Tibet's "Movie Star" Antelope Slowly Rebounding, Expedition Finds

Sean Markey
for National Geographic News
February 6, 2007

A rare antelope that has been extensively poached for its prized wool is slowly rebounding, experts report.

Last winter an expedition team counted 9,000 Tibetan antelope, or chiru, during a 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) traverse of the species' northern range in the remote Chang Tang and Kekexili reserves in Tibet and Qinghai, China.

The sprawling 250,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers) of the chiru's range has long prevented a thorough census.

But the latest numbers suggest that the total population could be 100,000 to 110,000 strong, up from an estimated tally of 75,000 animals in the mid-1990s.

"China has made a major effort to control [chiru] poaching," biologist and expedition leader George Schaller, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, wrote in an expedition report.

"The large poaching gangs of the 1990s, which were at times arrested with 600 or more chiru hides, have largely ceased to exist."

Schaller hazards a guess that more than a million Tibetan antelope roamed the Chang Tang 50 years ago (map of the reserve).

But that was before shahtoosh shawls woven from chiru wool—the world's finest and most expensive—became fashionable in the 1980s and '90s.

"Chinese sources say that 20,000 [chiru] were poached annually," Schaller said. The wool was then smuggled into Kashmir, India, to be woven into shawls worth thousands of dollars each.

Conflicts between poachers and local Tibetan volunteers who risk their lives to protect the chiru inspired the film Mountain Patrol, which opened last spring.

Hopeful Signs

Antipoaching and conservation efforts by Chinese authorities and Tibetan nomads are behind the chiru's turnaround, Schaller and his Tibetan expedition colleagues said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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