The Rougher Side of Cashmere

July 24, 2013

A new study by WCS reveals that the proliferation of the cashmere garment industry poses dangers to wildlife, including snow leopards, wild yak, Tibetan antelope, gazelles, and kiang, pictured here.

Not all fashion victims are aware of the latest runway trends. Some just get caught in the crosshairs. That may describe the plight of wildlife icons from the Tibetan Plateau to Mongolia, increasingly sharing their turf with cashmere goats. 

A new study by WCS and the Snow Leopard Trust finds that as goat-herding pastoralists seek to increase profits for the cashmere trade in Western markets, ecosystems supporting endangered snow leopard, wild yak, gazelles, and other species are decaying. The growing goat herds put wildlife at increasing odds with pastoralists, as they face predation by dogs, are displaced from critical food sources, and, in the case of snow leopards, are killed outright in retaliation for livestock attacks.

The study appears in the August issue of the journal Conservation Biology. Authors include Joel Berger of WCS and University of Montana, Bayarbaatar Buuveibaatar of WCS Mongolia, and Charudutt Mishra of the Snow Leopard Trust.

With 90 percent of the world’s cashmere emanating from China and Mongolia, the vast highlands and open spaces that once were 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 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,” says lead author, Joel Berger. “Herders are doing what we would do—just trying to improve their livelihoods, and who can blame them?”

The researchers hope their study raises awareness among Western consumers about the origins of cashmere and its growing impact on wildlife. They suggest dialogue between the garment industry, cashmere herders, and conservationists to address and mitigate these impacts.

WCS has already begun to help tackle the problem by engaging with the Responsible Ecosystems Sourcing Platform (RESP). This public-private partnership initiative is aimed at addressing sustainability issues from the beginning to the end of select supply chains across the fashion, cosmetics, and jewelry industries, including cashmere.

This study was supported by the Snow Leopard Trust, Trust for Mutual Understanding, National Geographic Society, Whitley Fund for Nature, and the British Broadcasting Company Wildlife Fund.

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