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Central Asia Large Mammals: Victims of (Cashmere) Fashion

By Roberta Attanasio

One thing here affects something else there.  This is the principle at the basis of The Global Fool’s mission — To raise awareness of environmental problems and their global nature.

Last month, a team of international researchers published the results of a study entitled “Globalization of the Cashmere Market and the Decline of Large Mammals in Central Asia”. As the title suggests, the results of the study show a disturbing link between the global cashmere trade and declining native wildlife species in India, Mongolia and China’s Tibetan plateau. In other words, there is a link between Western world fashion (one thing here) and native wild animals in Central Asia (something else there). What’s going on?

The study, published online in the scientific journal Conservation Biology on July 18, 2013, was carried out by investigators from the University of Montana (U.S.A.) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (U.S.A.), the Wildlife Conservation Society (Mongolia), the Snow Leopard Trust  (U.S.A.), and the Nature Conservation Foundation (India), The investigators found that the decline of native wildlife species is caused by a large Increase in the domestic goat population, increase related to the multibillion dollar cashmere industry and supported by the expanding demand for cashmere from the Western world.

Cashmere Goat

Cashmere Goat
Credit: Jeffrey Pang, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Production of cashmere requires the fine (dehaired) undercoat fibers from cashmere goats (Capra hircus laniger). According to the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (CCMI), most cashmere originates from the high plateaus of Asia.

China, Mongolia and Tibet are significant supplier countries. In these regions, the goat undercoat is sheared using a gentle, harmless combing. The specialty animal hair fibers are collected during molting seasons when the animals naturally shed their hair. Goats molt only during a several-week period in the Spring.

Therefore, enormous numbers of goats are necessary to satisfy the global cashmere demand.  The result is that the vast highlands and open spaces from the Tibetan Plateau to Mongolia — once populated by wild camel and wild yak, Przewalski’s horse, chiru, saiga antelope, Tibetan gazelle, kiang, khulan, and snow leopard — are increasingly dominated by domestic goats and other livestock. The native wildlife species are being driven to the edge of survival.

Snow_Leopards2

Snow Leopards
Credit: Rennett Stowe, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

What are, exactly, the factors that contribute to the cashmere-driven decline of large mammals? Wild habitat is shrinking dramatically, and the large mammals are increasingly coming into conflict with humans and their livestock.

Goats eat up the grass that previously supported antelopes and other herbivores as well as their predators, as for example the snow leopard. Additional factors are retaliatory killings of leopards and wolves by herders after livestock attacks, killing by herders’ dogs and transfer of disease from livestock to wild animals.

Joel Berger, one of the study authors, says:  “The consequences are dramatic and negative for iconic species that governments have signed legislation to protect, yet the wildlife is continually being squeezed into a no-win situation. Herders are doing what we would do – just trying to improve their livelihoods, and who can blame them?”

The purpose of the study is to raise awareness among Western consumers of the origins of cashmere and its growing impact on wildlife. The authors state in their paper: “The consequences of failing to understand such interrelated pathways from local ecologies to global markets limits the creation of policies designed to protect an array of the world’s iconic mammals.” They suggest that the study should serve as the beginning of a dialog among the garment industry, cashmere herders and conservationists, to address and mitigate these impacts.

The investigators conclude their discussion with these words: “In the absence of commitment across global and local scales, the iconic wildlife of the world’s highest mountains and great steppes will cease to persist as they have for millennia. Rather than serving as symbols of success, these species will become victims of fashion,”

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2 Comments

  1. You can buy a lot of cheap cashmere now. I’ve been wondering where it comes from. It’s thin and not very soft as the very good quality type. If there is so much demand for it, they’re probably increasing production and leaving quality behind. I would not mind bad quality if that could save the wildlife in Asia.

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  2. People that love cashmere should propose some sort of eco-cashmere, produced in a way that does not harm wildlife. I mean, if all involved get together and brainstorm, they can understand how to protect wildlife while allowing herders to maintain reasonable profits. I really do not have any idea because I’m not involved in conservation and I’m not familiar with Central Asia politics, culture or wildlife, but I guess people that participate in the global cashmere trade should be able to come up with innovative solutions if they want to – IF THEY WANT TO.

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