The fabric of survival

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 October, 1999, 12:00am

In the snow-covered wilderness of the Tibetan plateau, forest police in an old Chinese-made jeep are chasing a gang of poachers in four-wheel-drive Pajeros.

The poachers open fire with their automatic rifles and hit one of the policemen. The team stops to treat the wounded officer, while the poachers speed away.

Their prey is the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, whose hair is smuggled into Kashmir and made into shahtoosh shawls that can cost up to US$40,000 (HK$310,400) in London, Paris and Hong Kong.

After years of poaching, between 50,000 and 70,000 of the animals remain on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau about 4,600 metres above sea level, a fraction of the million roaming there in the early 1900s. At the current rate of killing, the animals will be extinct in five years.

Beijing is worried. In 1988 it put the chiru on the priority list of protected species and sent forest police to patrol their vast habitat in Tibet and Qinghai. Since 1990, they have seized 20,000 hides and 1,100 kilograms of hair as well as 400 guns, 190,000 rounds of ammunition and 171 vehicles, and arrested nearly 3,000 poachers.

In April, the authorities mobilised 170 police from three provinces in a three-week sweep, in the largest operation of its kind.

They arrested 66 poachers, killed one and injured two. Fourteen of the suspects are serving prison terms of between two and 19 years.

The authorities have also held mass meetings at which hides have been burned and poachers sentenced to death, with widespread media publicity to drive home the message.

Beijing's view is that Chinese do not eat antelope meat nor wear the shawls, so the responsibility rests with rich nations of the West, whose demand creates the market. Trade in chiru fur was outlawed internationally in 1979. The Government last week held the first international conference on the issue, in Xining, capital of Qinghai province, co-sponsored by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, with 70 delegates from Britain, the United States, France, Italy, India, Nepal and China.

The three-day meeting ended with a declaration to all the governments involved to intensify their attacks on poaching and smuggling, and to increase public awareness of the issue.

'This was a path-breaking meeting,' said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an expert on the shahtoosh trade and one of the speakers at the meeting.

'The declaration will make a big difference. It is the first time that an international document says formally that shahtoosh is responsible for the decline of the antelope. It put forward constructive ideas to curb the trade.

'This will be a sexy subject for the next few months and we must take advantage of it.' The antelope wool has traditionally been exchanged on the Tibet-Indian border for goods, not money. In recent years, the preferred items have been tiger bone, bear gall bladder and musk.

'If the illegal trade in shahtoosh is not curbed, it might well prove the last straw for both the Tibetan antelope in China and the tiger in India,' Ms Wright said.

One of the mainland's leading campaigners is Liang Congjie, director of Friends of Nature, a non-governmental organisation. Last October he met British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Beijing and gave him a letter asking for stronger measures by his government against the shahtoosh trade. London is one of the sales centres.

Friends of Nature has arranged patrols in the affected areas, one of which, in July, found the corpses of 961 animals, all stripped of their hides.

The terrain is hostile, a vast area with no roads. In summer there is no water and in winter the temperature falls to minus 45 degrees Celsius.

Rangers live on dried noodles and snow water. There are only 56 forest police working full-time to protect the animals, each in charge of 15,000 square kilometres.

Mr Liang said that despite official commitment to protect the antelope, the activities of the ground patrols present a confusing picture.

'For reasons we do not understand, officers who are most active in the field do not receive adequate funds and equipment, while those who do nothing and remain in their offices get plenty of money. Does this mean that the criminals are paying off the officials? This we cannot say since we do not have enough evidence.

'This is part of the way things work in China. People with initiative are criticised and those who do nothing profit,' Mr Liang said.

'The longest patrols can go out for is 20 days, then they have to rest. But poachers are entering the area all the time.' The mainland has long been criticised by animal rights activists for its failure to protect endangered species, but this issue enables it to turn the tables.

In the case of the Tibetan antelope, it is the victim of greed by Western nations and of the inability of India, its traditional rival, to shut down production of the shawls in Kashmir.

Mark O'Neill is a member of the Post's Beijing bureau Mark O'Neill