In Tibet, Climbers Find Rare Antelope Birthing Ground

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
March 21, 2003
Four mountaineers in the high steppes of northern Tibet and
northeastern China have located the key calving ground of the chiru, a
rare Tibetan antelope.

Poachers have decimated the chiru populations to supply the black market trade in shahtoosh, which is among the world's most expensive wools and is 25 percent finer then cashmere.

The mountain mission may help restore the species. "This was the last major missing piece in the natural history of these animals," said Rick Ridgeway, 53, a climber from Ojai, California, and the leader of the quest, sponsored by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council.

The expedition had a tragic coda. After returning home, photographer Galen Rowell of Bishop, California, was killed with his wife Barbara when their small plane crashed.

Since 1983, the Chinese government has set aside wildlife reserves that now encompass 190,000 square miles (465,000 square kilometers). Conservationists hope that the birthing-ground discovery will encourage the Chinese government to expand the reserves. The chiru population is 75,000, biologists estimate. A century ago as many as one million chiru may have roamed Tibet.

The expedition was inspired by the fieldwork of George Schaller, a wildlife biologist and director of science at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City.

Schaller has studied the chiru of the Chang Tang plateau since 1987 as part of a broader survey of Tibetan wildlife.

In 2001 Schaller came close to locating the birthing grounds of the western herd of chiru, the largest of four main herds, but was forced to turn back when his pack animals began to die from malnutrition and exhaustion.

"We were on a mission to complete his study," Ridgeway said. "He had a lot of confidence in us, probably more than we did in ourselves."

Few Westerners have ever set foot in the Chang Tang (Tibetan for "northern plain"), one of the world's remotest regions. Rolling steppes, glacial lakes and 20,000-foot (6,100-meter) peaks define a spectacular landscape that overlaps Tibet and the Chinese areas of Xinjiang and Qinghai. Unique species of antelope, wild yak, gazelle and bear roam there.

Tibetan nomads known as Dropka inhabit sparse settlements in the southern Chang Tang, a comparatively lush region that provides forage for domesticated goats, sheep, and yak raised for wool and meat.

Nomads have long hunted the chiru in small numbers. Then, during the early 1980s, fashion designers discovered shahtoosh.

"Once chiru became a fashion statement, the demand became so high it became a mass slaughter with organized teams and jeeps and automatic weapons just mowing the herds," Schaller said.

In addition to Ridgeway and Rowell, the expedition team included climbers Conrad Anker of Bozeman, Montana, and Jimmy Chin of Jackson, Wyoming.

Embarking last May, the mountaineers drove for five days from Llasa, Tibet, to Tose Kangiri, a 20,000-foot (6,100-meter) peak at the start of the chiru's 200-mile (320-kilometer) spring migration route.

The team covered the next 275 miles (440 kilometers) on foot, each pulling a 30-day supply of provisions in custom-built, two-wheeled aluminum rickshaws, across the trackless and often icy or muddy terrain.

"Each day was a slow burn of our bodies' reserve and an additional strain on our mental fortitude," Ridgeway said.

Aided by GPS units, Russian topographic maps, and Schaller's field notes, the expedition found a group of 70 female chiru on the sixth day of their trek.

For the next week, the team followed the antelope caravan until they reached the western herd's northern calving ground: a high plain where they observed two large groups of chiru, perhaps more than 4,000 animals.

For two days the team photographed and filmed the calving herd—until dwindling supplies forced them to move on.

Ridgeway said the expedition "filled my expectations, good and bad."

At the end of the month-long trek, Rowell, Ridgeway's friend for more than three decades, told him that the expedition had been among the "top two or three trips of his life."

"He said with more distance and reflection he anticipated it might be the best trip of life," Ridgeway said. "And I find some compromised satisfaction in that."

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