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This shy species joins the elite club

Bindu Shajan Perappadan


NEW DELHI: The slender, gazelle-like Tibetan antelope -- chiru -- relentlessly hunted for its wool has been selected as one of the five official mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games.

And Indian conservationists, many of who had queued up to sign the petition urging the Olympic Committee to adopt the chiru as the mascot earlier this year, have welcomed the move to create awareness about the need to protect this shy and endangered animal.

The chiru will now join the `Five Friendlies' -- the fish, the panda, the swallow and the Olympic flame. The Olympic Committee in China made the announcement about the selection this past Friday.

To win this coveted position, the chiru competed with a dozen other contenders, including the tiger, the red-crowned crane and the dragon. "The selection will certainly draw more attention to the animals' endangered status worldwide. This is significant because the chiru was hunted for its wool to weave shahtoosh shawls that are allegedly still in demand among some elite sections of society in India and abroad.

The Olympic slogan of "One World, One Dream" may well hold hope for coexistence of the species with inspiration from the Five Friendlies,'' said Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) executive director Vivek Menon.

Stating that selection of the chiru will enable conservation organisations to draw attention of policy makers to its status, WTI vice-chairman Ashok Kumar said: "A joint campaign, "Say No To Shahtoosh", is in its fourth year now in India, resulting in significant reduction in demand for shahtoosh shawls. Enforcement of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, is now a priority after having created awareness on the illegal status of shahtoosh trade. The WTI's enforcement division is waiting to crack down on traders and individuals found flouting the law.''

Earlier, a joint investigation with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and WTI found that the shahtoosh wool was smuggled into India and is woven into shawls in Jammu and Kashmir.

Chiru is native to the Tibetan plateau region, primarily in China, and its undercoat consists of shahtoosh (Persian for "king of wools''), which is the softest, warmest wool in the world. The fibre measures 9-12 microns in diameter -- 1/5th that of a human hair. Shahtoosh shawls are so fine they can be threaded through a wedding ring, earning them the nickname `ring shawls'.

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