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Last chance for 'black gold' furs.

Karakul pelts, once the most prized sector of Namibia's agricultural industry, are now in crisis. Once commonly known as 'black gold', the pelts have been worked into fur garments for decades. Today, however, demand has slumped, but as Alison Alford reports, all may not be yet be lost.

The International Karakul Secretariat (IKS) in Windhoek is praying for Karakul pelt prices in Europe to rise in the next couple of months. Only this would persuade farmers to keep Karakul flocks alive.

"Prices have been stable for about two years," says Mr Tokkels van Wijk, IKS managing director, "If that price does not go up, farmers will cease farming Karakul because it does not pay."

In the early 1980's, 4,000 farmers in Namibia and South Africa produced five million skins a year. Now only 1,000 Namibians keep flocks of Karakul sheep and skin production is down to 100,000.

Mr Van Wijk puts the fall in demand down to three factors. Firstly, the market has been saturated. Secondly, fashion demands have switched from short-haired fur, as produced by Karakul to long-haired. Finally, anti-fur campaigners have succeeded in altering consumer perception of fur coats: once luxury items, now objects of distaste.

The demise of short-haired fur coats in the market has caused anxiety for the IKS. In an attempt to salvage the failing industry, it engaged an Italian consultancy firm to investigate the market to see whether Karakul pelts had any unexplored potential.

"In view of the situation in Western Europe and North America, where the fur industry is in decline," says Mr van Wijk, "We wanted to know how to break away from the fur industry and find alternative uses or markets for our article.

"Their recommendation was that we should try and find markets in the fashion industry using the pelt as a fabric. This is the main use of fur today."

Karakul sheep, also known as Persian lamb, have a close, curly fur. Traditionally from Afghanistan, Karakul pelts are still produced there and in certain former Soviet Republics.

In Namibia, however, breeding has done away with completely curly fur. The lambs here have partly curly and partly smooth fur so pelts are more supple and light than their Eastern counterparts. This also makes them easier to sew.

The Parisian designer Lars created some modern garment patterns combining Namibian Karakul pelts with nylon. German and Scandinavian designers have also created interesting garments.

Getting the message across

With a new use for the fur, the IKS launched a new product, called Namib Lamb, at two exhibitions: Interstoff, in Germany, October 1995, and the Hong Kong International Fur and Fashion Fair, February 1996.

"We are trying to get the message across that this particular fur is ideally suited in combination with other fabrics," said Mr van Wijk, who believes the greatest potential for the Namib Lamb is in the Far East. For example, the Korean and Chinese markets are emerging for fur either alone or combined in garments.

Mr van Wijk admits that it will take some time before the market really picks up again and orders start coming through. In the mean time, he aims to exhibit at more European fairs, such as Premier Vision in Paris. With few financial resources at its disposal, however, the IKS is dependent on foreign aid to support attendance at these events.

Mr van Wijk is confident that aid will be forthcoming. He believes that the collapse of Karakul farming in Namibia could have untold effects on the country's environment. This, he argues, should prompt foreign donors to dig into their pockets.

Indeed, the longer a Karakul lamb lives, the more grass it consumes. Namibia, is an arid country at the best of times, and cannot afford to sustain much grass. To contrast, Karakul lambs raised for their pelts are slaughtered within one week of birth, giving them little opportunity to destroy grazing reserves.

However, the current state of the market means that many farmers have been forced to supplement low incomes by farming meat-producing Dorper sheep. These tend to eat even more grass than the Karakul. Moreover, they get right down to the roots thereby increasing the destruction of the land.

Clearly, it is not just the future of Karakul sheep farming which is threatened by low pelt prices but the Namibian environment which is also at stake.

According to Mr van Wijk, development agencies which might support the IKS, are aware of the environmental impact of over-grazing, meat producing sheep and are sympathetic towards Karakul farming.

Furthermore, as fur production in Russia and other former Soviet countries reduces and new markets open in the Far East, prices of mink have risen dramatically in the last year. Therefore, the IKS and Namibian farmers are hoping that world demand for Karakul pelts will follow suit. If so, references to 'black gold' will cease to be a thing of the past and become common-phrase once again.
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Title Annotation:Namibia's Karakul pelts
Author:Alford, Alison
Publication:African Business
Date:May 1, 1996
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