Chiru’s Guardian Angels Shedding Blood, Tears

Night falls. Headlights blaze. Hundreds of chiru (Tibetan antelope) roaming the vast grassland face a short life expectancy. The dust turns pink. Suddenly a skinned chiru wakes up dripping blood. Despite being hit by several bullets, it was shock that rendered it temporarily unconscious. Being stripped while still alive, it is scared of human beings. I can even see its tiny grimace. But it cannot even close its eyes now, because it no longer any skin, even eyelids. It scurries a few steps, collapses jerking and twitching.

That is what the “Wild Yak’s Brigade” anti-poaching squad has commonly seen on its patrols as the sole armed anti-poaching squad in the 450 square km Hoh Xil (Kekexili) Nature Reserve.

Next day. Baby chirus cling to life, nursing on the cold breasts of mothers killed for their fur. Even poachers have some heart when they hear the babies crying. The brigade tried to feed them powdered milk; the nipples of the mother were even cut off to try and seduce the baby to feed, but all ended in failure. Since chiru do not feed others’ offspring, the only destiny awaiting them is death.

The chiru population was 1 million or more at the beginning of the 20th century, according to an estimate by wildlife biologists. But, by the mid-1990s the numbers had dropped to less than 75,000, due principally to poaching for shahtoosh. As many as 20,000 chiru are killed annually to supply the trade, with males, females and young slaughtered indiscriminately.

Thanks to the “Wild Yak’s Brigade” arduous efforts, a great numbers of chiru skins, ammunition, cars etc. have been ferreted out, and poachers arrested. To some extent, this has curbed the serious poaching in Hoh Xil district.

The “Wild Yak’s Brigade” as the sole armed anti-poaching squad, risked their lives, sacrificed wealth and taxed their physical and mental strength to protect chiru. On December 14, 2000, it was awarded the ultimate honor — the 300,000-yuan Great Wall Award of the Ford Motor Company’s Environmental Protection Honors.

However, while the public was showing more and more concern for China’s ecological condition and more funds and equipments were being raised to support them, the brigade suffered a fatal blow from the local government--being ordered to disband for various reasons. People caring for chirus wonder who will become the new guardian angels? CIIC thus interviewed Professor Liang Congjie, president of Friends of Nature (FON), which is a non-government environmental watchdog keeping close contacts with the brigade. Mr. Liang and his colleagues gave the explanation of issue as follows.

The Plight of “Wild Yak’s Patrol” Squad

Following the discovery of gold in Hoh Xil in 1984, close to 30,000 prospectors rushed to the area that had lain undisturbed for several centuries. Their arrival not only meant illegal mining, but also an ecological disaster for dozens of endangered and protected animals. First, the animals were killed for food, and then, since 1992, hunted for Shahtoosh, the fur taken from the neck of chiru. A shahtoosh shawl, bringing death to between three and five chiru, can fetch up to US$40,000.

Sonam Dorje, deputy county magistrate of Zhiduo County, was ordered to establish a regulatory commission (the precursor of the “Wild Yak’s Brigade”) to govern the area. Later he found brutal poaching had endangered the survival of the chiru breed. He shifted his focus from economic resource supervision to protecting the chiru.

On Nov 18, 1994, Sonam Dorje was cut down in his prime in a gunfight with 14-armed poachers in 1994, his body frozen solid, one hand on rifle and one in the process of reloading it.

His brother-in-law, Zhawa Dorje soon picked up his holy mission. One year later, Zhawa Dorje was found shot dead after a quarrel with his wife.

Though his death was ruled as a suicide, Professor Liang Congjie claimed: “Just hours before his death, I received a phone call from Qinghai Province to Beijing in which he talked about his ambitious anti-poaching activities. I just can't believe that such a lively, courageous, and kind-hearted person would commit suicide. This is a fatal blow to the anti-poaching cause, and to wildlife protection in general."

Then, 47-year-old Liang Yinquan took over squad leadership. Since then, the brigade has cracked 92 cases, confiscated 8,601 chiru skins, 101 vehicles, 114 rifles and semiautomatic weapons, plus 140,000 rounds of ammunition, and taken 376 suspects into custody.

“Though we risk their lives to combat poaching, it can only prevent less than 20 percent chiru skins from reaching the black market,” he said.

Lack of patrol funds also presents a big problem to the protection cause. As it is a 1st class national poverty county, Zhiduo County can only spare US$37,000 a year. That is far from enough even to pay for gasoline.

The skies are so tempestuous that a hot summer afternoon can also witness snow and hail. Temperatures in Hoh Xil can drop to 40 degree Celsius below zero. In such an unforgiving area, if someone runs out of gasoline, or his vehicle becomes incapacitated for some other reason, without outside help it would be difficult to survive even for five days. After each expedition, the vehicles needed a huge overhaul. When the cost of gasoline, food and ammunition is added up, each trip costs more than 20,000 yuan. With 20 patrols a year, either the brigade or its members are heavily in debt.

Desperate short of money, the Wild Yak Brigade has had to conduct patrols with extremely poor equipment and supplies. They used their own meager savings to buy food and clothing for the long trips. Most settled for cheap ramen noodles, salty pickles and buns, which became frozen bricks by the time they bit into them. They slept and ate outdoors, clambered over glaciers, waited out poachers in the snow and fought pitched battles with these heavily armed criminals. On the bitterest days, the brigades huddled against the jeep engine for warmth.

All of them have stomach ailments from irregular eating habits and severe arthritis from wading through icy rivers and falling asleep soaking wet.

Besides the brigade, the families of these guardian angels also endure great suffering for the chiru. On 22nd, December, 2000, two team members, Zhaga and Jianger Zhaxi, applied to borrow some money from Liang Yinquan. Zhaga’s mother was sick in hospital and Jianger Zhaxi preparing to marry.

After long consideration, Liang finally gave each 300 yuan (US$35). He squeezed out 100 yuan (US$12) for renting a shabby house and 300 yuan for Jiangger Zhaxi’s wedding party and necessary second-handed furniture and bedding, which would be deducted gradually from his pittance of a salary--260 yuan (US$30), being the common amount for squad members.

The brigade, except five civil servants from Zhiduo County government, are hired by Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve Conservancy as temporary workers, which in China means less pay and no long-term employment guarantee. They can be laid off on the whim of the leadership or due to the conservancy’s financial situation, without any official administrative procedure.

Official Reasons to Disband “The Wild Yak’s Brigade”

The brigade confronted an ironical contradiction. Though they confiscated a lot of cars, guns, ammunition and other equipment in the anti-poaching combat, all had to be transferred to the local government. They embarrassed themselves this summer by running out of gas and having to be rescued. In despair, they sold some chiru skins to get necessary patrol funds. Some, therefore, attack the brigade as poachers, too. That’s why Professor Liang Congjie, president of FON, insisted on stopping the sale of chiru skins by donating two police cars to the brigade.

"If the government guaranteed our funding, we would never have done such a thing," Liang Yinquan said of the pelt sales. " We had nothing. We sold 20 percent of what we caught so we could protect the 80 percent that still faced death. We don't do it anymore--why do they keep mentioning it?"

No matter what objective condition is, law is law. One cannot fight against a crime by committing another crime. This is reportedly the main reason for the order. The local government will never allow a brigade to behave like the people they are trying to catch.

Another hot issue is the brigade’s right to enforce the law. Sonam Dorje, Zhaba Dorje and Liang Yinquan are all from Zhiduo County Forestry Police Station. Their police background entitles them to possess guns and arrest poachers. The rest are recruited as temporary workers. They have no right to put on a police uniform and arrest poachers.

As for the uniforms, the government can't afford to make everybody full-fledged police officers, Liang said. Out on the frontier, criminals would never fear them if they didn't look official, so they must wear the uniforms.

There is a conflict between the squad’s original obligations and the protection offered by the newly established National Nature Reserve Conservancy in Hoh Xil. Nobody wants to see the two sides engaging the same job, but sometimes there may be conflicts in operations. Since most of the men in the brigade are illiterate, alcoholic and low discipline-oriented, the authorities naturally incline towards annexing the brigade to the conservancy.

Problems in Annexation

Rumors about the brigade being disbanded began in 1998. NGOs in China, especially Friends of Nature, spared no efforts to save the team. In August 1998, Professor Liang Congjie joined 17 mass media correspondents to write a letter to Vice Premier Wen Jiabao. The letter urged “at least the leadership of the brigade should be introduced or accepted into new organization if every effort fails to maintain the integrity and independence of the brigade.”

“Vice Premier Wen has given a favorable official written reply to my proposal and delivered it to Qinhai provincial government. Qinghai’s practice is a deviation from Wen’s opinion.” Professor Liang Congjie said. Can Nature Reserve Conservancy and temporary workers from the “Wild Yak’s Brigade” form a joint force to tackle poaching? The expectation is not promising right now.

As an administrative organization, the conservancy can only set up checkpoints to conduct random sample inspection while the Wild Yak’s Brigade headed by police can in some degree hold guns and fight poachers. But there is more bad news. Winter is traditionally a good poaching season because frozen roads are more passable and furs in winter are of better quality. For inexplicable reasons, the conservancy announced a long holiday for over two months until March, only leaving some staff symbolically manning checkpoints instead of being on patrol in Hoh Xil as the Wild Yak’s Brigade used to.

“As an NGO, we do not have the right to protest the personnel restructuring of the government departments. I just worry about the chirus.” Liang Congjie said, “ A long holiday in the poaching season is nothing but a passport to poachers, a passport of crime immunity.”

A Lost More Than A Pity to Ecological Protection

On 14th December 2000, the Wild Yak’s Brigade got the Great Wall Award---the ultimate one co-sponsored by Ford Auto China and Environment and Resource Committee of National People’s Congress.

The order to disband the brigade came on the 20th -- too soon before the brigade can greet their biggest financial aid in history; too soon before they can use the funds to do more to protect poor chiru.

Ford is now in a dilemma over distributing the funds. The fund is specified for anti-poaching activities, especially patrols.

“The Wild Yak’s Brigade won a high reputation through their bravery in extremely arduous natural and financial situations. In business terms, it’s a world-famous brand they won at the cost of several deaths,” Professor Liang Congjie said. “The brigade is a carrier of the public’s ecological awareness. Many people are moved by their valor and willing to donate funds and equipment to assist them.” It is now a common concern that the new organization can gain the same confidence.

A Hong Kong expedition team intended to donate an America military cross-country truck to the team, which will enable them to match the poachers in terms of vehicles. But this plan was dropped when they heard the brigade had been disbanded.

“Nothing seems clear yet.” Professor Liang Congjie said, “ The Wild Yak’s Brigade won the public and donators’ confidence through their protection efforts. I do hope the conservancy can prove itself worthy of the name---Guardian Angels of Chiru.”

(CIIC by Xu Zhiquan 01/18/2001)

In This Series


Letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Protecting Chiru

Letter in Reply from Tony Blair


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