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Photo Essay: Cashmere Crisis Looms in Himalayan Ice Desert


Location: Changthang Plateau, Ladakh, Kashmir – December 2019. At an altitude of more than 14,000ft, where winter temperatures can fall to -40 degrees, it is hard to believe anyone or anything can survive in this vast ice desert that is the Changthang Plateau.

Situated between the Himalayan and Karakorum mountain ranges, it is the highest permanently inhabited plateau in the world and home to an extremely hardy and rare breed of goat—the Changra, or Pashmina goat. The high altitude, freezing temperatures and harsh bitter winds in this unforgiving mountainous region are essential to stimulate the growth of the goats’ super-soft undercoat. The fibres measure a mere 8-10 microns in width, making it around 10 times finer than human hair and 8 times warmer than sheep wool.

This luxurious fibre is known the world over as Pashmina, the softest and most expensive type of Cashmere wool in the world.

Situated between the Himalayan and Karakorum mountains, The Ladakh Range has an average height of about 6,000 metres. The mountain ranges in this region were formed over a period of 45 million years by the folding of the Indian Plate into the stationary landmass of Asia.
First light strikes Stok Kangri, the highest mountain (6,154m / 20,190ft) in Leh. For the ex-nomads who now reside in the outskirts of the city, their beloved mountains are never far away.
Kharnak village used to be home to almost a hundred Changpa families, however over the last few years that number has fallen to just sixteen. The village chief firmly believes that once the number falls below ten, it will simply be too hard for those remaining to survive.
Bhuti, a village elder, wrapped up against the bitter, icy wind of the Plateau.

Rearing these valuable animals in such inhospitable conditions are the Changpa nomads. For centuries these nomadic shepherds, who themselves are as hardy as their animals, have roamed “the roof of the world,” moving their herds of Yak, Sheep and Goats along traditional migratory routes in this high altitude desert every few months in search of fresh grazing pastures.

But this ancient way of life is now very much under threat from climate change, fake Pashmina imports from China, the need for better education and the desire simply for an easier and more comfortable life.

Sonam prepares his Yak for the migration. The herders use the least stubborn yaks as transportation. Loading them up begins at first light so that the migration can get underway early.
Many of the elders still wear their traditional dress which is considerably warmer that modern clothes.
Dorje, a herder, reaches the halfway point of the migration where the animals will rest before continuing their journey the next day.
Each family has several hundred goats all of which need to be moved separately so that they don’t get mixed up. Moving thousands of animals over vast distances required skilled and experienced herders to prevent injury or loss.

The nomads and scientists alike are adamant that climate change is the biggest threat to Pashmina production in the region. The Changthang plateau does not usually get much snowfall, and if it does it begins in January or February. However, for the last few years it has been increasingly heavy starting as early as December, even November. As a result, food supplements have to be brought in to prevent the animals dying from starvation.

The winters have also been getting warmer, which has reduced the quality and quantity of the valuable Pashmina wool.

Over a relatively short period of time dozens of nomad families from the Changthang plateau have migrated away to set up their own neighbourhood called ‘Kharnak Ling’ on the outskirts of Leh city, 180km away.

“These are worrying times we are experiencing” says the Kharnak village chief. “If weather patterns continue like they are then it could have an irreversible impact on Pashmina goat—rearing on the Changthang. There were once more than 90 families in Kharnak and now there are only 16. If the number Changpa families in Kharnak fall below 10 then life will become too tough for us to continue this life. The younger generation would rather work in the city and cannot be persuaded to continue this physically, mentally and emotionally demanding existence.”

Changra goats being herded back home after a long, cold day in the mountains. The Changra are perfectly at home in the high mountains but when heavy snow falls and freezes hard their food becomes difficult to get to. This would potentially lead to starvation if the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council did not supply fodder and food suppliments.
The yak caravan winds its way up and down the steep valleys across the Plateau with ease. Nowadays jeeps are used to transport the heavy and bulky items but with freezing oil and lack of four wheel drive, they are no match for a yak over such rugged terrain in winter conditions.
A young yak covered in a blanket of snow after a storm.
The high altitude and extreme cold even takes its toll on the hardy Tibetan Mastiff guard dogs.

India’s Textile Ministry is now trying to help reverse the trend before it is too late by providing US$1.2 million for winter fodder and 50 animals to each herder as a way of encouraging the Changpas to return to rearing goats on the plateau.

In recent years however, due to a lack of Cashmere wool from Ladakhi herders, weavers in Kashmir have begun importing raw Pashmina from China and Mongolia to meet ever-increasing demand for their products. Much of this Pashmina is not what it is claimed to be: the goats at not reared in the extreme conditions required to stimulate the growth of the super-soft undercoat to be officially classified at 100% pure Pashmina. Ladakh produces less than 1% of the world’s total raw Cashmere, but it is renowned for being the finest in the world.

A young boy named Norbu helps carry a giant brick of frozen animal dung. In these isolated mountain communities everyone has to muck in!
Village elter Dolma watches the snow falling out of the window, praying that it will not disrupt the migration over the next few days.
Norbu warming himself with a bowl of hot soup.
Dolma and her husband Tenzin praying in their home. Predominantly Buddhists, the Changpas have strands of animism in their religious beliefs that can be traced back to their herding tradition. For Changpa nomads, their sheep are sacred creatures bestowed upon them by the gods of the valley.

Cashmere is expensive and rightly so. The Changpa carefully comb the hair during the spring moulting season to harvest the downy undercoat and then the good fibre is laboriously separated from the bad by hand. Once cleaned and processed the wool from a single Cashmere goat only amounts to a mere 4 ounces. Once the fibres are manually sorted, cleaned and hand spun the weaving process can begin, which is equally demanding and painstaking.

It takes several months to a year for highly skilled artisans to work their magic on wooden looms and weave a masterpiece which will be exported around the world and sold for between US$200 and US$2000 by luxury retailers.

Elder Lobsang stands proudly in front of his winter house in Dat. The yak skin will be dried out and the hair used to make a tent to live in during spring/summer in the Zara Valley.
As with the harvesting/combing, the fur is also processed by the men. This involves the tedious and time-consuming job of separating the course outer/guard hair from the finer soft undercoat.

Due to the decreasing numbers of this rare Himalayan goat and increasing demand for genuine Cashmere from the Ladakh region of Kashmir, scientists at the University of Kashmir decided to clone the world’s first Pashmina Goat.

The project, partly funded by the World Bank and mostly by the Indian Government was successful, and on 9th March 2012 female kid Noori was born. The scientists had planned to share their goat-cloning knowledge across the Himalayas to help others grow their own goats, however this has not gone down well with the Changpa herders in the region, in most part because of their Buddhist beliefs.

Another issue of concern is the increasing numbers of Snow Leopards in the region putting their animals at increasing risk of attack. This is a result of the successful conservation efforts over the last decade.

Two young dogs play and relax before resuming their duties guarding the animals overnight. Over the last decade or so wolves have been declining in numbers after being hunted to extinction and are now much less of a threat. However, with the successful conservation efforts the growth in the population of the snow leopards in Ladakh, primarily because of Buddhism which prohibits its killings in the Ladakh region, are now a worry for the Changpa.
A beautiful Buddhist temple sits atop a hill overlooking Kharnak Ling, the Changpa neighbourhood on the outskirts of Leh city where families who have given up the nomadic herding life now reside.

The threat to Pashmina goat-rearing would not only mean the end of the livelihoods of about 300,000 people in the Jammu and Kashmir state who, directly or indirectly, depend on Pashmina, but will also mean an end to the unique culture of the Changpas; most of them are followers of Tibetan Buddhism and have an elaborate set of customs centered around their livestock.

Editor’s Note: Due to a misplaced travel notebook, names of were not initially included in the image captions. This has now been corrected. Our apologies to any readers who felt that this omission was disrespectful.

About the author: Andrew Newey is an award-winning photographer based in the UK who travels the world to capture images of our beautiful planet and its people. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Instagram @andrewnewey.