When he first heard of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway project, Tsega, chief of the Hoh Xil (Kekexili) wildlife reserve watchdog, was worried the project would have a negative impact on his animals.
That was in late 2000, when Tsega and his patrol team were engaged in a war chasing poachers of the endangered Tibetan antelope out of the Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve.
"I had always thought construction of the railway would cause inconvenience to the migration of animals and affect our protection work," Tsega, director of the reserve's management bureau, told China Daily. "I thought I would have to deal with the builders."
An uninhabited haven that spans 45,000 square kilometers, Hoh Xil reserve is approved by the State Council to protect animals including the antelope, their wool a target for poachers who make it into shahttosh shawls that sell dearly in fashion centers.
As the strategic railroad must traverse Hoh Xil to link Xining, capital of Qinghai Province and Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Tsega said he and his colleagues participated in the design of the line prior to the construction.
"We told the railway authorities our concerns, and shared information regarding the migratory patterns and paths of the animals," Tsega said.
It turned out that railway constructors already had terms in their contracts requiring them to put environmental and wildlife protection above everything, according to Tsega.
As a result, the railway was designed to run along the eastern edge of the reserve for 200 kilometers, with specially built passages mostly bridges with large openings at key points along the route where the antelopes are believed to cross during their seasonal migration to their traditional birth-giving grounds, he said.
This rail route, according to Tsega, has deliberately avoided passing through wetlands or grasslands where animals concentrate.
Tsega and his colleagues supervised how the workers implemented their contracts when construction started in June 2001.
"At the beginning, I quarreled with some workers who dumped waste arbitrarily, or pitched their makeshift tents just anywhere on the grassland," Tsega said.
One of Tsega's worries was that builders would quarry for gravel on the vast Hoh Xil, making holes here and there on the reserve and destroying the grassy cover.
Soothingly, sands and stones for the rail bed and road slopes were usually trucked from grounds as far as 90 kilometers away from the site, beyond the reserve.
"I don't think I'm waxing lyrical about what they did, but I saw they were environment-conscious," he said.
But antelopes would not wait for the completion of all the work.
For thousands of years, female antelopes have been migrating, usually between June and July, from all directions to the Zhuonai and Taiyang lakes in the northern part of the reserve to give birth, and two months later, making a return trip with their offspring.
"We've reached a consensus that construction must give way to migration," he said.
According to Tsega, two years ago workers at the Wudaoliang North Bridge halted their work for 15 days to allow migratory antelopes to cross the site.
Not only were the workers evacuated, marker flags were removed and machines silenced so as not to scare away the skittish creatures, he said.
"I was really grateful for the arrangement," Tsega said.
In the following months, Tsega and some workers worked together to "get the animals accustomed to the bridge openings" by "herding" them through the special passages.
Based on the reserve bureau's observations over the past three years, the antelopes and other animals seem to have been getting increasingly accustomed to the special underpasses, Tsega said.
But now comes the ultimate test: What will happen when the regular train service starts?
Tsega found cause for optimism.
First, Tibetan antelopes can adapt to a situation very fast. For one thing, they can now pass through an underpass without human intervention.
Just as they have got accustomed to the vehicles on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, it will just be a matter of time before they get used to the noise and vibration of trains.
Second, trains do not pass the reserve all day long. They come and go, often at regular hours.
Tsega said his reserve management bureau would send volunteers aboard the trains to educate passengers about environmental and wildlife protection.
Asked if the train will facilitate poaching, Tsega said it was impossible for anyone to take advantage of it that way.
Poachers usually have to use cars that are laden with the materials in order to hunt.
The biggest threat to the antelopes, Tsega said, remains the demands for shahttosh in the international market, even though sale of the wool is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
(China Daily July 3, 2006)