By Rina Saeed Khan
Last month around a dozen activists from the NGO Concerned Citizens against Animal Cruelty protested outside designer Nida Azwer’s retail outlet on M.M. Alam Road to draw attention to Azwer’s recent collection of shahtoosh shawls, which she had launched in Lahore last December with the support of a media campaign. International trade in these shawls has been illegal for decades under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since they are made from the fine under-fur of the endangered Chiru (Tibetan antelope).
Azwer had openly advertised her “Toosh Collection” (a limited collection of 30 hand-embroidered shawls) as a mixture of Pashmina and shahtoosh but she quickly retracted this statement in January, telling the media in an official statement that “My buyers are aware that ‘Shatoosh’ shawls are actually a mixture of Pashmina and wool and not made from genuine Shatoosh wool derived from Chiru”.
She also claimed she bought the shawls locally and then had them embellished with her “own brand of embroidery work”. However, in yet another interview that was published a day after the protest (she was obviously interviewed before the protest occurred), she contradicted herself by admitting that the shawls, priced between Rs150,000 and Rs500,000 were “the purest form of shahtoosh I could find. … I have obtained it from a Kashmir-based shawl supplier that my family has been dealing with for the past 40 years. The breakdown of the shawls is 80pc toosh and 20pc pashmina.” Pashmina refers to Himalayan goat wool which is sometimes mixed with rabbit fur and toosh or shahtoosh refers to the fur of the Chiru — that is the common understanding, so why should there be any confusion?
At any rate, WWF has the capability to verify if it is Chiru fur or not by microscopically analysing the shahtoosh shawls and they have sent Nida Azwer a complaint letter and notified the provincial wildlife authority. She has already sold five shawls from her collection and they can always be analysed to verify the facts. As the debate picked up in the media, other “shawl experts” in Pakistan weighed in with comments that since the ban on shahtoosh was enforced in 2000 in Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir (where the skilled artisans who weave the shawls are based), there is no longer any pure shahtoosh being made in India today and indeed most of the so called shahtoosh shawls are made of high quality rabbit fur.
However, according to Athar Parvaiz, a Srinagar based environment journalist, “Despite all these bans, the trade of shahtoosh shawls has not stopped completely even though smuggling it is a tedious process — it is smuggled from Tibet via Nepal and Delhi to Kashmir. This has really controlled its trade to a large extent, but some traders manage its entry into Kashmir after taking huge risks. I have hardly heard about someone getting arrested, but a few traders I spoke to said, after securing assurance from me that their identity would not be disclosed, that at least once in a year they manage buying one or two grams.”
The exclusive shawls are crafted in Indian Kashmir and then smuggled into Pakistan where there is a high demand for them amongst the elite. According to Uzma Khan, Director for Biodiversity, WWF-Pakistan, “If you are importing any item derived from a CITES listed species you need a permit. If you are selling it without a permit then you are selling smuggled items, which are liable to confiscation under the Customs Act. Provincial Wildlife Acts in Pakistan are weak but the customs law and Pakistan’s trade policy gives full protection to the CITES listed species — without permits of the federal Climate Change Division they are dealt as smuggled items”.
WWF points out that purchase of shahtoosh fuels demand and lead to more hunting of the Chiru. There remains a small migratory population of around 75,000-100,000 antelopes in Tibet. It takes around four Chiru to make a single shawl and the animals have to be slaughtered to retrieve the fur. The protestors outside Nida Azwer’s outlet held up signs saying “Stop Animal Cruelty” and “Stop Selling shahtoosh Shawls”. They pointed out that the fact that the fashion designer even using the words shahtoosh or toosh (which are used for shawls made out of Chiru) was unethical. Given that 179 countries (including Pakistan) have signed CITES and that the WWF has successfully campaigned against shahtoosh internationally, no designer in any civilised country of the world would dare to name a collection of shawls shahtoosh or toosh.
According to one of the protestors, environmentalist Dr Mehjabeen Abidi Habib, “We don’t want to be known as a dump for contraband material — a country where citizens don’t care if smuggled items are sold and the elite are in a slumber. The Indians said ‘No’ to shahtoosh decades ago (the Indian government has enforced a ban since 1991) and that has made a real difference. We want to raise citizen’s awareness in Pakistan to resist this dumping tendency.”