Saving the Last Edens

1. African Eden

2. Asian Eden

3. Alaskan Eden

4. Guns vs. Eden


Tibetan antelope in the Kunlun Mountains, Qinghai Province, China.
Courtesy Institute of Land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne





Tibetan troubles
3 antelope with extremely long antlers, forming 'v' walk along with plateau in background.Eager to get away from it all? You could hardly get further than the Tibetan Plateau, a swath of high, cold, dry steppe as big as the United States east of the Mississippi River. Largely surrounded by mountains, the plateau is something of an Asian Serengeti, says George Schaller, a noted mammologist who's studied great apes, pandas and other showy and endangered critters for four decades.

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.

Map of China and the Chang Tang Reserve The reserve is in red and situated in west central China within the Plateau of Tibet

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.

Herd about this?
In the giant Chang Tang reserve, which was virtually unpopulated 50 years ago, about 25,000 nomads now herd sheep and goats. Although the nomads hunt for subsistence, the real threat to wildlife is commercial hunting, which, Schaller says, exploded with the arrival of rifles, roads and trade routes.

A chic Indian model poses with a red shawlThis 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.

Conservation challenges
Tawny animal roots through the snow, antlers curving forward.The Tibetan antelope's fine wool keeps them warm -- and in poachers' gunsights.
© George Schaller

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.

Scarfing up the wool
So even on the remote Tibetan Plateau, time may be running out for the Tibetan antelope. Only about 75,000 survive -- from a herd that probably numbered several million less than a century ago.

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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