Once a Fashion Victim, Tibetan Antelope Starts to Recover

NEW YORK, New York, February 2, 2007 (ENS) - The endangered Tibetan antelope, once slaughtered by poachers for the trade in luxury shahtoosh shawls, appears be increasing in numbers, according to a biologist who has studied the species for more than 20 years.

Returning from a recent 1,000 mile expedition across Tibet's remote Chang Tang region, Wildlife Conservation Society biologist George Schaller says he found larger numbers than he expected of the antelope, Pantholops hodgsonii, known locally as chiru.

Schaller says the increase is due to a combination of better enforcement and a growing conservation ethic in local communities.

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Chiru silouetted against the Himalayas (Photo courtesy CITES Management Authority of China)
"China has made a major effort to control poaching," said Schaller. "The large poaching gangs of the 1990s, which were at times arrested with 600 or more chiru hides have largely ceased to exist."

The eight week journey, which was co-funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society, WCS, and National Geographic, ranged over a sparsely inhabited region between 16,000 and 17,000 feet high on the Tibetan Plateau.

Schaller and his team travelled across the rugged and windswept 118,000 square mile Chang Tang Reserve, which WCS helped convince the Chinese government to establish in 1993.

There, Schaller, along with WCS staff member Aili Kang and a team of Tibetan and Han-Chinese biologists and field assistants, counted nearly 9,000 Tibetan antelope.

This may indicate an increase for this endangered species in some places, Schaller said. At the same time, the team witnessed no direct evidence of the widespread poaching that was evident just a few years ago.

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Biologist George Schaller gives a lecture at the Beijing Zoo, 2005. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)
According to Schaller's past surveys in the Chang Tang Reserve, populations of chiru there have risen from an estimated 3,900 in 1991 to 5,890 in 2003.

Tibetan antelope produce the finest wool in the world, known as shahtoosh, which translates to king of wool. So fine and light they could pass through a finger ring, shahtoosh shawls became fashionable in Europe and the United States, beginning in the late 1980s.

The lucrative trade fueled a black market and widespread poaching in this remote area.

In the mid-1990s, Schaller estimated that 75,000 chiru remained in the wild, with as many as 20,000 falling to poachers annually.

No comprehensive census of chiru has ever taken place due to their sprawling range that spans more than 250,000 square miles.

The team also counted more than 1,000 wild yak, a relatively high number for a species that is far more endangered than the chiru, due to hunting and hybridization with domestic yak.

The group saw an increase in wild asses, too, though they are persecuted by nomads who believe they compete with livestock for grass.

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Herd of chiru on the Tibetan Plateau (Photo by Ronald Petocz courtesy WWF-Germany)
Schaller observed that some nomadic communities living in the Chang Tang region have made concerted efforts to safeguard their wildlife. They have established local wildlife preserves to protect populations of wild yak and other animals.

"These wholly local Tibetan initiatives are the best means of establishing long-lasting conservation efforts, and they should be encouraged in every possible way," said Schaller.

The team traversed the entire northern Chang Tang region, a feat that had not been accomplished since 1896 when two British army officers made the journey on horseback, said Schaller.

Schaller's expedition used two Land Cruisers and two trucks - one of which was lost when it broke through ice while crossing a frozen lake and became entombed in mud.

Now the director for science for the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Schaller's conservation efforts have led to the establishment of five of the world's wildlife reserves, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Schaller is the author of numerous wildlife books, including in 1997 "Tibet's Hidden Wilderness: Wildlife and Nomads of the Chang Tang Reserve," based on his own pioneering studies and supported by long-term observations of species in their natural habitats.