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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lambs That Celebrities Like to Wear

APManagers at Uzbekistan's Sarybel farm holding a newborn karakul lamb.
KANIMEKH, Uzbekistan -- A newborn karakul lamb scampers across the grass-fringed desert sand, its fur a wave of tight black curls that form a pattern as unique as human fingerprints.

Within days, the curls will unfold, become rough and wiry and turn the soft, sensuous karakul pelt -- better known as astrakhan or Persian lamb -- into cheap sheepskin.

So to save the pelt, the lamb will be slaughtered and skinned before sundown -- along with dozens of others born here at the Kanimekh farm in the desert of central Uzbekistan. Eventually, the harvest of pelts will become chic coats, cuffs and collars worn by runway models and fashion victims across the globe.

After investigators for the U.S. Humane Society visited an Uzbek farm in 2000, they condemned the industry as "cruel, grotesque, and inexcusable." But the trade has picked up sharply in recent years.

Pop singer Madonna sported a karakul coat -- until designer Stella McCartney scolded her. Celebrities like Lisa Marie Presley and Ivana Trump reportedly flaunt their karakul despite the criticism.

Activists are particularly galled by the production of karakulcha, or broadtail pelts. Every September, older ewes are artificially inseminated. The mother is slaughtered two weeks before delivery, the fetus is extracted and skinned and its body ground to feed poultry or pigs. The resulting fur resembles watered silk.

"This method is justified: Toothless ewes are destined to die of hunger anyway," said Surat Yusupov, director of the Uzbek Karakul Breeding Institute.

Shepherds say the pelts are key to their livelihood. And they point out the carcasses are not discarded: The meat is prized as a low-fat delicacy, the hooves processed for glue, the maw sold to cheese makers or pharmaceutical companies.

"We cope with life in desert, and the campaigns of those activists only add to the difficulties we encounter here," said Malibek Abdukadyrov, a manager at the Kanimekh farm.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has become an unlikely international fashion icon, often wears a chic karakul hat and may be partly responsible for the surge in interest in the fur.

By 2004, Prada had shown a collection made of swakara, or African karakul, and soon designers from Armani to Gucci presented new coats, trims, suits and skirts.

Last year, Uzbekistan sold almost 137,000 karakul pelts abroad, one-third more than in 2005, said Uzbek Karakuli, a state-run exporter. The wholesale price for each pelt climbed to $18, while a designer coat sewn from about 30 pelts costs thousands of dollars.

Today, Uzbekistan is the world's second-largest producer, after Afghanistan.

Fur industry officials say that critics do not understand that the Kyzylkum desert is far crueler than the annual karakul harvest.

With temperatures ranging from minus 30 to 50 degrees Celsius, the Kyzylkum is a desolate place, home to scattered bushes, wormwood and a few wild herbs. The landscape is so barren only the hardiest animals -- camels, goats and karakul sheep -- have a chance of survival.

"Karakul sheep are a wonder of nature," said Adham Gaziev, deputy to the director of the Uzbek Karakul Breeding Institute.

Shutting down the karakul trade would wipe out an industry that many Uzbeks depend on for their survival, Gaziev said.

"With the karakul sheep the desert feeds 3 million people, without them it will remain desert," he said.