Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Syria: On the trail of illegal goods

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The Aleppo souks are tunnels of temptations.... Fluttering silk scarves, artfully arranged displays of legendary Aleppo soap made from olive and linden oils, dresses encrusted with embroidery and festoons of gold necklaces and bracelets

Sheep heads stare sightlessly into the melee, alongside hang their behinds - fat tails, pink masses ballooning with enormous blobs of fat. Slightly more aromatic are the pyramids of spices and sacks overflowing with rose buds.

There are more than 12km of winding alleyways in the souks and about 6000 shops. So, how to lure the few tourists from the "main drag" into the shadowy side streets? The answer is to hover at the intersections.

"Your group has gone that way," a young man with a head of thick curls whispered to me, as I paused in one such intersection, trying to count heads, an almost impossible task among the throng.

I made the fatal mistake of making eye contact.

"You are from?" I replied in my faltering Arabic.

"Ah Kiwis... why do no Kiwis ever come to my shop? I think they are very prejudiced," he answered, effortlessly drawing me into his net.

I told him that was rubbish, but I was now enmeshed and well he knew it.

"Well, come and see what we sell," he said.

Which is how a handful of Kiwis did end up in his store which was crammed with tablecloths and handbags, jewellery and old tiles, Damask fabrics and embroidery.

There were lovely things but long ago I've learned to resist temptation by not looking at anything too closely Then through my layers of resistance I heard someone saying "Isn't it so fine... I've never even heard of shahtoosh".

I am probably typical of many old journalists - a head full of half-remembered facts about everything from sewage disposal to Orion radar systems and who grows the region's largest pumpkins.

Shahtoosh was ringing a bell. Several bells but the sound was a little blurred.

I stood and concentrated among the swirling shoppers and shop assistants.

Endangered Himalayan animals, prohibited exports, fibre so fine a shawl could be threaded through a gold ring... but I wasn't sure enough to make a scene in the shop, especially as the purchase of a scarf had already been made.

There are times when the extortionate rates that Telecom charge for even a text on global roaming are a curse but today I was thankful I could send a text home.

"Please Google 'shahtoosh'," I asked my husband.

A few hours later back came the message "Don't touch it".

My creaking abilities of recall had been right.

Shahtoosh is the fibre from an endangered Tibetan antelope known as the chiru.

Unlike other fibre-bearing animals, chiru are killed to get the fibre. It's estimated between two and 12 antelope lose their lives for one full-size shawl.

In the West one shawl can sell for as much as $6000. Once there were over a million chiru on the Tibetan plateau, but as a result of the now illegal trade in shahtoosh the figure is now thought to be below 65,000.

Trade in shahtoosh has been banned since the 1970s under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species.

To make matters even worse, shahtoosh is often exchanged in return for tiger parts.

My Kiwi tourist had bought her scarf in all innocence but the thought of all those slaughtered antelope haunted me.

Later I rang the shop owner and hoped I was catching him in a neat pincer movement by pointing out that if the shawl was shahtoosh, selling it was illegal and if it wasn't he was grossly overcharging for something more likely to be perfectly legal pashmina.

He was unfazed and in fact was aggrieved that I'd even suggested the fibre wasn't shahtoosh.

"It is shahtoosh but she will have no trouble getting it home. We have had many New Zealand and Australian buyers before." Had he indeed?

I pointed out that whether people could get away with it was not the issue. I wanted to return the scarf and get the money back.

He said he couldn't help me. I told him the saga would make an interesting column for my blog. He seemed unmoved.

However, half an hour later I had another call.

Would I come down to the road outside the hotel with the scarf?

The exchange was completed. I explained again that trade in shahtoosh was banned internationally. He told me they had many buyers who didn't care.

Which in a way sums up the greed that drives trade involving endangered animals - too many people who don't want to know and dealers who, at best, don't understand the magnitude of their actions.

- Jill Worrall

Pictured above: A shahtoosh shawl. The trade in shahtoosh goods is illegal as the fibre is made from an endangered Tibetan antelope known as the chiru.

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