Between three to five Tibetan antelope are killed to make a shahtoosh. The tan-colored scarves and shawls are illegal to buy and sell, yet the market for these luxury items still exists, with a single shahtoosh fetching as much as $20,000.

A common misconception is that the “wool” of the Tibetan antelope is naturally shed and then collected. However, the soft, insulating underfur used to make the scarves is collected by poachers scraping it off of the dead animals’ hides.

Once numbering in the millions, the Tibetan antelope is now extinct in Nepal, and sustaining a population of between 100,000-250,000 around the border of China and India. Habitat protection and a ban on trade through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) are helping population recovery, but poaching is still a major problem. Poaching for the fur wiped out 90% of the species in the 20th century.

Owning a shahtoosh was once a status symbol in India and many were passed down through generations. Now the demand for the shawls comes largely from Western markets. Swiss authorities reported seizing around 800 shahtoosh shawls between 2015 and 2018 from travelers from Germany, the UK, Italy and the Middle East. Laws that are in place carry harsh penalties; in 2018 two tourists faced seven years in jail for attempting to smuggle shahtoosh shawls out of India.

Shahtoosh Shawl / Photo credit US Fish and WIldlife

Many consider pashmina wool, combed from cashmere goats, a close equivalent to shahtoosh; however, there are also ethical issues with raising animals for their fiber. Many live in cramped conditions and are exploited their entire lives. There is an abundance of sustainable textile choices available, including hemp, recycled cotton and even banana fiber. If you desire something exotic, instead of wearing it, consider taking an adventurous vacation or visit to a wild animal sanctuary instead.