A shahtoosh is an ultra-soft, ultra-fine, ultra-thin, ultra warm shawl woven from the wool of the Tibetan antelope or chiru, a rare and endangered species found only on the Tibetan plateau of China. The animal is killed in order to make the shawl. Shahtooshes are also ultra-expensive. A shawl sells for $2000 to $3000, with some of the larger, more elaborate ones costing up to $15,000. They are called "ring-shawls" because the cloth is so fine that a standard shawl of one meter by two meters can be pulled through a finger ring. These shawls were very popular among very rich women, because of their beauty, warmth, exclusiveness, and rarity. The rarity is where the problem lies, however.
Shahtooshes are indeed rare, and illegal as well. The chiru is endangered, having gone from an estimated population of over one million in the past, to under 75,000 today. Officials estimate that 20,000 of the animals are being killed per year to feed the growing demand for Shahtoosh products. Armed gangs hunt the animals, and the numbers continue to fall despite the establishment of a 109,000 acre reserve for the animals and armed patrols attempting to slow poaching.
Most owners of Shahtoosh shawls didn't realize that their garments were in fact illegal until 1993, when the United States District Court in Newark, New Jersey issued 100 subpoenas to socialites and celebrities known to possess Shahtooshes. The subpoenas ordered the recipients to testify before a grand jury AND to bring with them and turn in any shahtoosh items. The word spread among the rich and famous, and reactions were very mixed. Some, such as New York socialite Karen LeFrank, turned in their shawls. She said "I'm an animal lover. I don't want to own anything illegal. I feel duped." Others were less cooperative, such as Pat Buckley, wife of conservative columnist William F. Buckley . "What do you mean, people have to turn in their shahtooshes? I haven't heard of anything so ridiculous in a long time. Some of our friends would have to call a moving van."