This chiru is probably dead now, due to an illegal trade that keeps the rich in

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 1999, 12:00am

HIGH on the isolated Tibetan plateau, Bill Bleisch found himself embroiled in a dramatic standoff with armed poachers. Three days' drive from the nearest settlement, the American biologist and 10 nature reserve staff were studying the fast disappearing Tibetan antelope.

There to observe pregnant antelopes gathering for their annual calving, they stumbled across the very reason the animal is endangered - two men 'literally redhanded', Dr Bleisch says, up to their wrists skinning animals they shot the previous night.

The hides were destined, in one illegal step after another, to be sold in Kashmir, and turned into that precious tai-tai commodity, shahtoosh shawls, woven from the 'king of wools'.

That was in June. The same month, British Vogue magazine's issue hit the coffee tables of the well-heeled in cities from London to Hong Kong, within its pages an article entitled 'Survival tactics' ('What do you need to get through the parties and holidays that fill the summer months?').

It carried a half-page photo of 'hostess' Lady Charlotte Fraser, draped sexily in only one item: a richly embroidered shahtoosh shawl. 'It works so well as a skirt,' she says in the article. 'I love to wrap shawls around my waist and wear them when I go out.' The effect of the article was stunning, but not in the desired way. 'I was appalled,' says Professor Wong How-man, founder of the Hong Kong-based China Exploration and Research Society that sponsors Dr Bleisch's work.

'It's so irresponsible. A magazine like that should set an example.' And Judy Mills, director of wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic East Asia, was not only disgusted but amazed: 'I was thinking, 'Hello? Where have you been?' There's been enough of a whisper about it that Vogue magazine should not be publishing it.' Vogue's communications director, Antonia Bailey, claims the whisper did not reach the magazine in time for the May deadline of that June issue. She at first remarked that news about shahtoosh and its grisly production had been all over the British newspapers, but, after conferring with the magazine's editors, said the coverage had been seen in only the past six weeks or so.

Trade in shahtoosh wool has been illegal worldwide for 20 years. Interest in the animals' plight has increased since the slaughter became documented in the 1990s.

But Ms Bailey says: 'When the piece ran we didn't realise the controversy about shahtoosh. We do now.' Would the magazine run such a piece again? After a moment's hesitation: 'It would be up to the editor, but no. We are not in the market for selling illegal goods. We did feel a responsibility.' For Dr Bleisch, who is based in Beijing, the timing could not have been more ironic. As Lady Charlotte was extolling the beauty of shahtoosh, he was mourning the Tibetan antelope's dangerous decline, and the sight of hundreds of antelopes killed to supply the lucrative and illegal market through which the socialite had obtained her 'survival' gear.

Dr Bleisch has been studying the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, in its isolated home of western Xinjiang province for about 10 years.

Last summer he became the first researcher to see the calving grounds in the Arjin Shan Nature Reserve, in Qinghai, to which all the pregnant chiru migrate to give birth during June and July.

But he and Professor Wong were dismayed to find poachers had beaten them there.

What they found, and subsequently documented, was also a first. The poaching has become such a huge business that the killers are no longer content with picking off the males when their coats are at their thickest, during winter rutting season. They are now also killing females when their coats are at their thinnest, and in the process slaughtering the next generation of chiru, either unborn or left to starve to death.

Reported by awed explorers at the turn of the century to number in their millions, the Tibetan antelope was in 1979 placed on the most endangered list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

Now there are only about 50,000 to 70,000 of the animals left.

Nonetheless, weavers in Kashmir continue the illegal trade and process the wool into shawls that sell for between $8,000 and $50,000. And demand for the shawls has soared as the garments have captured the attention of the fashion set. Last December, the mainland Government produced its first official report highlighting the poaching, and just three weeks before Dr Bleisch's latest trip police capped a month-long campaign in the Hol Xil Nature Reserve, near Qinghai, with the arrest of 66 poachers and seizure of 1,685 antelope skins.

In that light, Dr Bleisch and the Arjin reserve staff were hopeful that the poachers had been frightened off. With him on the June trip were reserve vice-director Zhang Huibin, four of his staff, two biologists from Urumqi Zoo, a researcher from the Xinjiang Environmental Protection Research Centre, and two students from the Xinjiang Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB).

What they saw were killing fields.

In the centre of the Arjin Shan reserve, the large herds of males and females seen previously had disappeared. And when the team approached the largest calving ground they knew of, on the reserve's eastern edge, they began to find slaughtered animals.

'During the day we saw more and more. In one field we counted 68 in one group - there were groups all across the field,' Dr Bleisch says.

'It was devastating. I don't think any of us had ever seen anything like that before, the extent of the destruction.' On expeditions last year they had counted 80 dead. The toll this year, 917 - 'all adult or year-old animals, not to mention that a third of them were pregnant or had young'.

It was at this point they stopped and questioned two men who were driving a car loaded with petrol towards the calving grounds.

The two were gold miners from Qinghai, where the very poor eke out a tough livelihood at 4,000 metres, where very little grows. They live in makeshift tents and pan for the precious metal.

Mining in the area is politically sensitive. It is permitted but restricted. The local authorities object to the reserve, which was designated by the provincial government, as it derives revenue from miners' licence fees.

Dr Bleisch said he could not imagine how the miners survived, but he has gained a better idea. The two men admitted that they were supplying petrol to a poachers' camp.

This was exceptional information. 'It was the first hard evidence that miners were involved in poaching, though we always suspected it,' Dr Bleisch says. It was crucial later to the Xinjiang EPB in deciding to stop all mining by next year.

But for now, their anti-poaching action was not over. The next morning they woke to see five men in the distance busily skinning dead chiru. Dr Bleisch and one student remained at camp - ready to raise the alarm by radio - while Mr Zhang and the others took one rifle and two small guns and headed towards the poachers.

It was a dangerous move. Poachers are likely to be better armed, and have been known to kill - two antelope protectors have been shot and killed in the past five years.

But the scientists were driven by fury. Shots were fired. The poachers scattered. Three got away, but two were captured and brought to the camp. Their guns and ammunition and jeep were confiscated - and 47 skins that were piled in the back.

That night one escaped. The researchers worried that he might return with reinforcements.

'He knew there were 11 of us with three guns, while we knew there were four other poaching teams, each with about four people,' Dr Bleisch says. They began regular rifle practice, but did not see the man or any accomplices.

It was a three-day wait for the police to drive to the camp. Their captive said the poachers hunted at night, when it was easy to prey on chiru transfixed by headlights, and that they skinned the shot animals during the day. Up to 500 hides could be collected per team per expedition. The skins passed through Xining, Qinghai's capital, for 500 yuan (HK$465) per skin, and then to India.

The police later destroyed an illegal fuel depot and removed three loads of petrol. They arrested another poacher, and the two captives were made to load pelts into the police vehicle before being taken to Qinghai.

This month a farmer arrested in the Hol Xil raid for killing 88 animals was jailed by a mainland court for 12 years and fined 60,000 yuan (HK$58,500).

Campaigners are setting more store by a Hong Kong court ruling. It handed down a three-month suspended jail sentence and $300,000 fine in April to a trader who planned to sell 130 shawls at the Furama Hotel in December 1997 but was raided by Agriculture and Fisheries Department officers (AFD).

AFD endangered species conservation officer Cheung Chi-sun says that sent a strong message. No trader has since been found selling the shawls - at least not openly.

'I think the message is getting through . . . I think the traders have changed to pashmina (an alternative, legal wool),' he says.

'I don't know if there is any kind of underground activity but the potential seller knows what risks they are now taking.' There are other encouraging signs. Ms Mills, of Traffic East Asia, knows of crackdowns in cities worldwide - London's police confiscated 138 shawls last year during 'Operation Charm', for instance.

And she says she is surprised how much has changed in the past year. Though plenty of Hong Kong's very rich still revere their shahtoosh, Ms Mills says she has been told that well-known fashion names worldwide are ready to speak out, and 'I hear there are people who are starting to be ashamed about it'.

David Tang Wing-cheung is one. Having reported in Post Magazine in September 1997 that his favourite accessory was 'a large shahtoosh scarf for the lap during a TV supper', he has since said that he was ignorant of its illegal status at the time and that 'now I will not buy any shahtoosh'.

Next month, the Chinese regulatory authority and the Cites secretariat are running a workshop on shahtoosh in Xining at which a draft resolution on shahtoosh trade, part of which calls for India to do more to stop it, is likely to be finalised for presentation at the next Cites meeting next April.

Dr Bleisch will also seek an extension of the Arjin Shan Nature Reserve to cover the whole calving ground that is on the reserve border, and he wants police stationed there during the calving season. 'We estimate that significantly more than 10,000 congregate in this area - and that may be the number in the whole reserve,' he says.

Arjin Shan Nature Reserve has only 31 staff for 45,000 sq km, an area bigger than Taiwan, and money designated by Beijing for this 'flagship' reserve is siphoned off locally before it reaches the staff, he says.

And all the while the poaching continues to take its toll. It not only wipes out whole calving areas, but also greatly reduces the birthing rate of those animals left alive, because almost two thirds of the females are younger than three years old, the age at which they produce their first calves.

Nevertheless Dr Bleisch thinks Beijing is taking the problem 'very, very seriously'.

'It is becoming much more concerned, not just because foreign donors insist on the money being spent effectively but because [the antelope] is a national treasure,' he says.

But both Dr Bleisch and Ms Mills say that the best deterrent will be when wearing the chiru's wool is unacceptable, even repugnant.

AFD's Mr Cheung says that Cites has left an 'unfortunate' loophole by allowing people to own endangered species 'for genuine personal items' - so Lady Charlotte is safe keeping her shahtoosh.

'I know it's being talked about at tai-tai dinner parties. I would like it to get to the point where women and men would not be caught dead in it,' Ms Mills says.

If Lady Charlotte Fraser had read her September Vogue she would have seen a letter from Melanie Pong of Hong Kong. She admits to having bought shahtoosh before finding out - 'much to my horror' - how it is produced. Now she sponsors Professor Wong's society.

'It is neither socially acceptable to wear shahtoosh, nor to claim you need one to 'survive',' her letter says.

Professor Wong would no doubt be grateful for donations if Lady Charlotte chose to follow Ms Pong's example.