Usually minus 20 C in the day and minus 30 C at night, the Hulunbuir Grasslands, in northeastern Inner Mongolia, are still in the grip of winter at this time of year.
To more than 1,000 Mongolian gazelles (Procapra gutturosa) from eastern Mongolia and Siberia, however, the freezing cold of these grasslands is not a problem. Compared with their habitats in Mongolia and Russia, their Chinese retreat is considerably warmer.
What matters to the hooved animals, one of the most important wildlife species in the grassland ecosystem in Euro-Asia, is the snow and the behavior of human beings.
This year's snowfall has not been really that heavy - less than 10 centimeters in many places on the grasslands - but it is enough to cover the sparse vegetation on the grasslands which have been stricken by drought for several successive years and are overgrazed by the herds of the local people.
So the animals have been finding it very difficult to find enough food to survive, with many of them starving to death.
There have poachers to deal with as well. These hunters have made them extremely cautious of human beings.
Struggling along on the verge of starvation, they have also become easy prey not only for wolves, but for foxes as well.
It is estimated that more than half of the visiting gazelles have already perished in the wildness of the Hulunbuir Grasslands so far this winter. Whether they will have the strength to return to their habitats beyond the border this spring has become a real question.
Fortunately their predicament has drawn the attention of conservationists, who have begun to take action to save the animals.
Last November, Liu Songtao saw "yellow goats," the Chinese name for the endangered species, which are under the State's level-2 protection, showing up at the Dalai Lake National Nature Reserve.
Liu, the deputy director of the huge reserve on the Hulunbuir Grasslands, and his colleagues began to strengthen their patrols in the reserve, which covers an area of 740,000 hectares.
"Our reserve is the last sanctuary for 'yellow goats' in this region," he told China Daily. "The grasslands outside the reserve have almost completely been fenced off by the local herdsmen."
In late November, they caught two groups of poachers hunting the gazelles. Charged with killing 25 gazelles, they were turned over to the local procuratorial office.
"Since laying these charges, we have had no further poaching cases in the reserve," Liu said.
On December 6, a group of over 50 gazelles was found trapped on frozen-over Dalai Lake, also known as Hulun Lake, and starving to death.
"They had been driven across the border by the strong winds and heavy snows in Mongolia and Russia (one of the major reasons that the animals migrate to the reserve in the winter)," he said, "and got lost in a blizzard and strayed out onto the frozen-over lake."
Liu and his colleagues immediately moved the gazelles by truck to the grassland on the eastern bank of the lake near the Hulungou Patrol Station, one of four patrol stations in the reserve. None of the gazelles was hurt or died during the rescue.
But they have found quite a number of dead gazelles since the middle of last December.
At first, it was the remains of gazelles left by foxes that aroused the patrolmen's attention.
"The 'yellow goat' is usually too large a prey for foxes," Liu said. "But we saw quite a few corpses left by foxes. That isn't normal."
Other carcasses were found, many of which bore no evidence of having been attacked. Around Hulungou alone, patrolmen and herdsmen have found more than 20 gazelle carasses.
"We realized they were starving to death," Liu recalled. "Probably none of them could make it through to May without immediate assistance."
But the patrol stations on the reserve have an annual budgets of only 13,000 yuan (US$1,566) for daily operation. "We have no spare money to buy forage to save the gazelles," Liu said. "We need help."
At the end of this January, he emailed Dr Zhang Li, China Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and told him the predicament of both the Mongolian gazelles and the reserve.
During an international meeting in Canada, Zhang Li suggested the reserve apply for Emergency Relief (ER) from IFAW.
In Beijing, Du Yu, an IFAW ER team member, helped the reserve to apply for funds. She had frequent talks with Liu via telephone and the Internet, discussing details of the rescue plan, and then reported to IFAW's American headquarters.
She got a positive answer from the United States in early this February. IFAW decided to provide ER funds of US$10,000 to save the Mongolian gazelles in the reserve.
Following the good news from Beijing, Liu Songtao and his colleagues immediately started the rescue operation.
"At this time of year, forage is in great demand but short supply everywhere," he said. "We failed to find anyone willing to sell it in the area near the reserve. So we went to Hailar, the major and northernmost town in Inner Mongolia, about 170 kilometres southeast of the reserve, to purchase forage, even though it is almost as expensive as rice and wheat flour there."
On February 13, they purchased 9 tons of forage and transported it to the Hulungou Patrol Station that evening.
On the morning of the next day, the staff of the reserve began to distribute forage to the gazelles in the wild near the patrol station.
About 40 kilometers from Zhalai Nur Mining District of Manzhouli City, where the reserve administration is located, the patrol station is the one closest to the administration and therefore was chosen as the first point for the rescue work. From there, Liu said, the staff of the reserve will distribute forage to the gazelles at other locations.
"We will keep feeding them until this May," he said. "We hope this will allow them to pull through."
Since the beginning of the rescue operation, no starving gazelles have been found. "We did find two gazelle carcasses," he said. "But they had been killed by wolves."
A group of 10 gazelles hang around the feeding spot at Hulungou. Once they see the patrolmen, they bound away. "But they return as soon as we leave," said a patrolman in the station, which was completed last November and has made it possible for patrolmen to stay in the reserve year-round.
"It is impossible for the gazelles to survive on the current supply of food in the wild," said Du Yu. "We're happy to know that at least some of them have a good chance of surviving because of the emergency relief."
Despite the success of the rescue work, Liu Songtao, deputy head of the reserve, is not satisfied.
He feels the future of the Mongolian gazelles in the region will remain uncertain if the problems threatening their survival are not dealt with.
The first problem is the iron fence between China and the other two countries which blocks the natural migration routes of the Mongolian gazelles.
Though there are wildlife passageways opened along the borderline, they are usually too narrow, "no larger than a gate," according to Liu. Many gazelles have been hurt or killed trying to leap over the fence.
"We should co-operate with the other two countries and open more and wider passageways for the wildlife," he said.
In fact, the reserve has co-operated with the Dornod Nature Reserve in Mongolia and the Daurskiy Nature Reserve in Russia and linked with the CMR-Dornod International Nature Reserve in 1994. The three sides are discussing establishing a special international reserve for the gazelles, said Liu.
Poaching is another threat to the survival of the gazelles in the reserve.
People living in the area legally hunted the gazelles for meat until the early 1980s, Liu said. Though hunting has now been banned, many people still have a fancy for the meat.
"To change that, we must raise local people's environmental awareness," he said. "That is what we really expect to achieve by launching the rescue action."
However, the biggest threat for the gazelle is environmental degradation caused mainly by overgrazing, he said.
The grasslands outside the reserve has been distributed to the local herdsmen and support more than 2 million heads of livestock. Even within the buffer zone of the reserve, about 2,000 families have fenced-off grassland of their own.
"Herdsmen like to raise as much livestock as they can on the land they have," he said, "which has led to the degradation of our grassland ecosystem."
His words are born out by Sun Yongge, a Mongolian herdsman living at Hulungou.
Sun and his family of five have 133 hectares of fenced grassland near the core area of the reserve, on which he raises over 100 cows, 100 horses and about 300 sheep. Soon more than 100 sheep will have their lambs.
The 45-year-old herdsman said that the forage on his grassland was far from enough to feed his livestock through the winter. The family will have to spend 10,000 yuan (US$1,205) for more forage before this May.
He admitted that the grasslands have been deteriorating rapidly over the past several years mainly because of "overgrazing," not because of drought. "But every family likes to raise as much livestock as possible," he said.
So Liu Songtao is considering raising money to buy some of the local herdsmen's grasslands for the wildlife reserve.
Until these goals are achieved, however, he will still worry about the annual migrations of the Mongolian gazelles.
"Sometimes I am happy to know that our place is the haunt of 'yellow goats' again," he said. "After all, it was once the dominant wildlife species in this region.
"But when we didn't find any gazelles in our reserve the previous winter, I felt a bit relieved."
(China Daily March 15, 2004)