Since January, 13 percent of the Changra goats has been wiped out, threatening the lucrative Pashmina industry in the Kashmir Valley

This summer, Pashmina shawl weavers like Ashiq Ahmed have a tough choice to make. They can either buy raw wool at inflated rates or abandon the 600-year-old weaving craft.

In 2006, the ban on Shahtoosh (woven with the hair of the Tibetan antelope) left 50,000 weavers and an equal number of traders in the lurch in the Kashmir Valley. Now, the rise in the price of Pashmina wool after the death of 27,000 goats is threatening the industry's very existence.

"The price of 1 kg of Pashmina wool has gone up from Rs 9,000 to Rs 12,500. It will continue to rise. Thousands of shawl weavers, who earn just Rs 5,000 a month, will think twice before buying raw material at such prices," says Ahmed.

The crisis started in January when heavy snowfall in the Changthang hills of the Ladakh region in Jammu & Kashmir killed nearly 27,000 goats (13 percent of the total population), threatening supplies of silky Pashmina wool used to make fine and expensive shawls and scarves.

Changthang is located 175 km to the east of Leh on the border with China. The average altitude of the area is 14,600 ft above sea level. This area is also known as Rupsho Valley where the main occupation of the nomads is rearing yaks and Changra goats. The unforgiving winter makes the goats grow extremely warm and soft veneer, which is six times finer than human hair and is used to make Pashmina wool.

Usually, Changthang receives only 5 cm of snow in winters when temperatures dip to as low as -35°C. This year, it witnessed 121 cm of snowfall, which many say is a direct result of climate change.

Rigzen Spalbaar, who heads the autonomous Ladakh Hill Development Council, says the snow buried all vegetation and for want of fodder, the goats starved to death.

"This is quite unusual in this area," says Spalbaar. Almost 13 percent of the goats have perished. I have seen hundreds of dead goats lying around the hills recently. But the animals could have been saved if the government had air-dropped fodder and supplements. It took me seven days on foot to reach a periphery of the area where I saw dead goats dotting the landscape." He adds that the only way to make contact with the Changthang nomads is through satellite phones.

With the snow beginning to melt in May, the number of goats still alive (estimated to be around 1,75,000) are also at risk as the vegetation continues to be buried under snow.

The district administration had supplied 9,465 quintals of cattle feed, 25,000 quintals of barley and 2,000 quintals of dry fodder last November, but it wasn't enough. It was only after the tragedy struck that another 805 quintals of dry fodder was sent to the affected areas in Ladakh.

Every year, nearly 80 percent of India's Pashmina wool (almost 70 tonnes) is procured from this area. This wool is sent to the neighbouring Kashmir Valley where it is processed and carefully woven on handlooms into shawls and scarves, which sell for up to Rs 40,000 apiece.

"Almost 65 percent of the weavers are women and widows who have no other source of income. They are facing the brunt of the wool shortage," says Wasim Ahmad, who runs three looms in Srinagar. "Right now, we are using last year's produce. The real extent of the crisis will unfold in June-July when shearing of goats begins in Ladakh."

Every June-July, Pashmina wool is collected from the goats by separating it from the thick coarse hair. Then the raw wool is stretched and cleaned to remove dirt and soaked for 2-3 days in a mixture of rice and water to make it softer. The soft wool is later spun on yendirs (spinning wheels). Hand-spinning is an extremely painstaking task and fine handspun yarn is priced at Rs 30,000 per kg.

"Real Pashmina yarn is too fragile to be used in powerlooms. Therefore, the weaving of the 100 percent Cashmere shawls are done on handlooms," says Ahmad.

Anthropologist Monisha Ahmed of the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation says the problem started when major portions of the traditional grazing land came under Chinese control after the 1962 war. "The nomads lost access to key pastures. Further, tourism was promoted so much that it created a lot of pressure in the areas that were earlier used as pasture land," says Ahmed, who has been studying Ladakh's ethnic textiles for the past 20 years.

She says Changpas used to earn more from sheep wool than Pashmina, but over the years they have shifted focus to the latter. "The nomads stopped rearing sheep, which were earlier used to keep the goats warm in the winters. One of the reasons why the goats died was the absence of the sheep. There was nothing to keep them warm," says Ahmed, adding that the Shahtoosh ban has also played a big part in the increasing demand for fine Pashmina wool.

Concerned over the mass deaths of Pashmina goats, the Union textiles ministry decided on 12 March to provide a financial assistance package worth Rs 41.21 crore. The main components include assistance for foundation stock in new areas for Pashmina rearing activities; health coverage and feed supplement; strengthening existing fodder bank and a breeding farm. The package will also include the establishment of a pasture farm on migratory routes; breeder orientation training camp and a research & development centre.

While the state government scrambles to save the remaining goats, weavers and loom owners are worried about their future. The shortage of Pashmina wool has dealt a severe blow to the likes of Shameena Akhter, 45, who has spun the wool for almost two decades. The income generated was enough to raise four daughters and a son in Ompura village of Budgam district.

"I have abandoned spinning Pashmina wool," she says. "There is no wool actually. Whatever is available in the market is being sold at exorbitant rates. The average worker like me can't afford to buy the raw wool."

Since April, she has shifted to spinning ordinary sheep wool, which hardly generates 1,000 a month. "Spinning Pashmina wool was lucrative. I used to earn more than 10,000 every month. In fact, my husband, a daily wage labourer, took a loan to build a house thinking both of us will be able to clear the debt. But now it seems we won't be able to do so," she says.

Loom owners like Mushtaq Ahmad of South Kashmir's Tral area have started buying wool from a dealer who imports raw materials from Tibet and Mongolia.

"But the imported wool can't match the fineness of the Ladakh Pashmina wool," he says. "The wool from Ladakh has a diameter of 9-11 micron, while the one from Tibet is of 12-16 micron. Less the diameter, more the fineness."

Monisha Ahmed agrees. She says the wool found in Ladakh is finer than its counterparts from Mongolia or Tibet. "However, unless a proper research is done on Changpas and ways to protect their goats is identified, animals will continue to starve and freeze to death in the Ladakh region," she warns.