Tibetan antelope, one of the country's rare animal species, are holding on to survival by the skin of their teeth, as shahtoosh shawls - a product made from the fur of the antelopes - continue to be the fashion.
Statistics with the State Forestry Bureau said the number of Tibetan antelope has dropped from millions in the early 20th century to less than 60,000 to date, with some 20,000 antelope being poached annually.
Xiao Penghu, an official in charge of the Administrative Bureau of Hoh Xil Nature Reserve - the country's largest nature reserve for the antelope - said the shahtoosh shawl, a sign of high social status, has become fashionable in Europe and North America since the late 1980s, spreading worldwide.
Under the new fad, a shahtoosh shawl - of which a medium-sized coat costs the lives of three antelope - can sell at more than US$30,000 at the international market, according to Xiao.
Driven by huge profits, illegal hunters - mainly poor farmers from western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai and Gansu provinces - continue to head in hope to the nature reserve for the antelopes.
The antelope fur is sent to Nepal and India for elaboration after preliminary processing in Tibet, and finally to the international market.
More than 1,000 farmers illegally entered the nature reserve last year to poach wild animals, according to the bureau. The illegal trade in the shawls still runs rampant globally in defiance of an international ban, according to a recent undercover investigation conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a non-governmental organization which aims to protect animals.
In a recent investigation, IFAW investigators, using concealed cameras, posed as buyers and were offered the luxury shawls in a boutique in Rome.
The footage was then passed on to the Italian authorities, who subsequently raided the boutique.
On Tuesday, IFAW China said the findings of the investigation are alarming, and prove that the trade is continuing despite the increasing international concern for the survival of the Tibetan antelope.
Each shahtoosh shawl is contributing to an ecological tragedy, an official with IFAW China said, urging followers of the fashion to reject the shawl before "it's too late."
Besides Hoh Xil, the country has another two nature reserves for Tibetan antelopes - one in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the other in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Illegal hunters will be punished by local governments under the country's laws for protecting wild animals.
Both local and central governments poured more funds into the ecological construction in the three nature reserves last year after Vice-Premier Li Lanqing called for "official efforts" to protect the country's Tibetan antelopes in May 2000.
Besides protecting the local environment and fighting against illegal hunting, domestic scientists are also working for the artificial propagation of Tibetan antelope.
Little, however, has been achieved in this field so far, according to an official with the State Forestry Bureau.
(China Daily February 21, 2002)