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World Unites to Save Chiru

Stringent protection measures have brought the majestic Tibetan antelope, known as the chiru, back from the brink of extinction.

The animal -- which once roamed in millions -- had been decimated by poaching.

But tough protection measures by the government and crucial enforcement and monitoring work by devoted international volunteers have given the antelopes enough breathing space to breed.

For thousands of years, millions of Tibetan antelopes have been roaming freely on the vast Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

They are unique to the area. Because of the threat posed by the poacher's gun in recent decades, the beast is today categorized by the State as a Class A species, a status which affords it greater protection.

The chiru is found in China's Qinghai Province, Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions.

The slender, gazelle-like creature ranges from beige or light-gray to white in color, and its life span is roughly 10-15 years.

It lives in family groups -- herds of 10-15 animals, while adult males are solitary. Their main diet consists of grasses and herbs and its main predators were once wolves and the Himalayan brown bear.

Bloody luxury

But a hundred years ago, poachers sought the antelope for its valuable hide and meat.

In 1900, the population of Tibetan antelope was estimated to be around 1 million. Today, they number just 100,000.

They are sought after by humans because of the dense winter fur which is soft and wool-like, offering good insulation against the severe weather.

The Tibetan antelope fur can be woven and is called "Shahtoosh." The hairs are so fine that they can be threaded through a wedding ring -- earning them the nickname "ring shawls." Shahtoosh comes from the Persian phrase "king of wools" and can be woven into scarves and shawls that sell up to US$18,000 in markets around the world.

Unlike cashmere wool, which can be sheared off an animal, the shatoosh is extracted after the creature has been killed.

It takes three to five dead antelopes to yield sufficient wool for one shawl, experts say.

The Tibetan antelopes are skinned and the raw shahtoosh is collected and smuggled to neighboring countries where it is manufactured into shawls, according to China Tibet Information Center website.

Shahtoosh products are then illegally transported to fashion capitals worldwide and sold in department stores and in high-end boutiques.

Crazy poaching

Extremely wary by nature, the Tibetan antelope is constantly on the alert and is hence difficult to approach. Meanwhile, the profitable overseas trade in shahtoosh has led to rampant poaching in the high alpine steppes, which boast altitudes of 3,700 to 5,500 meters on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

The poaching of the species has increased dramatically since the late 1980s, reports say. It is estimated that around 20,000 Tibetan antelopes are poached each year, from a growing population of around 100,000.

Poachers have turned the desolate and uninhabited wilds into a bloody slaughterhouse. The Tibetan antelopes are slaughtered by gangs using high-velocity rifles and high-speed jeeps that can traverse the barren and rocky plateau.

If the poaching continues at its current rate, experts warn that within 20 years the precious species will disappear from earth for good.

More worrying still is that in recent years poachers have discovered the Tibetan antelope's calving grounds and now kill the females "by the thousands" as they give birth. They are skinned on the spot and the hides sold to merchants in Nepal and India, who traffic them to Kashmir.

Crack down

To help the endangered antelopes, China has established the Hoh Xil, the Altun Mountain and the Qiangtang national nature reserves. And a cross-regional anti-poaching and information-sharing system among the three reserves will be established soon, official reports say.

"Starting from 2005, the three regions will each organize an anti-poaching blitz," says Zheng Jie, vice-director of the Qinghai Forestry Bureau.

Six years ago, the State Forestry Administration promulgated the White Paper of China for Protecting Tibetan Antelopes, appealing to the international community for joint efforts in protecting the animal.

Several months later, the Chinese State Forestry Administration pooled the forces of public security and environmental protection departments of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province and Tibet Autonomous Region. This dealt a heavy blow to freewheeling poachers.

The Chinese Government has realized that an international law enforcement co-operative mechanism should be established to protect the endangered species and eliminate trade of products made from the antelope.

A consensus was reached among the concerned countries, including China, India -- the major producer of shawls made from the ibex's underwool -- and European countries that purchase shawls, that they should join forces to protect the endangered species.

A declaration appealed to governments of states that consume shahtoosh to conduct more extensive and in-depth publicity and education campaigns to inform consumers of the illegality of the trade.

The statement urged the governments to ban such activities and root out underground manufacturing and trade operations.

The statement also called on all governments concerned to strengthen co-operation with international and non-governmental organizations currently involved in the protection of Tibetan antelope.

Meanwhile, fashion-driven demand for shahtoosh in the US has been increasing in recent years and shows little sign of waning, experts claim.

International trade in Tibetan antelope products has been wholly banned since 1979 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This regulates the trade in endangered species products, and makes it clear that it is illegal to import shahtoosh into the US and many other countries.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has urged tourists not to buy souvenirs made of shatoosh, and US and international authorities have been cracking down on illegal sales in high-end boutiques and department stores.

Volunteers from across China have also become involved in the daily work of the anti-poaching efforts in the reserves.

(China Daily October 4, 2004)

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