American Naturalist's Story of Tibetan Antelopes
   2013-07-11 06:44:17    Xinhua      Web Editor: Guo Jing

Dr. Schaller (L) works with local staff on wildlife protection in Tibet. [Photo: China's Tibet]

Two decades ago, George Beals Schaller talked about Tibet and an endangered plateau animal the Tibetan antelope, or Chiru, at a luncheon party held by a fashion circle in a way to raise funds to boost wildlife protection in China.

At the party, the audience was so fascinated by his vivid pictures displaying the antelopes in their natural habitation: a large-scale migration, a doe nursing its children, and a buck with elongated black horns walking freely on the northern Tibet's Changtang grassland.

Schaller, 76, an American zoologist, is the vice-president of the Science and Exploration Program at the International Wildlife Conservation Society.

Having studied wildlife in Africa, Asia and South America, he was also the first western scientist commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund to work in China.

However, to the delicate audience, Schaller also showed a number of shocking pictures -- skeletons of Tibetan antelopes piling up around the poachers' tents and their furs peeled off on the ground!

According to Schaller, the Tibetan antelope's pashm, considered the world's finest of its kind, was often smuggled to Kashmir, where it was made into "shahtoosh," a Persian shawl meaning "the King of cashmere."

"As soon as I mentioned the word 'shahtoosh,' some ladies took off their shawls quietly. Before this party, they hadn't been aware that what they wore over their shoulders was made of wool of three to five Tibetan antelopes. They only knew a soft shawl symbolizing a vogue was expensive and might cost as much as 15,000 U.S. dollars," said Schaller.

In 1985, Schaller saw the Tibetan antelopes for the first time when conducting field survey in Qinghai Province. Till then, his knowledge about it was no more than a plateau rare species mostly populating the areas at an altitude of 4,300-5,000 m. 

Driven by curiosity about the wildlife on the Qinghai Plateau, Schaller began research on the animal. In Changtang, he met people who had the same goal of environment protection, including forestry professionals from Tibet, Xinjiang and Qinghai as well as experts in plateau biological research.

"In early 1790s, some travelers had witnessed a flock of 15,000-20,000 Tibetan antelopes during their journey in Tibet. I supposed there were over one million of them inhabiting this region then."

However, ruthless trophy hunting for the animal's warm, soft and fine wool became rampant in the late 1980s, causing its population sharply declined. Official conservative data showed that about 20,000 Tibetan antelopes were killed each year.

"Poachers drove from Xining (capital of Qinghai Province) to Hoh Xil (the major inhabited area for Tibetan antelopes) and then hunted the antelopes during their breeding season or chased them by motorcycle until they were exhausted to death."

An anti-poaching team led by Soinam Targyai once seized a vehicle carrying 600 Chiru furs. Similar cases were discovered in Xinjiang, too. Schaller said only in 1992, it was estimated that at least 2,000 kg of Tibetan antelope pashm were transported to India.

"In the beginning, I didn't know what this pashm was used for, but later I found it was westerners' craze on shahtoosh that resulted in the tragedy of this animal."

"Fortunately, the Chinese government has taken effective action to fight poaching and saved large number of the animal."

"Most of their habitats have been listed national-protected area. It's really a great achievement China has made."

In November 2006, his team made an observation along both sides of the newly-built Qinghai-Tibet Railway and discovered the animals wholly unaffected in their life by the daily noisy trains rushing by.

"Obviously, they thought it was safe there," Schaller added, "Before the railway was built, designers had planned several passages beneath for the free migration of the animals. There, they can freely move about without difficulty."

Schaller has witnessed the tremendous changes taking place in Changtang in the past 20 years. "Changes can be found everywhere in Tibet, in wildlife's population, in local culture, in people's mind and government policies."

In 1991, Schaller paid a visit to herdsman Puqung Nalha and his family, who lived in a tent, leading a typical pastoral life. "In 2003, I visited him again. His life was completely different. He had built three brick houses on the grassland, and bought a motorcycle and a truck," Schaller recalled.

Government policy stipulates that pastures distributed to herdsman households could be enclosed with enclosures. But in order not to disturb their grazing, calving and migration, residents in Cuochi Village have shown their love and voluntarily spared large pieces of grassland for the inhabitation of antelopes and wild yaks.

"Religious belief and ecological vision have made them know that their future and livelihood rely upon how they treat grassland and all creatures -- that is, to respect and care for their environment and to be compassionate."

Famous Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim Milarepa once called for mercy for all living life, "as it is a real devout deed."

In Schaller's eyes, such understanding and concern may create a bright future for the Tibetan antelopes -- the national treasure for China and the world.

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