Photographer Andrew Newey visits the Changthang Plateau, the world’s highest permanently inhabited land, where farmers produce pashmina wool – a high-end product now under threat
Words and images by Andrew Newey
Listen to this story on The Geographical Podcast along with expert commentary on the sustainable cashmere industry in Mongolia
At an altitude of more than 4,000 metres, where winter temperatures can fall to –40°C, it’s difficult to believe that anyone or anything can survive in the vast ice desert that is the Changthang Plateau. Situated between the Himalayan and Karakorum mountain ranges, encompassing parts of Tibet, China and Ladakh in India, it’s the highest permanently inhabited plateau in the world and home to an extremely hardy and rare breed of goat – the Changthangi (commonly called Changra), or pashmina goat.
It is, in fact, the harsh conditions of this region that make the goats what they are. Only because of the fierce winds and freezing temperatures do they produce a super-soft undercoat. Within this coat, each fibre measures a mere 8–10 microns in width (one micron is 0.001 millimetres), making it about ten times finer than human hair and eight times warmer than sheep wool. This luxurious fibre is known the world over as pashmina, the softest and most expensive type of cashmere wool.
These valuable animals are reared in these inhospitable conditions by the Changpa nomads. For centuries, these nomadic shepherds, themselves as hardy as their animals, have roamed ‘the roof of the world’, moving their herds of yak, sheep and goats along traditional migratory routes every few months in search of fresh grazing pastures. But this ancient way of life is now under threat. Climate change, fake pashmina imports from China, the increased importance placed on education and the simple desire for a more comfortable life, mean that change is coming to the Changthang Plateau. There have even been reports of increased attacks by snow leopards, following some conservation success over the past decade.
Nomads and scientists alike are adamant that it’s the first of these – climate change – that represents the biggest threat to pashmina production in the region. The Changthang Plateau never used to get much snowfall, and if it did, it typically began in January or February. However, for the past few years, the snow has been falling increasingly heavily, starting as early as December or even November. As a result, the livestock has found foraging more difficult and food supplements have had to be brought in to prevent the animals from dying of starvation. At the same time, winters have 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, the joint capital of the Indian territory of Ladakh, 180 kilometres away from the traditional grazing lands. ‘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 of Changpa families in Kharnak falls below ten, it 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.’
India’s Ministry of Textiles is trying to help reverse the trend before it’s too late. It provides 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 the wider Kashmir region have begun importing raw pashmina from China and Mongolia to meet the ever-increasing demand for their products. Much of this pashmina isn’t what it’s claimed to be; the goats aren’t reared in the extreme conditions required to stimulate the growth of the super-soft undercoat found in 100 per cent pure pashmina. Ladakh produces less than one per cent of the world’s total raw cashmere, but it’s renowned for being the world’s finest.
Cashmere and Pashmina
The word cashmere is an Anglicised version of Kashmir. During the 18th century, Europeans discovered the fabric in the region and started to import it into Europe, although reports suggest that it has been produced since the 14th century. The soft material can come from several different breeds of mountain goat, all of which are found at high altitude, where the cold temperatures stimulate the production of fine fibres. Pashmina, which is finer and therefore softer than other cashmere, comes only from certain subspecies of goat, such as the pashmina goats reared on the Changthang Plateau. Unlike most cashmere, which is largely machine processed, pashmina shawls are still woven by hand.
Pashmina is expensive and rightly so. The Changpa carefully comb the goats’ hair during the spring moulting season to harvest the downy undercoat. The best fibres are then laboriously separated from the inferior wool by hand. Once cleaned and processed, the wool from a single pashmina goat amounts to a mere 100 or so grams. After it has been manually sorted, cleaned and hand spun, the weaving process, which is equally demanding and painstaking, can begin. It takes from several months to a year for highly skilled artisans to work their magic on wooden looms and weave a masterpiece that will be exported around the world and sold for between US$200 and US$2,000 by luxury retailers.
Back in 2012, due to the decreasing numbers of this rare Himalayan goat and the increasing demand for genuine cashmere from the Ladakh region of Kashmir, scientists at Sher-e-Kashmir University decided to produce the world’s first clone of a pashmina goat. Given that cashmere wool, particularly when made into shawls, is a major source of income for Kashmir, the rationale was clear. The project, largely funded by the Indian government, with support from the World Bank, was successful; on 9 March 2012, a female kid called Noori was born. At the time, the lead scientist, Riaz Ahmad Shah, said that the project could lead to breeding programmes for cashmere-producing goats in other Himalayan regions and mass production of the silky soft wool. However, the idea hasn’t gone down well with the Changpa herders in the region, partly because of their Buddhist beliefs. For them, it seems to be the traditional methods or none at all.
Production of pashmina remains important to the region. Around 300,000 people in Jammu and Kashmir directly or indirectly depend on pashmina for their livelihoods. Threats to the goats have wider economic implications, but they could also mean an end to the unique culture of the Changpas.
Cashmere in China and Mongolia
In addition to the specific threats to pashmina, cashmere (despite being produced in much larger quantities) is also in trouble. According to the International Wool Textile Organisation, around 25,208 tonnes of cashmere were produced globally in 2020 (compared to one million tonnes of sheep’s wool). China and Mongolia dominate supply, producing 60 and 20 per cent of the global output respectively. But increased demand and rearing methods in these countries are causing problems.
According to a report by Common Objective, high-street retailers have made cashmere more affordable in recent years, pushing up demand. In response, Mongolian and Chinese herds have expanded dramatically.
In Mongolia, cashmere goats account for 41.3 per cent of the total livestock herd and, according to the BBC, there are some 1.2 million nomadic herders, around 40 per cent of the country’s population, taking care of the goats. The problem is that Mongolia’s environment can’t sustain such numbers. The goats are voracious grazers of the grasslands of the Central Asian steppe. Combined with the impact of their sharp hooves, this grazing activity damages the topsoil and the grasses’ root structures. Already, overgrazing has seriously degraded 70 per cent of the grasslands, to the point where areas have come to resemble deserts. The result is a vicious cycle in which goats can become undernourished as the grass declines, their fibre quality falls, as does the yield and price, which herders offset by buying more goats.
A number of sustainable-cashmere initiatives now exist, promoting better land management. In 2013, the Chinese government began restricting farmers’ acreage to prevent overgrazing. However, some luxury brands have simply moved away from using new cashmere, favouring recycled products instead.