Seventy years ago the soft, curly fleece of the karakul lamb was Afghanistan’s biggest export. It sold 2.5 million skins to the United States alone in 1942, earning the foreign currency to finance massive development projects like the Helmand River Valley scheme.
Then came the Soviet invasion and the civil war. The invasion cut merchants’ access to the great, fur-trading centres of New York and London where karakul pelts were traditionally sold to be made into fashionable coats, shawls and hats.
At home, two decades of conflict destroyed the government’s network of karakul-breeding farms across north Afghanistan, and exports fell to their lowest-ever level: just 200,000 skins a year.
These events went hand in hand with a global campaign against the wearing of all kinds of fur because of the cruelty involved in their production. Karakul was no exception.
In a bid to revive this ancient trade – but also to comply with the buyers’ more exacting standards – the government of Afghanistan has ordered shepherds not to kill the ewes when pregnant.
In Dawlatabad, a karakul-trading centre 45 km west of Mazar-e Sharif, shepherds told Sada-e Azadi that they were pleased with the government’s decision.
“People only slaughter the lambs to earn money to maintain the rest of the flock, and to make a better life for themselves,” said Abdul Karim, a karakul trader. “Shepherds who are well-off prefer not to slaughter their sheep. They keep them and sell when the price is higher.” Falling prices for karakul skins, in general, have helped to get the government’s message across. According to the shepherds in Dawlatabad, a high-quality karakul skin fetches between 1,000-3,000 afghanis at market, compared to 4,000-6,000 afghanis for the fully grown sheep.
The availability of grass in the sheep-walks is another crucial factor. If there is plenty of pasture, farmers do not slaughter lambs for the karakul trade, preferring to fatten them for their meat.
The government’s policy is beginning to pay off, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. Karakul exports bounced back to 550,000 skins in 2012 and they are predicted to repeat, if not exceed, that number in 2013.
Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is now the world’s biggest market for Afghan karakul, followed by Dubai and Denmark. The government is actively seeking new outlets in Central Asia and China.