antelope in the Kunlun Mountains, Qinghai Province, China.
Since the mid-1980s, Schaller, science director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has spent part of every year in Tibet, assessing wildlife and the prospects for conservation.
The plateau is not for the faint-hearted -- temperatures can reach -40 °
C, and the winds are legendary. Schaller's original idea was to explore
a place where human impact was almost nonexistent. It didn't turn out
The plateau is not for the faint-hearted -- temperatures can reach -40 ° C, and the winds are legendary. Schaller's original idea was to explore a place where human impact was almost nonexistent. It didn't turn out that way.
This beautiful shawl is fatal to the wool-bearing Tibetan antelopes. Image courtesy Traffic East Asia.
The Tibetan antelope, or chiru, has the unfortunate distinction of having what Schaller calls the finest wool in the world. Chiru wool fetches $60 per kilogram in Tibet, and $1,250 to $1,500 in India, where it's made into scarves called shahtooshes.
These scarves retail for $5,000 and up, but the real cost is the three chirus that die for each scarf. "Motorized gangs are slaughtering families of antelopes for wool to make shahtooshes," Schaller says. Although Tibetan antelopes are protected by CITES, a treaty restricting trade in endangered species, killing chirus and smuggling wool is so profitable that CITES is essentially just paper.
"It's like the drug trade," says Schaller. "There's so much money, there will always be a problem." Since rich people buy the scarves, he says, "Wealthy countries are depleting the globe of one of our most beautiful species."
In Chang Tang reserve, even species that aren't hunted are suffering. Overgrazing of marshes, for example, deprives black-necked cranes of camouflage for their nests, allowing dogs to attack.
How to preserve wildlife without displacing the people who truly rely on it? In Tibet, as elsewhere, the solution must reflect local conditions. In the American West, wolf reintroduction programs pay ranchers if wolves kill their livestock. But travel in Tibet is so difficult that such a program would invite fraud.
Schaller says matters are slowly improving. In 20 years, China has established more than 600 reserves. Thirty percent of the disputed region of Tibet is in reserves, at least on paper. And conservation regulations are flouted less flagrantly than 10 years ago.
Still, Schaller laments, "There's no infrastructure, no government department with money" to enforce conservation. And China's top-down, centralized regulatory style gives local people no say in regulations -- which they may never even learn of.
up the wool
Had real protection begun years ago, Schaller says, the antelopes could withstand subsistence hunting by local nomads. But today's shrunken herd would need to recover for at least 20 years before such hunting would be sustainable, Schaller figures.
Recall that Schaller began studying the Tibetan Plateau as a final planetary refuge for wild animals. Today, he writes, "Wildlife numbers have plummeted, a trend accelerated by an ever-increasing human population" (see "Wildlife of..." in the bibliography).
Without wildlife, Schaller warns, Tibet's vast, high steppe will have "a great emptiness."
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