WASHINGTON–A National Geographic expedition has located the remote birthing ground of the endangered chiru, also known as the Tibetan antelope, in the Chang Tang, or northern plateau of Tibet. Photographs and film footage of the never-before-documented site will be used to help wildlife biologists persuade authorities to expand protected areas to include the chiru birthing ground.
During a demanding 30-day trek, celebrated mountaineer and team leader Rick Ridgeway, acclaimed climber Conrad Anker, veteran wilderness photographer Galen Rowell and adventure videographer Jimmy Chin followed a herd of female chiru through Tibet’s northern Chang Tang Plateau. Until now no other human has been able to trace the entire migratory route and document the birthing ground of this western population of chiru, whose fine wool is so coveted that the animals are slaughtered by the thousands.
Ridgeway’s account of this extraordinary and at times harrowing journey appears in the April 2003 issue of National Geographic magazine. The expedition, funded by the National Geographic’s Expeditions Council, was the last for photographer Galen Rowell, who perished along with his wife, Barbara, in a plane crash near their home in Bishop, Calif., a month after the expedition.
For these four climbers accustomed to adventure, it was an important journey with an equally important mission. “We can only hope that our efforts will make a difference for the chiru ― that the wild animals we came to admire will be given the space and solace they deserve,” said Ridgeway.
Using specially createdaluminum “rickshas,” designed to carry more than 200 pounds of gear each, the team pulled 30 days’ worth of supplies over 300 miles of desolate and uninhabited terrain at elevations of up to 17,000 feet. At times the team was forced to endure extreme hardships, including walking barefoot across partially frozen creeks while dragging the heavy rickshas. “The tradeoff was two minutes of cold feet versus two hours of wet boots,” said Ridgeway.
According to world-renowned wildlife biologist George B. Schaller, a director for science at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, “A century ago at least a million chiru probably roamed the uplands. By the mid-1990s, possibly no more than 75,000 remained.”
Shawls woven from coveted shahtoosh, meaning “king of wool” in Persian, have been highly prized for a thousand years or more. Because of the widespread poaching for its delicate pelt, the chiru is now declared endangered by international convention (signed by China, Nepal and India), and the trade of shahtoosh wool is illegal. Despite this fact and due to high demand, the wool is still smuggled into Nepal and from there to Kashmir, where it is woven into scarves and shawls.
Since the mid-1980s the trade in shahtoosh wool has become so lucrative that the price has sharply risen. A shahtoosh shawl can sell from $3,000 to as much as $15,000 for one that is beautifully embroidered. Until the late 1990s fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue continued to promote the wearing of shahtoosh shawls.
Three to five chiru must die to produce the wool required to weave a single shawl, which has resulted in the mass slaughter of them by poachers using high-powered rifles shot from vehicles. Today, despite considerable efforts by China and conservation groups around the globe to protect the rare antelope and prevent the illegal trade of shahtoosh wool, the threat to the chiru remains.
“[Anti-poaching] efforts have been hampered to some extent by the huge area involved, much of it uninhabited, and the lack of adequate knowledge about the species,” said Schaller.
Schaller has studied and lobbied for the protection of the Chang Tang chiru for more than 15 years and supports the expansion of the protected area to include the newly identified calving ground. “In 2001 Xinjiang established the Mid-Kunlun Reserve adjacent to Tibet’s huge Chang Tang Reserve, but the boundary stopped well short of [what we now know is] the calving ground,” he writes in a sidebar to the National Geographic article.
In his years studying the chiru, Schaller found that there are four main populations on the Chang Tang Plateau and that for some mysterious reason, each May or June the females of the largest, western population begin a long trek northward from Tibet into Xinjiang. They return to the herd weeks later with their newborn calves. In 2001, trekking south from China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Schaller found a concentration of pregnant females, but was unable to wait and witness the births.
On May 27, 2002, Schaller’s notes in hand, the elite team of mountaineers led by Ridgeway set out to locate the birthing ground of Tibet’s western chiru herd. A month later, under punishing conditions and through areas such as the one they termed the “Gorge of Despair,” Ridgeway and team successfully obtained the first photographic proof of a calving ground north of the Chang Tang Reserve.
After the discovery the team still had to continue on foot for 100 miles to reach the nearest roadhead. En route to their waiting vehicle, they discovered a large mining camp. “Through my binoculars I spot fresh tailings, bulldozers, a crane, and dozens of people, where only a year before George Schaller had found wilderness,” writes Ridgeway. A 60-mile dirt road had been constructed to access the mine.
This road, says Ridgeway, “could also give poachers easy access to the calving grounds,” making it even more important to protect the birthing ground. “To save the chiru, we must safeguard this wild nursery.”
An exhibit on the expedition, featuring one of the rickshas used during the trek, will be on display at National Geographic’s Explorers Hall March 19 through June 8. The expedition will be featured in National Geographic Ultimate EXPLORER’s “Deadly Fashion,” airing this summer on MSNBC.
On the Net: www.nationalgeographic.com/ngm