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.

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