Poaching Wars in Tibet Inspire "Mountain Patrol" Movie

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"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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