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Tibetan antelope slowly recovering

Biologist George Schaller reports decline in poaching as wildlife slowly bounces back

Returning from a recent 1,000-mile expedition across Tibet's remote Chang Tang region, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) biologist George Schaller reports that the Tibetan antelope -- once the target of rampant poaching -- may be increasing in numbers due to a combination of better enforcement and a growing conservation ethic in local communities.

The eight-week journey, which was co-funded by WCS and National Geographic, took place over a remarkably uninhabited region that routinely ranged between 16,000-17,000 feet. 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 or chiru, more than expected. This may indicate an increase in some places for this endangered species, according to Schaller. At the same time, the team witnessed no direct evidence of the widespread poaching that was evident just a few years ago.

"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 largely ceased to exist.

Tibetan antelope produce the finest wool in the world, known as shahtoosh, which translates to "king of wool." Beginning in the late 1980s, shahtoosh shawls became fashionable in Europe and the U.S., which fueled a black market and widespread poaching in this remote area. In the mid 1990s, Schaller estimated that perhaps 75,000 chiru remained in the wild, with as many as 20,000 falling to poachers annually. However, no comprehensive census of chiru has ever taken place due to a 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's 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.

Schaller noted that some nomadic communities living in the Chang Tang region have made concerted efforts to safeguard their wildlife and have established local wildlife preserves to protect populations of wild yak and other wildlife.

"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 journey traversed the entire northern Chang Tang region, a feat that hadn't been accomplished in over a century, when in 1896 two British army officers made the journey on horseback, according to Schaller. Forsaking horses this time, 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.

Much of the journey took place across the rugged and windswept Chang Tang Reserve, a Colorado-sized park, which WCS helped convince the Chinese Government to establish in 1993.

Stephen Sautner | EurekAlert!
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