The Tibetan Antelope
Known as the chiru, the Tibetan antelope's scientific name is Pantholops hodgsonii. A migratory animal weighing 26-40 kilograms, the chiru grazes in the south and births in the north. Endemic to Tibet, the chiru is mostly isolated from civilization by high elevations and severe weather, living in altitudes from 10,660 feet up to 18,000 feet (3250 to 5500 meters).
The Tibetan antelope originally traveled in large herds of 15,000 animals or more, however, due to a population decline, the chiru travel in herds of about 1,000 antelope at most. During the 1950s, the chiru numbered from about 500,000 to about 1,000,000. However, in recent years (2000), the chiru population has dipped to as little as 65,000 to 75,000.
The chiru suffers from a high mortality rate in young antelope, with more than two thirds of all chiru dying between birth and age two, but the most devastating cause for population decline is poaching.
The pelts of the Tibetan antelope provide a lucrative asset to many poachers. Known as Shahtoosh wool or "king of wool", chiru furs are transported from Tibet to the surrounding countries (Nepal, Kashmir, India, China) to be woven into scarves or shawls. These scarves, although illegal in most countries (India is one of the few to not have laws against ownership of the wool), sell for up to $15,000 apiece. New penalties for shahtoosh wool ownership1 have been enacted in many nations around the world, yet the poaching continues.
Though fast runners, the Tibetan antelope are killed by hunters with high-powered rifles. Several chiru must be killed in order to make a single shahtoosh shawl. Even though the risk of penalty is high, the profit margin is huge, causing a significant depletion of chiru in Tibet.
Efforts to Stop Poaching.
During 2002 and 2003, the grazing area of the Tibetan antelope in southern Tibet became a nature preserve. Efforts were made to find the birthing grounds, and in early 2003 those efforts became a reality.
Sponsored by the National Geographic Society, an expedition left in early 2003 for northern Tibet on a 300-mile trek to find the birthing grounds of the chiru.
Leader: Rick Ridgeway of Ojai
Climber: Conrad Anker
Wilderness Photographer: Galen Rowell
Videographer: Jimmy Chin
The expedition found the birthing grounds, as expected, in northern Tibet, where they hope to expand the grounds of the nature preserve in the south. An additional incentive was noted after the team ran into a mine no more than 40 miles from the birthing grounds with a road leading to other towns sixty miles away. The closest road to the antelope habitat was supposed to be more than 100 miles away; surprise, surprise, here was the 'access road' for the poachers... Efforts are under way to turn the area into a permanent nature reserve, and to save the endangered Tibetan antelope.
1. "Team Reaches Antelope Birthing Site" by Thomas H. Maugh II of the Los Angeles Times