Importers of shawls made from the hair of a rare and highly protected Tibetan antelope entered guilty pleas yesterday in Newark, NJ, federal court, marking the first criminal prosecution in the United States for the illegal sale of smuggled shahtoosh shawls, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Tara Donn.

Navarang Exports of Bombay, India, entered a guilty plea before Judge Joseph A. Greenway Jr to smuggling shahtoosh shawls into this country in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, said Donn, who worked on the case for the Service's Elizabeth, NJ, law enforcement office.

Also entering guilty pleas were Linda Ho McAfee, a Hong Kong resident and former president of Cocoon North America, formerly of Cliffwood, NJ, and now of New York City; and Janet Mackay-Benton of New Egypt, NJ, former marketing director for Cocoon. Both women pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act in March 1995 by exporting nearly 100 shawls intended for sale at a fashion boutique in Paris, France.

According to the pleas, between September 1994 and March 1995, Navarang, whose president is Iqbal Memon, brought 308 shahtoosh shawls into this country with Cocoon operating as its US agent for importing, exporting and distribution of the shawls.

In addition to the CITES and Endangered Species Act violations, the two organizations declared that the shawls were woolen (cashmere), significantly understating their value, and paid only $1,041 in import duty. Based on a realistic retail value of $246,400 for the shawls, Navarang and Cocoon underpaid duty to the US Customs Service by nearly $32,000.

Navarang faces a maximum penalty of up to $500,000, while Ho McAfee and Mackay-Benton each face up to six months imprisonment and $25,000 fines. Sentencing is scheduled for October 2.

Cocoon's most noteworthy shahtoosh sale took place in November 1994 at the Mayfair Hotel in New York City, during which $100,000 worth of shawls were sold at a charity event to benefit Memorial Sloan-Kettering's Dream Team.

The featherweight shahtoosh shawls are sometimes called ring shawls because they are so fine that they can slide through a ring. During the investigation, several of the shawls were voluntarily surrendered when the owners learned that possession of an unlawfully imported shahtoosh shawl is illegal.

This case was investigated by special agents of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Elizabeth, NJ, and the US Customs Service in Newark. Assistance was provided by the French Customs Investigative Division, the French Embassy and the Hong Kong Agriculture and Fisheries Department. The case was prosecuted by the US Attorney's Office in Newark and the Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division, Wildlife and Marine Resources Section.

Legal Restrictions On Shahtoosh

Shahtoosh shawls are made from Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), also known as chiru. China is home to nearly the world's entire Tibetan antelope population and gives it the highest level of protection under the Chinese Wildlife Protection Law, the same protection given to the giant panda and tiger. India lists the Tibetan antelope in India's Wildlife Protection Act, prohibiting trade in shahtoosh.

Since 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has prohibited member nations from engaging in the import, export, sale and trade of Tibetan antelope products. CITES is an international treaty with 145 nations (including the United States, China and India) regulating commercial trade in wildlife to protect species from extinction. As part of the US Endangered Species Act, this country honors CITES protection for species endangered in other countries.

The Service will decide by October whether to provide Endangered Species Act protection for the Tibetan antelope. This would provide additional protection for the species by extending prohibitions beyond the CITES- regulated import and export to prohibiting interstate commerce in products made from this animal.

Tibetan Antelope Population At Risk

The Tibetan antelope population is being decimated virtually to the point of extinction due to fashion's demand for shahtoosh shawls. While trade in Tibetan antelope products is banned by all countries in which this species lives, greed and indifference continue to fuel the illegal trade in shahtoosh shawls. Huge profit margins and the consumer's desire to wear a rare and unusual product made from an endangered species keep the trade alive.

Contrary to circulating stories, the Tibetan antelope does not shed its hair on bushes, but is killed by poachers to obtain the wool. In fact, the Tibetan antelope's habitat is virtually devoid of bushes. The pelts from three to five dead antelope are required to produce one shawl, according to Donn.

Officials estimate that no more than 75,000 Tibetan antelope existed in the world in 1995, and thousands fall prey to poachers each year. The pelts are smuggled into the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir where they are woven into the infamous shahtoosh shawls. From there, the shawls are smuggled out of India to other Asian countries, Europe and the United States, where they are sold for up to $15,000 each, depending upon size, color and intricacy of design.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses more than 520 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.