‘They will disappear … like Dinosaurs’
That is the dire warning sounded by a leading Chinese expert on the Tibetan Antelope. These rare and beautiful animals are being slaughtered by the thousands because their cashmere is much sought after by wealthy Europeans.
Gemini News Service reports on Beijing’s battle to save the animal, which is being joined by more and more countries.
By LI XIN
AN uninhabited swathe of Chinese highland nearly half the size of France has become the arena for a grim and hard international battle to save the Tibetan Antelope — a world away from the fabulously rich Europeans whose love of cashmere is leading to the slaughter of these rare animals.
This war against poachers is located in the vast snow-clad Qinghai-Tibet plateau where the Yangtze River starts, but short of cash, the campaign to save the Tibetan Antelope is turning out to be an increasingly desperate one.
It is being fought in the shadows of the Hoh Xil mountains, which rise 5,000-5,600 metres above sea level and straddle the border of Qinghai Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Nearly 300,000 square kilometres in area, the region’s thin air, perennially sub-zero temperatures, frozen earth and snowstorms make it virtually uninhabitable by humans.
But it is home to the Tibetan Antelope which, like the giant panda, is found only in China. The adult Tibetan Antelope – 135 cm long, 80 cm tall from hoof to shoulder and weighing up to 60 kilogrammes — has a skin covered with a thick layer of fine hair.
In the early 1970s an estimated one million of these antelopes used to inhabit the area, typically in and around marshlands set 4,000-5,300 metres above sea level. Slaughtered for their fine fur, their numbers are now dramatically down to 75,000, according Chinese official and non-governmental sources quoted by the state-owned People’s Daily newspaper in January.
“In the past, flocks of more than 2,000 Tibetan Antelopes were often seen,” said the report.
“Nowadays only a few lone animals can be spotted.”
If the killings continue, Chinese experts warn, the antelopes could be wiped out in 20 years.
“They will disappear from the earth like the dinosaurs unless illicit trading of Tibetan Antelope cashmere is stopped worldwide,” Liang Congjie, a conservationist who chairs the non-governmental Nature’s Friend Association (NFA), told Gemini News Service.
Liang and others have joined in the fight to save the Tibetan Antelope — some, like Wang Bujun, by accident. In July 1997, Wang, a demobilised soldier, drove to Hoh Xil with friends to enjoy its much-publicised wildlife.
“To our horror, here and there we saw blood-stained carcasses,” he said.
“A man boasted that just in one day, he had killed more than 600 Tibetan Antelopes for their skins.”
“They were wiping out not only Tibetan Antelopes,” Wang said.
“They were wiping out the entire wildlife of Hoh Xil. We found many dead foxes and wolves without gun wounds. Obviously, these animals had been poisoned to death.”
Wang Bujun was then a policeman in his native town, Yuci City, some 1,500 kilometres from Hoh Xil. Following his heart-breaking tour, Wang determined to protect the animals and asked to be transferred to a nature conservation station in Hoh Xil.
The station Wang was posted to is named after Sohnan Dajie, a local official whose death in 1996 at the hands of armed poachers made front page news, warned a shocked nation about the poachers’ sinister designs and helped intensify the fight against them.
In April 1999, the police forces of Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces and the Tibetan Autonomous Region police launched a joint expedition against the armed gangs in Hoh Xil. They smashed 14 gangs, arrested 41 members and killed one, and seized nine guns with 8,000 rounds of ammunition, 12 trucks and 1,000 antelope skins.
The fight continues: in the year after the joint operation, Qinghai police made 58 more arrests and captured 2,147 skins of Tibetan Antelopes and guns and ammunition.
“We have done our best but, given the size of the area, the job can’t be done with the scarce resources at our disposal,” said an official of the Qinghai Provincial Wildlife Protection Bureau.
Until 1998 the bureau had an annual budget of 20,000 yuan (about $2,100) for the protection of the entire wildlife of Hoh Xil, says the official.
“That was barely enough to cover the cost of fuel for the police vans from Xining (the provincial capital) to Hoh Xil and back — about 1,000 kilometres for a single trip,” he said. “The budget has increased to 50,000 yuan, but it is still far from being enough.”
Qinghai is one of the poorest provinces in China — its average per capita gross domestic product of $3,000 is 10 times less than that of Shanghai, one of the most advanced regions.
“It is true that we have seized numerous Tibetan Antelope skins, but we can’t afford to patrol the area all the year round to stop the killings,” the official added.
Punishment for poachers is stiff. Ma Jiqing, a sheep skin trader in Wulan County of Qinghai, was sentenced to 12 years for killing 85 Tibetan Antelopes two years ago. He and an accomplice spirited the skins to northern Tibet, where they sold them for 530 yuan (about $44) apiece.
According to the NFA’s Liang Congjie, the skins are normally smuggled to Nepal and India, via China’s Zham and Pulan border posts. Based on the amount of Tibetan Antelope cashmere processed in India, he estimates that at least 20,000 head of the animal are killed every year.
Investigations by Chinese police and experts indicate no market in China for Tibetan Antelope cashmere. Outside China, however, the cashmere can fetch $2,000 per kilogramme — a scarf with 300-400 grams of the cashmere can sell for $30,000.
“To save the species from extinction,” Liang says, “illicit international trading of Tibetan Antelope cashmere must be suppressed.
“Britain, Italy and France are the leading consumer countries of Tibetan Antelope cashmere.”
In October 1999, an international symposium on the protection of the Tibetan Antelope and control over its trading, held in Xining, expressed “appreciation” for actions taken by Britain, France, India, Italy and Nepal to ban the smuggling, processing and marketing of Tibetan Antelope cashmere and its products.
The conference called for the creation of an international market “without illicitly produced Tibetan antelope cashmere and products”, a target that it said could be attained “through joint efforts by all countries”.
“We have no time to lose,” Liang said. “The declaration must be translated into urgent action without delay.” – GEMINI NEWS
About the Author: LI XIN is a senior journalist working for China Features. He specialises in environmental issues