Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Traditional Fur Trade Revives

The trade in karakul lambskin is picking up, bringing much-needed revenue to farmers.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
Karakul has long been a symbol of Afghanistan – so much so that president Hamed Karzai chose a hat made out of the curly lambskin as his trademark.

The beautiful silky fur, made from the skins of newborn lambs of the karakul sheep, fetch a high price on the international market. Many farmers in Afghanistan’s north are now looking to the karakul trade as a way out of poverty.

Abdul Khaliq, 55, is descended from a long line of karakul sheep farmers in Jowzjan province. He has a herd of 200 grazing in the desert area known as Dasht-e-Laili.

Holding a few pelts in his hands, Abdul Khaliq was trying to sell them at the karakul bazaar in Mazar-e-Sharif.

“This is one of the best sources of income for us,” he told IWPR. “I am here to get a good price for my pelts.”

Breeding karakul sheep is difficult and time-consuming, said 55-year-old Abdul Khaliq, who has been in the business since childhood.

“I have been grazing karakul sheep since I was kid. I’ve spent more time with my sheep than with my family over the years,” he laughed, adding that most of his relatives are in the same business.

From mid-February until mid-May, the birthing season for karakul sheep, farmers like Abdul Khaliq spend virtually all their time with their flocks. The lambs must be slaughtered immediately after birth so as to preserve the sheen and tightness of the curls – and thus the value.

“If it feels the wind, or if its mother licks it, the fur loses softness and value,” he said.

The karakul business is only now coming back to life after decades of neglect.

Prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan exported over three million karakul skins a year, according to Zikrullah Aryan, head of the karakul export department at the ministry of commerce. At an average cost of 20 US dollars per pelt, the trade brought in over 60 million dollars annually.

Over the two decades of years of war, exports fell to about 200,000 skins a year. Under the Taleban, karakul production shut down almost entirely, after the regime banned the slaughter of newborn lambs on moral grounds.

After the fall of the Taleban, the trade revived. In 2005, according to Aryan, Afghanistan exported 536,000 pelts, a 42 per cent increase on the previous year.

Most of the skins went to Europe. “Exports of karakul pelts to European markets in 2005 were the highest in 25 years,” said Aryan.

Prices have also risen, he added. A good quality skin can now fetch 45 dollars on the European market, which means a 2.5 million dollar boost to Afghanistan’s much-needed export revenue. Aryan predicts a further rise in earnings, “Exports are expected to rise to 800,000 pelts in 2006.”

Afghanistan is now the world’s main source of karakul, said Aryan, and enjoys the reputation of producing the highest-quality skins. The country produces certain colours such as reddish brown and gold which are rare elsewhere.

Northern provinces such as Balkh, Sar-e-Pul, Jowzjan, Kunduz and Takhar are the main karakul breeding areas in Afghanistan.

The agriculture ministry used to maintain large breeding farms in the north, but these were destroyed during the decades of conflict, said Katib Shams, head of the agriculture department for Balkh province.

“We have now started setting up karakul sheep farms again in those provinces where they used to be common,” said Shams.

The state-run stock farms raises rams which are then distributed to farmers for breeding. One farm with 290 rams has been established in Balkh, according to Shams. But capacity is still lagging far behind demand.

Farmers in the private complain that the government’s regional agriculture department is not supporting them enough.

“Most of my sheep died of disease last year,” said Nazar Mohammad, a sheep farmer in Balkh. “We went to the agriculture department many times but they didn’t give us any medicine.” Local medication has not proved effective, he said, adding that “if this continues, all of our sheep will die”.

Shams said the agriculture department did have medicine and would be happy to help, and would also provide vets to help with sick sheep. “We are trying to solve the farmers’ veterinary problems with the help of the agriculture ministry and donor countries,” he said.

But he said farmers needed to observe normal working hours, “Some farmers come to us after official hours. So when we cannot help them, they complain without coming back to us.”

Day-old lambskins are sold untreated at local bazaars, but those skins intended for export go through a long curing process. They are placed in a pool of salted water for approximately two weeks, and then dried in the sun, sorted by quality and priced for export.

Karakul, also marketed as “Persian lamb”, is unpopular with animal rights activists outside Afghanistan, who call it “the cruelest fur” because of the practice of slaughtering newborn lambs.

But for local Afghan karakul farmers, the revival in the trade is a godsend. One karakul skin can be sold for 30 dollars in Mazar-e-Sharif, a princely sum for a rural Afghan whose annual income may not exceed 200 dollars.

Despite the protests of activists, karakul is popular in Europe, where it is used for hats, coats and jackets for women.

Maulawi Abdullah, a religious leader in Mazar-e-Sharif, dismissed concerns over the killing of newborn lambs. “God created sheep for His human beings, and they may slaughter them whenever they want,” he said.

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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