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Tibetan Antelope

First discovery of an Antelope Calving Ground and
efforts to stop poaching and the illegal international Shahtoosh trade


Scientific Discovery: For over one hundred years, scientists and naturalists sought to locate the site where Tibetan Antelope gave birth each year, but with no success. How Man Wong first noticed such migrations and recorded long lines of female antelope in motion during his 1982 expeditions in Tibet. Staff of the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve, our CERS partner, chanced upon a newborn Tibetan Antelope in 1992 while patrolling the western extremity of the reserve for illegal gold miners and saw an infant still wet with amnionic fluid struggling to rise from the ground. Based on this hint, CERS launched an expedition in 1998 to return to the site, arranging to arrive at the same time of year in late June. It was our hope to finally discover a calving ground.


After traveling for four days, camping out every day, the CERS team reached the foothills of the Muz Tagh Ulugh Snow Mountain, which straddles the border between Xinjiang and Tibet in the remote Kunlun Moutains. On June 25, 1998, scientists saw for the first time the Tibetan Antelope calving ground, where thousands of female had converged to give birth. Of the over 7,000 female antelopes estimated to be at the site, about one-third were ready to give birth within the three-week period between late June and early July. The remaining animals were all adult and juvenile females, joining the yearly migration as if to learn the route. It was a grand sight of nature not to be forgotten.


Poaching Massacre: Such a discovery would have been a welcome report to science. Simultaneously, however, our team found that poachers had also discovered the site and a massive killing spree of female antelope had just preceded us. We saw and documented several killing fields, each with piles of naked carcasses stripped of their pelts. Many dead female antelope had newborn or full-term fetuses lying next to them.


The slaughter was all to serve the demand for shahtoosh, “the king of wools.” Since the early 1990s, trade in shahtoosh shawls had grown into a highly lucrative international trade reaching the fashion capitals of the world, including New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Each piece could command a price of up to $15,000 USD. A shahtoosh became a “must-have” accessory among the rich and famous, who often brandished their prized collection in posh gala events, even at the most luminous charity balls.


The cost of all this glamour was the decimation of the Tibetan Antelope, reducing it from one of the flagship species on the Tibetan plateau to being threatened with extinction. The connection between fashion and death had yet to be made in the minds of the glitterati, but each shawl required at least three dead Tibetan Antelope to provide enough of the precious under down of the antelope pelt. What was once an age-old Tibetan tradition of small subsistence hunting using home-made traps became an extermination campaign, with brigades of trucks and jeeps chasing down herds of Antelope in the open plain and slaughtering them with semi-automatic rifles. Blinded by spotlights at night, entire herds were wiped out. The massacre at the calving ground was the last straw, and the future of the species looked more than bleak.


Stopping the International Trade in Shahtoosh: By 1999, the Chinese government had responded by stepped up policing on the plateau. The range was too large, however, for this to be completely effective and the rate of return for the poachers was too lucrative for the trade to be curtailed. A different approach had to be devised. The grotesque film and photo images of the killing fields at the Antelope calving ground offered CERS an opportunity to turn the situation around. CERS quickly released the footage and gave interviews throughout all important leading international media, including CNN, BBC, ABC, CNBC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, and others. Other big-name wildlife conservation groups also pitched in, joining an international campaign to stop the shahtoosh trade and the killing. Very quickly, shahtoosh trading went underground and gradually died down. After all, what allure could the shawl still hold if it could only be used secretly rather than being bragged around?


Continuing Protection of the Tibetan Antelope: Since discovery of the calving grounds in 1998, other calving ground locations were subsequently located by other scientific groups. Over the next decade, four more CERS expeditions were launched to the calving grounds, each involving major expeditionary efforts. CERS also made contributions to the AMNR such that they could patrol and police the calving ground each year during the calving season, making sure no more poaching could happen. In the process, several films, including one made by CCTV Beijing, were made to document this long-term effort and to educate future generations.


Today we are pleased to report that our data show that the numbers of Tibetan Antelope have been rising steadily each year, and the dire situation facing the species has been alleviated. In 2009, CERS published a scientific article documenting the recovery of the population at the calving grounds after poaching came under control.