Starving goats to hit Indian pashmina production

SRINAGAR - Heavy snow has killed nearly 25,000 pashmina goats that graze high in the Indian Himalayas, threatening supplies of top-end cashmere wool used to make luxury scarves, an official said on Tuesday.

Thousands of nomads rear the animals in the inhospitable terrain of India's northwestern region of Ladakh, a high-altitude desert bordering China that is renowned for its dramatic landscape of towering mountains and arid plains.

Around 50 tonnes of some of the best raw pashmina wool in the world are produced there each year with the fibres then sent to neighbouring Kashmir where they are woven into scarves and shawls which sell for up to 800 dollars apiece.

This year, an estimated 25,000 goats have starved to death in the Changthang region because their fodder is buried under unusually heavy snow, said Rigzin Spalbar, who heads the Ladakh Hill Development Council, the autonomous governing body of the region.

"All the land access routes are blocked with snow and a week earlier we requested the government to airdrop fodder and supplements for the surviving goats," Spalbar told AFP by phone.

"It took me seven days on foot to reach a fringe of the area and I saw dead pashmina goats lying all around," Spalbar said, explaining that the only contact with the nomads is through satellite phones.

Another 175,000 goats are at risk of perishing as their food is inaccessible beneath about 90 centimetres (three feet) of ice after one of the biggest snowfalls in nearly fifty years, he said.

At 17,000 feet (5,200 metres), Changthang receives almost no rain during summer and usually about five centimetres of snow in an average winter. Temperatures can drop to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit).

"We are totally helpless and are trying to organise fodder in compact form from the army in Leh," he said, referring to the biggest town in Buddhist-majority Ladakh.

In recent years, due to a lack of supplies from Ladakh, weavers in Kashmir have begun importing raw pashmina from China and Mongolia to meet ever-increasing demand for their products.

Demand for the highest-quality wool has risen worldwide and in India following tighter restrictions on the illegal trade in shahtoosh, the "king of wools", which comes from a rare species of Tibetan antelope.

Pashmina goats in Ladakh have been threatened in the past by a shortage of grass in summer months because of locusts, with the spraying of insecticides prevented in the environmentally sensitive area.

Scientists at the Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in Srinagar, the main city of Kashmir, announced a breakthrough last year when they succeeded in cloning a pashmina goat.

The goat, produced with the help of World Bank money, was named Noori, an Arabic word for light.

Scientists say they hope to produce another one this year.

Apart from the pashmina goats in Ladakh, Spalbar said another 100,000 sheep, cows and wild yaks were also at risk of perishing because of the snowfall.

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