Namibian Karakul pelts once stood for beauty, elegance and quality, but a national flock of 4,5 million dropped to 180000 when consumers’ cruelty concerns made fur a pariah product. But a fashion for natural materials, a move toward humane slaughter methods and the virtues of the attractive, versatile pelts are putting Karakul on the comeback trail. Servaas van den Bosch spoke to Wessel Visser, manager of the Karakul Board of Namibia.
In the early 1970s Southern Africa exported 5,5 million Karakul pelts annually. Most came from Namibia, but Botswana and South Africa also supplied substantial quantities to fur auctions worldwide. Swakara, which stands for South West African Karakul, was a famed label and a favourite of fashion houses and couturiers. It was called the “black diamond” for its exclusivity, putting it on a par with Namibia’s mineral wealth.
A marriage of convenience
Karakul sheep originate from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Like most fat-tailed sheep, their lamb pelts are textured, and the Karakul lamb generally has the most beautiful patterns with few curls. Although in their home countries Karakuls’ skins and tough wool have been used for thousands of years, it took until around 1850 for their pelts to reach the fur markets of central Europe and Leipzig in particular.
Karakul sheep found their way to Southern Africa via the previous German colony of what is today Namibia. Friedrich von Lindequist, the German governor at the time, was concerned that traditional wool farming in southwest Africa couldn’t compete with the milder climate of the Cape. The search for a tougher breed, with a high yield, ended on 24 September 1907 with the arrival of the first 12 Karakul at Swakopmund.
The sheep do well in the arid conditions of southern Namibia, similar to its region of origin. The low rainfall actually helps minimise fur density on the skins. In years with good rain, a higher percentage of Karakul are reared for the meat market, although as a fat-tail they fetch lower prices than traditional Dorper sheep do.
The absence of dense bush in southern Namibia makes it easier to keep free-roaming flocks. “Breeding Karakul allows for flexibility,” says Wessel Visser of the Karakul Board of Namibia, who also runs the Agra Pelt Centre in Windhoek and represents the industry at fur auctions.
“It’s nature setting the pace. In dry years more lambs are slaughtered for their pelts. The mothers can then survive the drought because they don’t have the burden of rearing young.” This creates ideal conditions for directed breeding experiments, producing unique pelts such as the Shallow Curl and Watered Silk. While pelts from Afghanistan and the surrounding areas are still marketed, experts say their quality doesn’t compare to that of Swakara skins.
A victim of fashion
After skinning, all the meat and fat is removed and the pelts are washed and dried on a special frame, a specialised and labour intensive process.
In the pelt centre in Windhoek, Namibian and South African pelts are sorted according to colour – white, grey, black or brown – and grade. Over 100 different grades are determined by hair length, curl development, colour, the quality of the pattern, feeling and gloss.
The best pelts are harvested when the lambs are a day old. The throat is cut and the spine severed and the lamb bleeds to death. However, this practice almost killed the industry from 1980 onwards. “The fashion industry was already moving away from using natural materials,” says Wessel. “But there’s no doubt the anti-fur lobby really hit us hard.”
Karakul exports dropped to a historic low of 68 000 pelts in 1997. Many farmers switched to less volatile markets or simply closed shop. Namibia’s Karakul flock dwindled from almost 4,5 million to 180 000 in a span of a few decades.
“We’ll never regain the numbers we once had,” predicts Wessel. “Over the past couple of years we managed to climb back to 130 000 pelts. We think we’ll be able to double that to 250 000 or 300 000, but not much more.”
Return of Swakara
The resurrection of the Karakul sheep has a simple cause – fur is back.
“It’s part of a trend by designers who are returning to the use of natural materials,” says Wessel. He recalls a visit to Paris where he was amazed to find Swakara displayed in the windows of exclusive accessory maker Louis Vuitton.
And they aren’t the only ones. Big fashion houses like Prada and Gucci have rediscovered the shining lamb pelts. “Because the material is so light and thin it’s easy to work with and can be made into clothes worn all year round, even in European summers,” explains Wessel. “The natural patterns mean it doesn’t require as much razor-cutting and sewing as mink, for instance. Designers like that.”
Aiming for the green consumer
Of course this turnaround wouldn’t have been possible if consumers weren’t on board. “People are okay with fur as long as they know it’s harvested in a humane manner,” says Wessel. The “green consumer” looks for guarantees such as the label of Origin Assured from the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF). Swakara has been allowed to carry the label after promising the industry will completely abandon old slaughter methods in the next five years.
Some farmers now stun the animal with an electric shock before slaughter. Wessel doesn’t know how many of the 650 remaining producers use this method, but admits traditional practices are still widespread. “The problem is the cost of the equipment, about R1 800/unit,” explains Wessel. “Communal farmers in particular think this is too high.” To solve the problem, the Karakul Board is working with the University of Stellenbosch to develop a cost-effective slaughter method.
“We’re looking at a tool to drive a pin into the head, using a spring,” says Wessel. “It’s cheap, mobile and doesn’t need electricity. We’re making the last modifications before testing on live sheep, while monitoring heart and brain activity to figure out if it’s the most humane slaughter method.”
A tough market
The cost of the machine will be significantly lower, probably between R300 and R500. This will be a relief, especially for smaller farmers, as costs in the industry are rising. Prime ram prices have skyrocketed and investments will only pay off as long as auction prices rise. So far, so good – at the latest auctions in Copenhagen, Swakara pelts achieved record prices of up to R1 396.
The pelts are marketed twice a year, in April and September. There’s a slight seasonal fluctuation with higher volumes and the best prices in April, when designers start working on winter collections. Although prices were good this season, volumes sold were close to the 50 000 considered the minimum. Because of the late rain this year, ewes gave birth late, causing delays. Those pelts will be marketed in April 2009. The Karakul board plans to schedule three annual auctions as soon as 150 000 pelts are successfully produced and sold. This might happen soon as demand is growing steadily.
But the industry has changed since the days of the boom, and farmers are now wary of the whims of the international fashion world. Bigger farms are diversifying, mixing Karakul and Boer goats and in seasons of good rain, or when the mutton price is high, only the best Karakul are skinned or kept for breeding. The Namibian Karakul Board, representing farmers in the region, is constantly marketing Swakara in a bid to enter new markets. Most recently the board approached Russian and Chinese couturiers who will soon show off Swakara designs at fashion shows in Milan and Hong Kong. Contact Wessel Visser on (+264) 61 290 9302 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw