Poaching Wars in Tibet Inspire "Mountain Patrol" Movie

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 23, 2006
It's not every day that the struggle to protect an endangered species
makes it to the silver screen.

But Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan says he was inspired by the true story of the chiru—a rare antelope—and the Tibetan volunteers who risk their lives to protect the endangered antelope from poachers. The real-life drama inspired Lu's movie Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, now playing in select U.S. cities.

(Watch the trailer for Mountain Patrol: Kekexili.)

"[It] really touched me," Lu said in a phone interview from Beijing.

For two decades poachers have slaughtered chiru by the thousands for their wool, which is finer and more expensive than cashmere.

The fiber, known as shahtoosh, is smuggled out of Tibet into Kashmir, where it is woven into fashionable shawls that can fetch as much as U.S. $5,000 to $10,000 on the black market.

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili dramatizes the anti-poaching patrols that formed in the 1990s to root out poachers and shield chiru from slaughter.

The filmmaker says that during the project he kept asking himself, Why do these volunteers risk so much?

"I interviewed these guys, and they gave me all kinds of answers. But I didn't believe them. [Their motives] sounded like slogans, like propaganda," he said.

Lu shot the film, which is co-distributed by National Geographic World Films, on location on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. (National Geographic News and National Geographic World Films are both part of the National Geographic Society.)

Also known as the Chang Tang (Tibetan for "northern plain"), the plateau is remote and striking, a high-altitude landscape that spans Tibet and northwestern China. (See National Geographic magazine Chang Tang photos.)

The filmmaker says living and working there with an almost entirely local cast led him to think differently about the Tibetan men who volunteer to protect the antelope.

"I think that they [consider] this area a holy homeland," he said. "It's a belief. Their behavior is like religious behavior."

"They are risking everything to protect not just the antelope but their own homeland. They want to show that they are the owners of this land," Lu said.

Olympic Mascot

Whether the chiru will experience the Hollywood ending that conservationists and Tibetan antipoaching patrols hope for is still unclear.

Naturalist George Schaller of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society began studying the chiru and other Chang Tang species in 1985.

He says over a million chiru once roamed the Chang Tang plateau and estimates that there are about a hundred thousand chiru today.

Brutal poaching practices, such as machine-gunning the antelope at night during their calving season, have slashed chiru numbers dramatically, Schaller says.

In recent years Chinese authorities have taken more active steps to end the slaughter. The now popular animal is one of five mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

"China has made a major effort in sending out antipoaching teams, and this has had an impact," Schaller said.

"In addition, most guns have been confiscated from the local people. And there has been a widespread educational campaign, so that everybody knows that [poaching is] illegal,"

Illegal hunting may have peaked in the 1990s. Since then poaching has been pushed to uninhabited areas—the most remote reaches of a remote region.

As a result, and because of international efforts to stop shahtoosh trade, the future appears brighter for the chiru—but just barely, experts say.

"We still unearth significant quantities of shahtoosh shawls for sale for the right price to the right person," said Crawford Allan, deputy director of TRAFFIC North America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that monitors trade in wildlife products.

Allan says Indian and Nepalese traders often exchange tiger bones for the wool—creating a two-way trade in threatened animals. The tiger bones are then smuggled into China, where they are employed in traditional Chinese medicine.

Allan says he and his colleagues continue to find the shawls for sale, though traders have become more nervous and careful.

Stopping the Trade

Allan and Schaeller say public-awareness campaigns may be the key to stamping out chiru poaching once and for all.

But if the experience of making Mountain Patrol: Kekexili is any guide, that too will come at a price.

Lu, the filmmaker, says spending time with real-life poachers convinced him that the truth was complicated.

"While I was writing the script, in my mind I thought that the poachers were bad guys," he said. "There were a lot of rumors about the poachers—that they were professional killers or retired soldiers."

"But while I was in Kekexili"—China's largest wildlife preserve—"I interviewed many poachers, and I found that they are ordinary people."

"They are not professionals," he said. "They are poor farmers, poor local people. The only reason that they kill the animals is that they have to make a living."

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