Chang Tang, China
- Chang Tang, China Photo
- ©George Schaller
The Chang Tang region is one of the last great expanses of wilderness left on Earth. Covering a good part of the Tibetan Plateau, this area of more than 400,000 square miles consists of broad, rolling alpine steppes broken by hills, glacier-capped mountains, and large basins studded with wetlands and saline lakes. The land is too cold to support forests and agriculture. Vegetation consists primarily of a sparse cover of grasses, sedges, forbs, and low shrubs. A significant portion of the northern Chang Tang is uninhabited by people, but the southern- and westernmost parts support Tibetan pastoralists and their livestock.
Established with WCS’s help in 1993, the Chang Tang Nature Reserve is the second largest protected area on Earth. The reserve covers approximately 115,000 square miles in the northwestern part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. It provides protection for a unique assemblage of wildlife, several species of which are endangered and endemic to the Tibetan plateau—such as the Tibetan gazelle, kiang, wild yak, wolf, snow leopard, and the Tibetan antelope, or chiru.
- Most of the Chang Tang region is above 14,000 feet in elevation and contains the world's third largest store of ice.
- Tibetan antelope were once thought to number more than a million animals, but hunting depleted these numbers to fewer than 100,000 in recent years.
- A large proportion of female Tibetan antelopes migrate to the high northern plains of the Chang Tang to give birth to their young.
Despite its remoteness, the Chang Tang region faces numerous threats that endanger the future of its wildlife, its rangeland ecosystems, and the Tibetan pastoralists. With the advent of roads, vehicles, and modem weapons, commercial and subsistence hunting has considerably depleted wildlife populations, especially the chiru. Hunters persecute chiru for their wool, known as shatoosh—the finest wool in the world. The numbers of pastoralists and their livestock are increasing, escalating potential conflicts with wildlife. Nomad groups that herded livestock on the open range are beginning to fence winter pastures, and some have built long fences across valleys and hills to keep wildlife out and livestock in. Permanent human settlements pose problems of over-grazing, increased competition for forage between wildlife and livestock, and persecution of wildlife predators and pests.
WCS began its work in China
in 1910. In the 1980s, noted WCS field scientist Dr. George Schaller began surveying the windswept Tibetan plateau and discovered that large-scale poaching had nearly decimated the population of the chiru
, which is prized for its expensive, fine fur. The Chinese government established the Chang Tang Nature Reserve as a direct result of that work, and further studies by WCS led the government to create the adjacent West Kunlun Reserve to protect chiru breeding grounds. WCS is currently working with Tibetan authorities and local communities to collect data on wildlife across this expanse of wilderness and will use this information to develop a comprehensive natural resource management plan for the Chang Tang region.