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Better Protection for Tibetan Antelopes

The man who opened up the world of gorillas, tigers, lions, snow leopards and pandas to people worldwide, is also the first scientist to arouse the world's attention to the illegal trade in shahtoosh, among the world's most expensive wools.



George B Schaller, role model to many people, including Michael Crichton, author of "The Jurassic Park," likens the trade in shahtoosh to the drug trade, warning that, "wealthy countries are depleting the globe of one of our beautiful species."


This species is none other than the chiru, or the Tibetan antelope.


It has taken Schaller several years and thousands of kilometers of treks on foot and in land cruisers across the great Kunlun Mountains to piece together a big puzzle in the life of female chiru.


His recent discovery is pushing him to lobby for a national nature preserve and for more concrete and forceful work to protect the chiru in the area, he said in a lengthy and exclusive interview with China Daily.


"A big reserve will also safeguard wild yak and other species," he said.


Chiru's long march


Schaller has been following the chiru for the last 18 years in the former no-man's land in Chang Tang in the northern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region as well as in neighboring Qinghai Province and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.


It has been part of his wildlife studies on the roof of the world.


During his repeated expeditions, he found that there are four main populations of the chiru.


He also observed that, for some mysterious reason, each May or June the female chiru of the largest western population set off northwards from Tibet into Xinjiang.


They return to Tibet weeks later, with their newborn calves.


In 2001, trekking south from Xinjiang, Schaller found a concentration of pregnant females of the western herd. As it snowed every night, he was saddened to see the pack animals die from malnutrition and exhaustion.


He brought up the puzzle for discussion with his colleagues.


Inspired, the National Geographic's Expeditions Council supported an expedition by a team of four mountaineers into the western part of the Kunlun Mountains between May and June of 2002.


The mountaineers located the key birthing ground of the chiru and obtained the first photographic proofs.


To protect the calving ground, the Wildlife Conservation Society, of which Schaller is the vice-president for science and exploration, provided funds for the forestry bureau of Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang, to build a guard post in the area in May 2004.


The society, an international organization based in the United States, has paid three guards to patrol the area ever since, Schaller said.


In October 2004, Minfeng County of Hotan established a small reserve to place the area under protection.


Seeing is believing


For Schaller, that first set of photos told him almost nothing about the birthing ground.


He needed detailed information of what, where and how, as well as assessments of natural conditions and human activities in this and neighboring areas.


Early this year, he launched the official survey, with support from the Forestry Bureau of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. His colleagues for the expedition are Kang Aili from the society's China office, Liu Yanlin from Peking University and Cai Xinbin from Forest Research Institute in Urumqi.


They built the base camp in a gully on the southeast of the Serkul Lake, at an altitude of over 4,500 meters above sea level.


The core birthing ground is located in the basins south of the two salt water lakes, the Sharjul and the Serkul. The snow-capped Kunlun Mountains straddles the north.


The basins are desolate and almost barren, in sharp contrast to summer time in the northern Chang Tang.


From the base camp, the team members scattered to count the animals. Schaller, at 72, walked seven or eight hours a day during the survey.


"It's hard, but interesting," he said.


They saw an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 females in the birthing ground, Schaller wrote in a preliminary report.


However, only 35-40 percent of them were pregnant and calved in the area.


It is still difficult to tell at present why so many females were not pregnant, he said.


In about three weeks between June and July, the researchers observed the calving of the chiru.


They put a dozen small radio collars on necks of the baby chiru. "It's the first time the wireless device has been used in any research about the chiru," said Schaller. "It's bendable, so there should be no problem for the babies to grow."


The researchers wore rubber gloves and rubbed the gloves against the local shrubs before placing radio collars around the chiru's neck.


"We don't want the human smell on the babies," Schaller explained.


And they were fast, too. It took less than a minute.


They then watched the calves waiting for their mothers who were usually just 200 or 300 meters away to come back.


"The babies will follow their mothers, so we knew there will be no problem," Schaller said.


"The real problem is they move so much and the area is so hilly that we had trouble getting the signals."


Still, the researchers managed to get signals from 10 collars. The collars led them to find that one calf with a collar had been killed by a red fox and another probably by an eagle.


They also checked 41 other corpses of the calves. Altogether, five calves were found to have been killed by a red fox and two by the golden eagle or Cinereous vulture.


The others probably did not die from a predator's attack, said Schaller.


Premature delivery, separation from their mothers no female chiru will accept another's calves and bad weather were possibly the main culprits.


"Heavy snow remained in this area for a week," he explained.


Once the antelopes finished calving, they started to leave, back to Chang Tang in Tibet.


A week after the last birth in early July, the new mothers and the babies were gone.


The researchers followed the fast-running antelopes on foot till they were sure that the animals were on the route back to Tibet.


They walked a straight distance of about 25 kilometers in the hills, surrounded by snow-capped peaks over 6,000 meters above sea level.


"I am very lucky that the other three people are all good walkers and willing to gather all of the information," he recalled.


Tranquil settings


But Schaller said the researchers have yet to unravel the mystery of why the mother chiru choose that area for calving.


They surmise that it is because that area provides peace and quiet for the female chiru.


"There are no people, no other large wild hoofed animals, and few predators," Schaller said. "This is really a safe place for the chiru. That's why we want to keep people out."


But will the sanctuary remain tranquil and secluded?


Until five years ago, there was no road in the area in the western part of the Kunlun Mountains.


But now there are three passages into the area, which have been opened for mining and geological exploration.


There is a gold mine near the core area and a road has been built leading to it.


So far the mine has had no direct impact on the chiru. But "like all over the world, you build a road and it will automatically affect the wildlife," Schaller said.


The local land management department must cooperate with the forestry department to decide what kind of mining or exploration permits they should give and where.


"This is necessary to keep the chiru happy and keep the miners happy too," he said.


They suggested that the local government designate the 350-square-kilometre area as the core protection area, which "should not be disturbed and no mining should be allowed at any time," he said.


The current guard post is nearly 200 kilometers away from the calving ground.


The researchers suggested that the three rangers of the station should build a base at the entrance to the area in the calving season to check the traffic.


So far, their work and suggestions have aroused the attention of forestry departments at different levels in Xinjiang, Schaller said.


"They have been very helpful and supportive," he said. "I have the feeling that they will move on."


(China Daily September 7, 2005)

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