By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland has ramped up its hunt for travellers jetting into St. Moritz and other fashionable Alpine resorts clad in illegal shawls woven from the silky belly fur of the endangered Tibetan antelope.
International trade in the wool, or 'shahtoush', of the Tibetan antelope has been banned since 1979 but its status as among the finest in the world has helped preserve its allure among the affluent and has encouraged continued poaching.
Swiss customs agents seized 131 shahtoosh shawls worth up to $20,000 apiece over the past two years from the entourage of wealthy individuals visiting the country - up sharply from the 89 shawls confiscated in the previous five years.
"Shahtoosh shawls are luxury goods, so seizures often take place where wealthy people enter Switzerland or spend their time," said Stefan Kunfermann, spokesman at the Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office that tracks seizures.
"It's a persistent problem."
Last year Switzerland joined forces with Interpol, creating an international anti-smuggling network that includes China, India and Pakistan -- where the shawls are woven -- and Italy, Spain, Germany and Britain, where buyers still covet their wool.
The Tibetan antelope, or chiru, lives on China's high Tibetan plateau and in India, but poaching led numbers to plunge 90 percent over the past century.
Now numbering around 100,000, the chiru is classed as a threatened species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Victoria Jane Lady Getty, widow of British-American philanthropist Sir John Paul Getty, is among the latest travellers to have had a shawl confiscated by Swiss agents, on Dec. 30, 2016, the Swiss veterinary office said this week.
Her personal assistant did not reply to a Reuters request for comment.
The Swiss government gives owners the chance to recover their shawls if they can prove they were made before 1979. Otherwise, fines can run to 5,000 Swiss francs ($5,040).
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said there have been successes shutting down sales at high-end French and Spanish retailers that once stocked shahtoosh shawls.
But the group said Switzerland continues to deal with isolated cases, including recent incidents where cheaper but still illegal shahtoosh and cashmere blends were discovered.
"This trade is illegal and unsustainable," said Colman O. Criodain, a WWF official. "It takes three antelope to make one shawl, as only the belly wool is used."
(Editing by Gareth Jones)