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SRINAGAR, India (Reuters Life!) - Shahtoosh, the world's finest wool, is still being smuggled from Tibet to Kashmir, in defiance of a worldwide ban aimed at saving the highly endangered Tibetan antelope.
Environmentalists say five Tibetan antelopes, or Chiru, are killed to make a two-meter shawl, which weighs only 150 to 170 grams and is so fine it can be passed through a wedding ring.
But the traders and weavers who work amid the lakes and mountains of Kashmir believe the antelopes shed their wool naturally in summer by rubbing against rocks on the Tibetan plateaus where they live, at an altitude of over 14,000 feet.
"Supply of raw wool continues through Nepal and other routes. As long as shahtoosh wool is smuggled from Tibet, the shawl-making will continue in Kashmir," said 45-year-old Riyaz, a shahtoosh trader who declined to give his surname.
"Even after the ban, there is great demand for shahtoosh shawls in India and abroad," he told Reuters at the single-story house that houses his wool store.
The government of Jammu and Kashmir, where tens of thousands have been killed in nearly 19 years of anti-India revolt, reluctantly banned shahtoosh trade 2002.
Shaded by willows and huge chinar trees, Riyaz's house near the banks of the Dal lake can be only reached via a 30-minute boat ride.
In the same area, in a dimly lit room, 50-year-old Ghulam Mustafa and his teenage son Farooq Ahmad sit hunched over two handlooms, painstakingly weaving shahtoosh shawls.
"I feel sorry if the animal is killed for wool, but we believe that animal sheds its wool in summer," Mustufa said. "And it is these wisps of shahtoosh that are collected."
In this area, dozens of wooden shuttle looms hum in the hands of shahtoosh weavers.
For centuries, Indian Kashmir has been the only place in the world where shahtoosh is spun and later woven into a shawl. The shawls fetch as much as $18,000 in luxury boutiques in Europe, the United States and Gulf countries, traders say.
In India, a shahtoosh shawl sells for $3,000 to $5,000, depending on the quality, they say.
Kashmiri legend has it that shahtoosh shawls came to Europe after French emperor Napoleon presented one to Josephine more than two centuries ago.
"Shahtoosh trading is illegal and once it comes to our notice we raid the place, arrest the traders or weavers and confiscate the material," said Farooq Geelani, Kashmir's wildlife warden.
Another wildlife official, who declined to be identified, admitted there are still many people who secretly engage in shahtoosh trade.
"Most of the people have given up. Many traders were punished and a large quantity of shahtoosh was confiscated since the state ordered a ban," the official added.
Traders and weavers say the shahtoosh-weaving craft was brought to region from central Asia centuries ago.
And they say the ban has ruined the lives of thousands of Kashmiris working in the shahtoosh industry -- many of them women.
"I learned it from my grandmother, and I have been spinning shahtoosh for the past 50 to 55 years. I taught it to my daughter, but from the last four years there is no work for either of us," 65-year-old Fatima Khan said.
Editing by Sophie Hardach