By Julie K.L. Dam
June 14, 1999 12:00 PM

In 1988, conservationist George Schaller was trekking in the mountains of Tibet to observe an endangered species: the chiru, an elegant 4-foot-tall, 80-pound antelope. One day, in the town of Gêrzê, he came across a group of herdsmen sitting at a camp, plucking the wool off chiru carcasses. “I didn’t know what they were doing,” Schaller, 66, recalls, “but I knew it was illegal.”

A horrified Schaller soon learned that a fashion craze was fueling the wholesale slaughter of the chiru, a species that since 1975 had supposedly been protected by international law to prevent its extinction. The herdsmen were gathering the wool for smugglers who would take it through Nepal to Kashmir in India, where it would be woven into ultraluxe scarves to be sold to wealthy women around the world.

Scarves or shawls made of this fabric, known as shahtoosh (“king of wools” in Persian), are highly prized for a warmth and softness that surpasses even the finest cashmere. Indeed, a 3-foot-by-6-foot shahtoosh shawl, which typically costs anywhere from $4,500 to $10,000, is so fine that it can be passed through a wedding ring. The material is “fabulous, fabulous,” raves New York City designer Erika Falconeri. Small wonder that many fashion-conscious celebrities have gotten hooked on the shawls. Designer Donna Karan told Conde Nast Traveler last year that she wouldn’t travel without her shahtoosh, though she now says that she no longer uses it. On a trip to India in 1992, Richard Gere bought one for then-wife Cindy Crawford.

But there’s the matter of harvesting that fabulous stuff. Because their hair is so short, the chiru can’t be clipped, only skinned. So the animals are killed—up to 4,000 each year, U.S. authorities estimate. “A nice shawl equals about three dead antelope,” says Schaller. Such slaughter is one reason the chiru’s numbers have dwindled from 1 million in 1900 to about 75,000 today. Ignorance of the antelope’s plight is widespread, says Pat Fisher, a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Most people don’t even know they are wearing an endangered species.”

Over the past decade, Schaller has spearheaded a relentless campaign to change all that. In 1995, he and the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, of which he is director of science, mailed informative letters to about 100 designers and “possible shahtoosh retailers” in the U.S., including Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Most voluntarily stopped selling shahtoosh, substituting pashmina cashmere from a type of Himalayan goat that is neither endangered nor killed for its coat. Schaller also convinced Tibetan officials to establish a 118,000-square-mile wildlife reserve for chiru that is monitored by armed patrol. Moreover, his vocal complaints have sparked crackdowns by U.S., Indian and Chinese authorities on poachers, smugglers and sellers. The Wildlife Protection Society of India reports that authorities in Europe and Asia seized 1,361 scarves and shawls, 3,037 hides and 1,708 pounds of raw wool between 1992 and 1998. “I can’t say I’m pleased with our progress, because we’re still slaughtering such a beautiful animal,” says Schaller, “but awareness has increased.”

Sadly, some style mavens still buy shahtoosh shawls on the black market. Dealers are said to work out of hotels, and some shops on L.A.’s Rodeo Drive reportedly carry them under the counter. Bradford Bunnell, the CEO of Marin-Sonoma Knitwear/Cashmere in Belvedere, Calif., says he puts customers seeking shahtoosh in contact with a source in India, but “they have to take their chances” because restrictions are tightening. (Shahtoosh may be bought legally in Kashmir, but bringing it to the U.S. is illegal.) Though the feds won’t say which suspected shahtoosh sellers they are looking at, they are investigating at least one Manhattan retailer. “I see shahtoosh here [in New York],” admits designer Falconeri. “But people are more aware now that it’s not really politically correct to buy it.”

It’s the people who aren’t aware that worry Schaller. “It is like the drug trade,” says Schaller, who met with officials in Tibet last month to discuss progress. “As long as there is value, there will be an illegal trade, unless there is a community effort to stop it.” That effort can succeed only by convincing trendsetters that shahtoosh is terribly out of style.

Julie K.L. Dam

Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles, J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C., and Bob Meadows in New York City