Shahtoosh trader convicted


Delhi: A shahtoosh trader was today convicted by a city court here. The Court of Dig Vinay Singh, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Delhi, convicted Mohammed Ishaq Baig, accused of illegal possession and trade in banned shahtoosh shawls.

The prosecution was conducted by the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden, Government of Delhi. The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) which has been assisting the prosecution, welcomed the judgment as an important move to discourage illegal trade in shahtoosh.

Ashok Kumar, Vice-chairman, WTI, said, “This is one of the very rare cases in which a shahtoosh trader has been convicted and we are sure that it will act as a deterrent to offenders.”

Baig, a resident of Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir, was arrested from his rented apartment in Delhi, in a raid conducted by wildlife inspectors RS Tyagi, SS Negi and RR Meena, in March 1999. Of the 159 shawls recovered from his possession, 10 were confirmed to be made of shahtoosh. He was out on bail.

Saurabh Sharma, WTI lawyer, who has been assisting the prosecution for the past five years, said, “We are glad that finally after more than a decade, justice has been done. It was a long-drawn case and the prosecution had to ward off several petitions to quash the complaint filed by the accused in the High Court. We are now awaiting the sentencing which has been scheduled for January 23.”

The judgment was well-received by former shahtoosh workers, who have now been rehabilitated by the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) – WTI through its alternative livelihood project supported by the British High Commission. This project established pure high quality handmade pashmina traded under brand name Pashma, as an alternative to shahtoosh.

Fayaz Ahmed Mir, former shahtoosh worker who was among the first to make this transition to pashmina, said, “This is definitely good news. Despite establishment of pashmina as an alternative, there are reports of some amount of underground shahtoosh production going on in Srinagar. This illegal production cannot be stopped unless the trade is curbed through effective enforcement and quick punishment to violaters.”

Shahtoosh wool is the ultra-fine underfleece of the endangered Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii). Listed under schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, hunting of the Tibetan antelope and trade in its derivatives was banned in India in 1986.

However, the shahtoosh trade ban came into effect only around the mid-1990s, after the eminent wildlife scientist Dr George Schaller exposed its link to the endangered Tibetan antelope. Prior to this, shahtoosh, produced exclusively by artisans based in Srinagar, was believed to be a derivative of a mountain goat. Meanwhile, the antelope, endemic to the Chang Thang plateau in Tibet and Ladakh in India, was persecuted in large numbers for shahtoosh, reducing its numbers to a mere 75,000 today as against a million at the turn of the last century.

“Despite the find and despite ban in trade imposed by the Indian WPA, shahtoosh production continued in Srinagar. Jammu & Kashmir has its own wildlife law which permitted regulated hunting of Tibetan antelopes and trade in its derivatives. The law was amended in May 2002, as an outcome of the tremendous pressure from wildlife enthusiasts world over,” said Kumar, who had filed a Public Interest Litigation in J&K High Court in 1998, and subsequently in the Supreme Court, that eventually led to the ban.

“There has been a number of seizures of raw shahtoosh as well as its products in India since the mid-1990s, just after the expose by Dr Schaller. However, it was not until May 2002, after a ban on production of shahtoosh by the J & K government, that an important loophole in shahtoosh trade control in India was plugged. Yet, numerous shahtoosh cases are still pending in various trial courts because of long delays in legal processes. We hope that this conviction is a beginning of a new era in Indian shahtoosh trade control,” he added.

“Shahtoosh has been the Chinese counter-arguments to India’s accusations of them being responsible for the decline in tigers in India. But this conviction and a number of seizures have proven that India has been sincere on its role to conserve the Tibetan antelope. The Chinese now have to reciprocate,” Kumar added.