The world is heading for a shortage of the highly prized and super-soft cashmere wool as pashmina goats that live on the “roof of the world” are caught up in the fractious border dispute between nuclear neighbors India and China.
Wool from pashmina goats reared by nomads in the inhospitable high-altitude cold desert region of Ladakh – a federal territory in India – is the most expensive and coveted cashmere in the world.
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But the shaggy creatures that provide the wool are being pushed out of their grazing lands in the confrontation between the world’s two most populous nations, causing the death of tens of thousands of kids this season, locals and officials said.
“In about three years, when the newborn goats would have started yielding pashmina, we’ll see a significant drop in production,” Sonam Tsering of the All Changtang Pashmina Growers Cooperative Marketing Society told the AFP news agency.
There have been numerous face-offs and skirmishes between Chinese and Indian soldiers over their 3,500-kilometer (2,200-mile) frontier, which has never been properly demarcated.
The latest is concentrated in the Ladakh region, just opposite Tibet, with Indian officials claiming Chinese troops overstepped the boundary in recent weeks.
The alleged movements came after military face-offs at the eastern part of the border near Sikkim in May.
Some traditional grazing land is lost to China each year, Tsering said.
But this year, even the main winter grazing areas near KakJung, Tum Tselay, Chumar, Damchok and Korzok are out of bounds amid the heightened tensions, he added.
“It’s devastating. The PLA [China’s People’s Liberation Army] used to encroach into our side by the meters, but this time they have come inside several kilometres, “said Jurmet, a former elected official with only one name.
“It was breeding season for the goats. Around 85 percent of their newborns died this year because large herds were pushed out into the cold from the grazing lands [in February], “he told AFP over the phone from Leh, the region’s capital city.
Tsering said Indian soldiers were blocking the animals from entering areas deemed as sensitive, while herders told him the Chinese army was pushing Tibetan nomads into their grazing areas.
Half a dozen residents involved with goat herding who spoke to AFP said until a few years ago, they would cross the frozen Indus river for grazing during the winter, areas now being encroached by China.
Meanwhile, communicating with the herders – whose satellite phones provided by Indian officials have been withdrawn in recent years – has become difficult, said Jurmet.
Vital handicrafts industry
The huge number of deaths – in the tens of thousands according to a local Indian official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity – could devastate the sector in the coming years.
The goats yield some 50 tonnes of the finest – and most expensive – feather-light cashmere wool each year, supporting a vital handicrafts industry in the Himalayan region of Kashmir that employs thousands of people.
Most of the wool is woven into exquisite shawls sold the world over from luxury store Harrods in London to the Dubai Mall in the United Arab Emirates; one shawl can cost up to $ 800.
More than 1,000 families of nomadic Changpa herders roam the vast Changtang Plateau at an altitude of more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), grazing some 300,000 pashmina goats, black yaks and horses through the summer months.
They move to the slightly lower-altitude grazing lands straddling Tibet and along the mighty Indus river during the harsh winter months of December to February when temperatures drop up to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit).
The military tensions are the latest blow for the herders, who are already reeling from the impact of climate change, which has made winters harsher and summers drier.
Some have even abandoned their generations-long way of life to migrate to towns in Ladakh in search of other sources of income.