For conservationist, recognition comes in arrival of the torch

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2008, 12:00am

For Cega, director of the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve Administration in Qinghai, the Olympic torch's arrival in the area will be a moment of validation.

The Olympic flame is to pass through part of the national reserve - the sparsely populated habitat of the Tibetan antelope - and Cega has been chosen to help carry it.

'I am honoured to be part of the torch relay, and for me and dozens of my colleagues, it is a much-needed recognition of our conservation efforts over the past years,' he said.

Covering an area of 45,000 sq km and at an average altitude of 4,500 metres above sea level, Hoh Xil, which means 'beautiful girl' in Mongolian, is the largest area of uninhabited land in China. It is also home to 230 wild animal species, many of which are endangered.

The area has become a top tourist attraction in recent years, especially since the release of an award-winning mainland movie that showed off the region's stunning natural beauty - and also put the spotlight on the illegal trade in Tibetan antelope hides.

Tibetan antelope, which are represented among the mascots for the Beijing Olympics in the form of Fuwa Yingying, are among Cega's favourite subjects.

'Tibetan antelope have become a symbol of ecological balance in Hoh Xil, especially after the illegal hunting over the past years,' he said.

The population of Tibetan antelope fell from several million to fewer than 20,000 in the late 1990s because of excessive poaching driven by international demand for products made of antelope fur, such as the much-sought-after shahtoosh shawls. The shawls fetched US$11,000 apiece in London in 1997.

Curbing armed poaching has been a top priority for Cega's administration since its establishment in 1997.

Armed police now make regular, weeks-long expeditions deep into the heartland, braving the hostile environment and threats from poachers. A lack of funding has added to the challenges.

'Mountain patrols are very costly, but we only have about 300,000 yuan each year to finance our patrols,' Cega said, adding that the salaries of the administration's 35 staff, which included 15 mountain police, exceeded 100 million yuan (HK$113.6 million).

Meanwhile, the government has invested 6.7 million yuan to set up four permanent conservation stations in the area in recent years.

Conservationists have their work cut out for them. In addition to poaching, human activities such as the building of railways, highways and engineering facilities and the flood of tourists unleashed by the opening of the rail link to Lhasa have encroached on the antelope's habitat and threatened the environment. The resource-rich national reserve has also been plagued by rampant illegal gold mining.

Cega dismisses concerns that the world's highest railway, which cuts through the antelope's habitat, has interfered with migration. 'What we see now is antelope and other endangered species have become accustomed to the rail link.'

He said the number of Tibetan antelope in Hoh Xil had increased to 60,000 by the end of last year.

However, the challenges of conservation are not the only troubles on Cega's radar.

He has come under fire in recent years amid allegations that he has ties to illegal mining activities. And his decision to stop recruiting volunteers to solve staffing shortages has added a touch of controversy to his selection as a torch-bearer. Some former volunteers have set up websites to document Cega's alleged misdeeds.

But he said: 'It became too dangerous for inexperienced volunteers to conduct patrols after two of them died accidentally during a mountain expedition in 2004.'