Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

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A snow leopard prowls down a trail in India.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

Cashmere Fashions Squeezing Central Asia's Big Mammals

Growing demand for cashmere affects mammals, like snow leopards, a world away.

The global craving for cashmere is creating an unlikely group of "fashion victims"—snow leopards living half a world away from chic shops doing a brisk business in stylish sweaters and other garments.

A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Snow Leopard Trust suggests that the booming trade in cashmere is causing Central Asia's goat herders to expand their stock in search of increased profits.

This creates a welcome economic boost, but an array of rare or endangered species like snow leopards, Bactrian camels, and Tibetan antelope are paying the price. Wild habitat is shrinking dramatically, and the animals are increasingly coming into conflict with humans and their livestock. (Related: "Snow Leopards Need To Be Protected ... But How?")

Ninety percent of the world's cashmere comes from the goat herds roaming the open spaces of China and Mongolia. And those herds are growing to meet demand. According to the study, Mongolia's herds alone have surged from five million in 1990 to almost 14 million by 2010.

"Herders want to have good lives. They like to make money just like the rest of us do," said study co-author Joel Berger, of the WCS and the University of Montana. "Anybody in their shoes would be thinking the same way," he added. "So we're going to have to work with them and with the garment industry to think this through and try to find a better way."

Food Fight

When goat herds devour local plants, many native herbivores are left without their own sources of food, said study co-author Charudutt Mishra of the Snow Leopard Trust. "The number of snow leopards that an area can support goes down as the wild ungulate populations decline. [Then] a greater proportion of the snow leopard's dietary needs are met by preying on livestock, which results in local communities killing them in retaliation." (See pictures of snow leopards in Afghanistan.)

Eventually, Mishra said, growing herds of grazers could degrade the rangeland to such an extent that even the numbers of cashmere-producing goats it can support will decline.

Some of the species currently being impacted are iconic to the region but have little wiggle room. Only about 6,000 snow leopards remain in the wild. Bactrian camels, the world's only remaining wild camel species, likely number less than a thousand individuals.

The critically endangered saiga antelope has been hunted so extensively in Kazakhstan during the past two decades that its population has plunged more than 95 percent. It has been a victim of demand for its horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicines; however, a recent report by the Kazak government has reported a rebound.

Wild yaks, gazelles, and many other rare and endangered species are also being affected, according the study published in the August issue of the journal Conservation Biology.

This isn't the first time the demands of fashion have pushed animals to the brink or beyond.

During the late 19th century, decorative bird feathers began to adorn the hats or dresses of fashionable ladies. By 1918 the trade in wild bird plumes had decimated dozens of American species like the snowy egret. The U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed in 1918, curbed the practice and later allowed some species to recover.

In cashmere's case, fashion's impact on wildlife is indirect and far less obvious. "Most people have no idea where their cashmere even comes from," Berger said.

"This wasn't something I thought of and then went to study," he said. "I was studying saiga. I was studying yaks. And it started to become clear that these and other species had something in common—they were all being displaced from their primary habitats and coming into more conflicts with humans."

Green Cashmere?

WCS and the Snow Leopard Trust hope to find solutions by working with the local people, the fashion industry, and Western cashmere consumers who drive demand to strike a sustainable balance that might work for all. "There aren't any bad guys in this," Berger said, "It's just the way the system is built."

The next step is to gather a group of eco-conscious people from the fashion industry to talk about this, he said. "Nobody wants to see massive changes to people's livelihood."

Promoting economic diversification could help, said Mishra, of the Snow Leopard Trust. Research by his team shows that people and communities with multiple sources of income tend to be more tolerant of predators like wolves and snow leopards. (Watch snow leopards being tagged in Afghanistan.)

They've also found that women tend to have more negative attitudes toward the predators. "It is critical that some of the programs pertaining to livelihood generation are specifically designed for women," he said. "The Snow Leopard Enterprises program of the Snow Leopard Trust is one such example of working with women for snow leopard conservation and, through them, with the entire community."

Mishra also believes that a system of sustainable, wildlife-friendly cashmere could be a key way fashionistas can have their cashmere and protect wildlife while herders continue to profit.

"Such a program must financially reward farmer communities who provide grazing space for wild ungulates by adjusting livestock density, and who are willing and able to coexist with snow leopards and wolves without persecuting them," he said.