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Qinghai-Tibet Railway: Ecological Menace?
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The Chinese Academy of Sciences will send an expedition team to the Hoh Xil region, China's largest area of uninhabited land bordering Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang, next month to study the impact of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway on its wildlife.

The 45-member team will investigate the geology, ecology, animals and plants and environment of the region during the 50-day expedition which starts on October 10, said Ding Lin, the lead scientist on the expedition.

While government officials applaud the environmentally friendly construction of the railway, some Chinese scientists are more restrained, believing more time is needed to evaluate the impact of the project.

Ding said the changes in the living habits of the Tibetan antelopes will be the focus of the expedition.

"Although passageways on the line were built for migrating animals, we still don't know whether the antelopes really use them to cross the railway," Ding said.

He said that the plateau has the most fragile ecosystem and the most unique biodiversity in China, even in the world.

In a scientific expedition to the region last year, scientists found that brown bears in the Hoh Xil region now hibernate later in the year due to global warming.

"Desertification in some regions has worsened and glaciers have receded," Ding said.

Another aim of the expedition this year is to collect samples of species to build a genetic database for the endangered ones, said Ding.

The 1,956-kilometer-long Qinghai-Tibet railway is the world's highest and longest plateau railroad and also the first railway connecting the Tibet Autonomous Region with other parts of China.

Initial investigations have showed that the antelope and other wild animals are gradually adapting to the new environment by using the passageways.

A monitoring system targeting the passages was put into operation during the construction of the railway. "Compared with similar monitoring systems in foreign countries, we have had a very good beginning," said Yang Qisen of the Institute of Zoology with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

However, he added, "It is still too early to judge whether or not the passages are successful."

"It will take five to ten years of the railway being in operation to draw conclusions," Yang said.

(Xinhua News Agency September 23, 2006)

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