The Billion Dollar Cashmere Industry And Its Impact In Central Asia

The multi-billion dollar global cashmere industry is placing native wild animals in Central Asia at risk, finds a new study.

AsianScientist (Aug. 14, 2013) – In the world of fashion, what is trendy today can become faux pas tomorrow. But those that stand the test of time, become immortalized. Like cashmere, for example. Made famously fashionable by Empress Josephine of France, who was gifted her first piece of cashmere by Napoleon, cashmere very quickly turned into a symbol of fashionable living across Europe. It has since been a must-have for most fashion aficionados.

But the growing multi-billion dollar cashmere industry has a far greater impact than just on the fashion market. The survival of many native wild animals in Central Asia may be at stake, finds a new study published in Conservation Biology.

Using data collected from India, Mongolia and China’s Tibetan plateau, a team of international researchers have found a disturbing link between the global cashmere trade and declining native wildlife species occurring there. Several endangered large mammals, such as the kiang, Tibetan gazelle, Przewalski gazelle, chiru and saiga, as well as the iconic snow leopard, which co-exist with cashmere producing goats in the deserts and grasslands of Central Asia, are being driven to the edge of survival.

But how did the researchers connect the dots?

“I did not start out with this sort of question in mind,” says Joel Berger, a biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, professor at University of Montana, and part of the team. “In fact, I went to Mongolia to study the saiga – an endangered antelope. But I kept discovering more and more goats in habitats that would have once been inhabited by saiga. It took several years before I started to ask the question, ‘Why are there so many goats and why are they increasing?'”

Berger, together with Bayarbaatar Buuveibaatar of Wildlife Conservation Society, Mongolia, and Charudutt Mishra of the Snow Leopard Trust, found increasing evidence of how the international demand for cashmere wool is driving herders to increase their goat numbers in order to improve profits. In Mongolia, domestic goats showed a four-fold increase from being 21 percent of the total livestock biomass in 1975 to a staggering 82-88 percent in 2004-06. The researchers observed a similar disparate rise in livestock numbers in their study areas in India and China.

“The severity of the finding surprised me,” Berger explains to Asian Scientist Magazine. “The livestock abundance was something along the line of ten heads, or even 20 heads of livestock for [every] native herbivores, many of which are endangered.”

Such high livestock pressure has many ecological effects on these native herbivores. Increased grazing by domestic livestock and other human activities have been pushing the endangered native large mammals into sub-optimal habitats, even forcing them to avoid livestock and abandon their feeding grounds in some cases. Very often, feral and free-ranging dogs displace the native species, including snow leopards. The researchers have seen dogs chase and kill chiru, saiga, and gazelles from their preferred feeding grounds in their study regions.

With a drop in native wild herbivore numbers, livestock depredations by snow leopards have been on the rise. Such conflict brings with it a rise in the retaliatory killing of snow leopards.

For the people in the semi-arid and arid regions of Central Asia, livestock production has traditionally been one of the primary sources of livelihoods. The trend has also been towards increasing cashmere producing domestic goats over others. Cashmere wool, significantly lighter and warmer than sheep wool, comes from the fine, downy hair on the underbelly of these cashmere goats and usually entails a slow and cumbersome process of harvesting and processing it. It is thus a luxury, but a very popular one.

“This paper brings out how something that is often passed-off as traditional activities of native people that has allowed coexistence with wildlife for thousands of years, is in fact not traditional any longer,” Yash Veer Bhatnagar, Director at Snow Leopard Trust-India, tells Asian Scientist Magazine. “The Western market has driven the demand for cashmere so much that the livestock numbers across the region has multiplied manifold, far surpassing the number or biomass of wild herbivores.”

China and Mongolia together produce 90 percent of the world’s cashmere supply, while Italy, China, United Kingdom and Japan are the top four importers. Herder profits for cashmere have also seen an increase in the past years. In Mongolia, the profit margins for cashmere have in fact outstripped the cost of living significantly, the study finds. The authors write that such incentives for cashmere production also exist in many other parts of Central Asia.

“Our other studies in Ladakh have shown how this burgeoning pashmina production has limited the recovery of at least two endangered species – the Tibetan gazelle and Tibetan argali. Also, the desire for increased pashmina production by the herders leads them to expect more from the rangelands. This can even lead them to look at wild herbivores, that are a fraction of their holdings, as competitors,” says Bhatnagar.

The challenges in reducing this dissonance between the co-existence of domestic and native large mammals while sustaining pastoralist livelihoods, are daunting, the authors say.

In the report, the authors write that one alternative to reducing this conflict lies is reducing the number of domestic goats and instead increasing the number of domestic yaks or camels, which have lower dietary overlap with the native mammals. But their coarser fiber is not as appealing to Western consumers, who also usually lack awareness about the origin of cashmere products and the impact of their production on the native wild species of Central Asia.

To counter this, “green labeling,” together with reduced livestock densities, may offer a sustainable solution to start with, the authors write. But what is more urgently required is for the clothing industry to become a part of the conservation movement, they add.

For the team, their aim is not to pit humans against conservation. Instead, they have started working towards developing workshops that will bring various stakeholders together to discuss how best they can move forward.

“We are just beginning now that the data is available,” says Berger, “And we hope that five years from now, this dialogue can turn into conservation.”

The article can be found at: Berger J et al. (2013) Globalization of the Cashmere Market and the Decline of Large Mammals in Central Asia.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: pontman/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shreya Dasgupta graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Delhi University, India, followed by a Master's degree in Environmental Studies from TERI University, India. She has worked on several wildlife-monitoring and conservation projects in India and she enjoys covering science and environmental news.

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