Making a killing in Tibet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 January, 1999, 12:00am

Traders in one of the world's softest and most expensive wools - shahtoosh, known as the 'king of wool' - like to paint a romantic picture of nomads collecting balls of the thin hair after they have been shed by a passing Tibetan antelope, called chiru. Here, instead, is the grisly truth.

High in the valleys around the Tibetan plateau poachers have shot and skinned these chiru. The wool is smuggled into India or Nepal, woven into luxurious shawls and sold to rich buyers worldwide, including in Hong Kong, for between HK$10,000 and $50,000 apiece.

The slaughter has put the animals on the world's critically endangered list, and all trade in them is illegal.

Nevertheless, it is growing, as the fashion-conscious from Paris to New York fall for the appealing fibre and the appealing story.

Customs officials have arrested three traders in Hong Kong, one last month and the other two in December 1997, netting 200 shawls, according to Agriculture and Fisheries Department figures.

One shawl takes the hair from three or four animals, so if ongoing tests on the latest seizure prove they are the real thing, the total haul from just three traders represents the demise of 600 to 800 antelope.

That compares with a population now estimated at between 50,000 and 75,000, down from millions at the turn of the century, according to a Chinese government report published last month and marking the first official notice of the problem.

Explorer and conservationist Wong How-man, president of the Hong Kong-based China Exploration and Research Society and an adviser to the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve in Xinjiang Province in the far northeast, took these photos last summer.

This is their first wide publication in Hong Kong, and he hopes they will help open the eyes of the world's wealthy and persuade them that 'they don't need to wear the shawls to the opera house'.

'If we can reduce demand, it will not be worth [the poachers'] while to take the risk,' he says.

Pictures of dead antelope have been seen before, but several points about Mr Wong's particularly alarmed him and Dr William Bleisch, a US biologist and researcher of Chinese wildlife for the past decade who is working with the society on studying the antelope.

For the first time, they document the death of females and their newborns, indicating that the poachers are taking a new direction that will be more catastrophic for the antelope's future with the loss of the next generation.

Dr Bleisch says the young were probably not killed by the poachers, but starved after the mothers died. Their skins, too small to bother with, have not been taken.

Yet until this summer, the site where mothers bear their young had eluded even locals and the most persistent biologists, gaining it almost mythical status among researchers.

Explorers a century ago recorded the departure of pregnant females after the mating season to follow a long and tough route into one of the most inhospitable and isolated parts of western China, the Kunlun mountain range.

'It has defied discovery even by the most dedicated field biologists and experienced explorers,' Mr Wong writes in the latest bulletin from his society.

'Accounts throughout the past century or so had been scanty and at best circumstantial. Others had reported on the migration of pregnant females higher and higher, until they shook loose their stalkers and disappeared deep into the mountains of the Tibetan plateau.' Frustrated watchers had seen the animals disappear and reappear a month later with their young, he said.

Then in 1993, Zhang Huibin, a biologist and one of the society's associates at the reserve, showed Mr Wong a photo he had snapped of a just-born calf, covered in natal fluid and struggling to stand.

That photo led Mr Wong to organise a trip to the area, guided by Mr Zhang, during last June-July's calving season.

Despite the summer, the journey involved five days of gruelling driving through snow and sleet up to the rarefied air of plains shouldering the 7,700-metre high Mount Muztag on the edge of the reserve.

When the 12-strong team spotted a group of female antelope, their hopes were high of making a scientific breakthrough. Yet the animals were unusually nervous. In the next valley, guided by circling ravens, they saw why - there was the first group of 11 dead mothers, their young beside them, and the telltale tyre tracks of jeeps a few metres from the carnage.

'We were really totally stunned. I was extremely upset,' said Mr Wong. 'We considered it such an important discovery and they [the poachers] were right there ahead of us.' Mr Wong thinks increasing demand is driving the poachers to more reckless action. Not only did they have to travel the same gruelling route that the society group had taken, 'it [was] not even the season for the wool - [by the summer] they have already shed their wool. The poachers are desperate to get even second-grade wool', he says.

Yet Mr Wong thinks that the number of live animals they saw scattered across the plains indicated that this was the poachers' first visit. If their massacre had been more organised, he thinks the group would have seen many more than the 100 dead animals they recorded, the largest a group of 29.

But the deaths aside, the experience was thrilling, said Mr Wong.

From the hundreds of animals they saw, 'in that particular calving ground, Dr Bleisch estimated there would be about 2,000', he said. 'It's really quite spectacular. Every hour you will see birth. Basically you look around everywhere and all those sitting down, not grazing, are in labour.' The researchers also made an important discovery when they stumbled across a one-day-old calf, crouching low and still, in the scrub. With no adults to be seen, they considered it abandoned and took it back to the camp, where they fed it milk formula through a makeshift teat - a plastic glove.

But when they returned to check the situation, they found a female searching the vicinity - and she promptly retrieved the calf once they had replaced it in its original position and retreated.

'That's something new, I think,' said Dr Bleisch. 'They hide their young and go off to graze, perhaps 100 metres - far enough that you would think the young would be out of sight and hearing range.' Such behaviour had been observed in a 15-year-long study of American antelope and seemed to be a ploy to dupe predators, he said.

'Coyotes will search for the young if they find the mother, so the mother wanders away from the young, doesn't even look in their direction. But if the coyote finds the young they are there in a shot, they know exactly where the calf is.

'That's something not unusual among goats and antelope but unusual for migrating species - they seem to need a few days to gather their strength.' In fact, this adds to evidence that the so-called Tibetan antelope may be more like goats, as they share some characteristics with each group.

'The antelope are a sub-family of bovidae along with sheep and goats. For a long time there was doubt about where the chiru belongs. Now there is a consensus that they belong to the goats but are a more primitive ancestor.

'That makes them more valuable a species by themselves, like the panda. If they go extinct they are the last of the line, so for conservation purposes that makes them more important,' said Dr Bleisch.

A lot remains to be researched, he says. The grisly find of dead animals offered a rare scientific opportunity to study the teeth of about 80 females, among which they found a puzzlingly high number of one-year-old animals, which would be too young to be pregnant. 'Perhaps they are learning the route from their mothers,' he said.

Another puzzle is why they go to such an inhospitable, treacherous place, above the snow-line and with little vegetation, to bear their young.

Avoiding predators such as wolves may be one reason: Dr Bleisch says his theory is that these high plains are the first to enjoy the summer run-off from the icy mountains, producing a highly nutritious 'first flush of green leaves' on the tiny cushion plants hugging the arid ground.

But is the calving site discovered last summer the only one? Three adult populations are known: one that mates in the Arjin, which Dr Bleisch visited last month to perform the first quantitative study of copulating males and females; one in Qinghai; and one in Tibet.

The known birthing site is between all three. If all go there, the females Dr Bleisch has just observed now have to march more than 900 kilometres to give birth.

Mr Wong intends to provide the reserve staff with more resources - mainly vehicles - to follow the migrating animals this year, both to discover the answer and to be better able to protect them in future.

'This reserve is bigger than Taiwan and it has about 17 staff. You are talking about a huge wilderness area . . . if we know where they go we have a better chance to protect them, and I have no question that if we are there it will be a deterrent to the poachers.' The situation is not only bleak but dangerous. The Arjin reserve staff knew deputy Communist Party secretary and antelope protector Zhaba Duojie, who was shot dead in November in China's biggest unpopulated area in Qinghai province, where he led a wildlife protection force. Poachers probably killed him as they did his predecessor, Gyaisang Soinamdaje, four years before.

Dr Bleisch says that though the central government set up and supports the reserve, the local government is not supportive and may be involved in the illegal trade, having been annoyed at losing access to the resources of a quarter of its original county area.

His own observations show the precipitous drop in animal numbers. 'If what we have seen in these surveys is representative there's been a huge impact. It's wiped out one after another of these populations. Now there's just a handful of animals in a few places.

'Now we are seeing 100 [mating] and estimate there are 400 in that area. That's nothing, compared to the thousands in archive photos, stretching from one horizon to another.' He himself had seen thousands as recently as 1988.

One informant had told the visitors to the rutting ground he had seen '30 cars since November. Small groups of three or four cars hunt for a few days in that area, then move on'.

The death of females and babies is a 'pretty horrible' progression, but will not stop until the penalties are increased - one repeat offender caught in the park had received a three-year prison term while the maximum possible is seven years - or while they can receive 500 yuan for each skin, paltry in comparison with the prices the shawls fetch, but a year's salary for the poachers.

Experiments in bringing up abandoned infants might be possible next summer, but three attempts so far had failed and the animals were highly strung, meaning that any attempts at captive breeding and farming were a long way off.

'We need to hold out that possibility to people so they realise how valuable [monetarily] the animal is,' said Dr Bleisch. But before that, the poaching and trade must be stopped so that scientists have a chance to learn about the animals before they are wiped out.

'The situation is really grave,' said Mr Wong. 'If this was the case with humans they would have called in the United Nations [for crimes against humanity].' And that was why the photos of the beautiful living creatures and the terrible decimation had to be shown, he said.

'These photographs will not only bear testimony to the plight of the antelope. They may also send a chill up the spines of the beautiful people who seek to wrap themselves in fine shahtoosh. Each time they reach for their luxurious shawls, they should remember the image of the slaughter that preceded their manufacture.

'What we are saying is if you have bought, don't buy again, and if you haven't bought, don't start.'