shawls and its clandestine export to other countries. The action of Jammu and Kashmir government is in keeping with the international opinion on the subject. There are certain restrictions under cites on farming the species included in Appendix-I for commercial purpose. Even the government of India does not approve of farming of wild animals for commercial purposes.

Government of India shares your concern about providing adequate livelihood opportunities for the people engaged in shahtoosh trade. The Union ministry of commerce as well as the Jammu and Kashmir government are fully convinced that there will be no difficulty in rehabilitating these workers in Pashmina trade.

Anil Agarwal replies
I would strongly urge you and the ministry to reconsider its blanket position on farming of wildlife species, especially where it makes economic as well as ecological sense. The policy of the Government of India on farming of wild animals for commercial purposes has to be based on rationality and not on whims and fancies.

I am not very impressed by the argument about the existing rules of cites because a country like India can easily work towards changing these rules. India is a very major power in environmental negotiations and can easily get adequate support for changes in rules if it makes sense. India's prime consideration has to be to ensure that environmental management is done in such a way that it benefits the poor people as much as possible instead of harming their environmental and economic interests.

In fact, the environmental concern today is a major issue in this country because we have been able to show that environmental protection is of critical interest not in itself but because it concerns the survival of a large number of poor who live in this country.

Moreover, what about consistency in policy-making? India repeatedly argues against linking trade and environment in the World Trade Organisation, whereas your ministry has repeatedly argued for bans on trade in wildlife products in cites ? Why can't the government make up its mind?

Unfortunately, wildlife management in this country has not taken into account the strong inequalities that mark the Indian social situation. There is no way that we can manage wildlife or, for that matter, any other natural resource, without involving the people. In fact, if there is a wildlife crisis in this country today, it is precisely because we have not involved the people of our country. It is for this reason that I have always been a very strong critic of the wildlife policies of the government of India. They are entirely based on Western perceptions and totally counterproductive in the Indian context.

In fact, if there have been any major breakthroughs in the last decade or so, they have been, entirely, in areas where the government had tried to promote public participation. Joint Forest Management, despite all its weaknesses, is still one of the best experiences that the government of India has had. I would strongly urge you to revamp India's policies in the wildlife area as well.

There has to be a serious effort made by the ministry and not merely words and sympathy. It must ensure that poor people get alternative livelihoods. When snake skin export was banned, for example, the governement did not take any interest in finding alternative livelihoods for the Irula tribe. It was Romulus Whitaker's creation of an Irula snake-catchers' cooperative to collect snake venom that was able to give back the snake catchers their livelihood without letting the species go extinct.

If you don't mind my saying so, I think the ministry's wildlife policies have to be changed dramatically.

I would strongly urge you to, instead of following the bureaucracy, lead the bureaucracy to tackle what are truly India's environmental and economic problems.

Lothar Luken
Editor, Earthwatch
People who pay thousands of dollars for a scarf are perverse. Trying to get poor people to become dependent on the exports of luxury items for fat yankees is also perverse and short-sighted. When the bubble bursts, these luxuries will be the first ones to be dropped and then your herders will be very sorry not to have created some kind of agricultural self-sufficiency instead. Trying to domesticate free-roaming migratory animals -- even if it is possible to -- is not very respectful of the species. It might also have other unsuspected consequences if traditional grazing patterns are disrupted or predators are deprived of their prey, etc. I hope you will try and find out about all this before you fence off huge undisrupted eco-systems.

To me ecology and environmentalism are a kind of karmic clearing-house where humans can try and make good the damage they have done to the rest of creation and to each other. We are the only species that needs periodical avatars to sort out the mess. Let us hope, that with more than six billion of us around, the damage might still be reversible!

Anil Agarwal replies
You have essentially made two points in your letter.

One, poor people should not provide luxury items for the rich and two, the poor may not be able to take care of their natural resources.

I have doubts about your first position and definitely disagree with your second position. It is the poor who take the best care of their natural resources because they have a vested interest in their sustainability. Over the last 30 years as an environmentalist, which is a pretty long time, I have repeatedly seen the truth of this statement.

The nature of institutions and the other mechanisms that we create to empower the poor invariably lead to much more sustainable management of natural resources. Therefore, I am not worried about the fact that the grasslands would be adversely effected. In any case, many more antelopes existed earlier, according to our wildlife experts, as compared to today. Therefore, the ecosystem of the Changthang pastures can easily take a much larger number of antelopes than at present. If care is taken, I do not see how Shahtoosh farming will lead to disrupted ecosystems. It is the job of the environmental community to ensure that care is taken. Banning something is very easy. But I would like to see bans first imposed on the rich rather than on the poor. Invariably, bans are always imposed on the poor and rarely on the rich. The rich always argue for choice, which is true in all the Western democratic countries and this is a bad lesson that we are learning in the developing world today.

As regards the poor supplying luxury commodities to the rich, my only answer is that the world today is becoming more and more economically integrated and the biggest push for this integration is coming from the West itself. As a result, the rich are providing more and more luxury items for the poor which are in many ways not only environmentally-destructive but also culturally-destructive. I would, therefore, strongly urge you to think how the West can be controlled from pushing economic integration. There cannot be double standards in the way we approach our problems.

Farooq Abdullah
Chief Minister, Jammu and Kashmir
We have not banned shahtoosh trade. The matter is under active consideration of the state government but no orders have been issued so far.

Anil Agarwal replies
I am fully convinced that it should be possible to breed the antelope even if it is not possible to do so today. In principle, there should not be any major problem. Modern science is quite capable of dealing with these kind of things. It is just a question of a commitment to finding solutions to environment related problems without displacing people. I believe that good environmental management can benefit poor people.Maneka Gandhi
Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment

It is surprising to know that the planning commission has called for my ministry's comment on the article by Anil Agarwal. The planning commission has taken such extreme interest in the case that it has sent a reminder within eight days of the original letter.

In the first instance, Anil Agarwal is not considered an authority on the matters of wildlife. His work is mainly writing in Delhi on issues of environment for which he receives funding from various international agencies and the practical implementation of his projects leaves much to be desired. Agarwal's views, expressed in the article display his lack of knowledge of the issues involved.

Agarwal has suggested that the farming of the Tibetan antelope should be undertaken by us and has drawn upon the example of dairy farming in the French and Swiss Alps. It is not understood as to how the example of farming of tame domesticated cows can be applied to wild animals from the antelope family. All experiments have been unsuccessful and resulted in their deaths. Even the relocation of the deer and antelopes from one enclosure to another, within the same zoo, has resulted in a number of deaths. There has been not one success story of deer or antelope farming in the world

Besides, the Tibetan antelope population resides in China and Agarwal's prescriptions cannot be forced upon a foreign country. It would, perhaps, not be appropriate for us to make a plan of what the Chinese should do. The Chinese have a history of farming and killing of any animal that moves including wild bears, if it can be economically beneficial to them. I am sure that the Chinese would have taken up the farming of Tibetan antelope if had been practically possible.

It is not understood how Agarwal can advocate the carrying out of a trade that has been banned by an international treaty.

The Jammu and Kashmir government announced the ban on the trade of shahtoosh wool and shawl responding to strong national and international opinion and based on a high court judgement. It is been widely accepted that the furore over the banning of the shahtoosh trade is being propagated by certain international vested interests. I am not surprised that Agarwal espouses the same views. The persons involved in the shahtoosh trade have, already, successfully switched to trading of shamina shawls, which is becoming a rage in India and abroad.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.