Tibetan Antelope

Tibetan Antelope Photo
Only the male Tibetan antelopes have the long, straight horns that measure up to two feet; females have no horns.
©George Schaller

Tibetan antelopes, also known as chiru, once grazed in magnificent herds of up to thousands of individuals in the high mountain steppes and semi-desert areas of the Tibetan Plateau. This windswept region includes China’s provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang and Tibet Autonomous Region as well as a small part of northern India.

Chiru prefer high, relatively flat or gently rolling habitat in remote regions of the plateau. They are great runners, reaching speeds of up to 50 mph. The life span of chiru is comparatively short—about eight years in the wild. Although non-territorial, horned males will violently defend their harem against competing males, and when approaching a potential mate, prance around her with head held high. There is no apparent bond between the sexes after mating.

Historically, as many as a million chiru roamed the Tibetan Plateau, but consumer demand for their luxurious wool, also known as “shatoosh,” has taken a heavy toll. WCS senior conservationist George Schaller was the first to bring attention to this graceful creature’s plight in the 1990s. Today, he and other scientists estimate that about 100,000 remain in the wild.

Fast Facts

Scientific NamePantholops hodgsonii
  • Adult males develop long, straight horns up to nearly 2 feet long; females have no horns.
  • Chiru coat coloration varies from beige and grayish to whitish, with black markings on the face and legs.
  • Shatoosh translates roughly as “from nature and fit for a king.” It is so fine that it has traditionally been woven into wedding rings.
  • In the 1990s, large poaching gangs on the Tibetan Plateau were at times arrested with more than 600 chiru hides.

Challenges

Tibetan antelopes are listed as endangered due to poaching, competition with domestic livestock herds, and fragmentation of their habitat as wild rangelands are separated by long fences. The continued international demand for shatoosh wool continues to be a threat to their survival as anti-poaching initiatives by local agencies struggle to cover this enormous landscape. Three to five chiru must be killed to make a single shatoosh shawl, long prized in high fashion circles in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. This international demand resulted in the killing of an estimated 20,000 animals annually at the height of the slaughter in the 1980s—a particularly disturbing number considering the size of the remaining herds.

Conservation of chiru is complicated by the fact that mortality among the young is high. Within the first two months of life, up to half of the calves die, and two-thirds perish before two years of age. Declining populations mean that chiru are more susceptible to the harsh winds, low rainfall, and cold temperatures of the Tibetan Plateau.

WCS Responds

In 1993, partly due to WCS efforts to publicize the plight of the chiru, China created the Chang Tang Nature Reserve, the second-largest reserve in the world at over 112,000 square miles. In 2006, WCS and other conservationists won another battle in the long fight to save the Tibetan antelope when the species became protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This listing made it illegal to sell shatoosh across state lines.

At the end of that year, WCS’s George Schaller and Aili Kang undertook an eight-week, 1,000-mile journey in Tibet’s remote northern Chang Tang region to survey the area for chiru. Their winter journey over this rugged, harsh landscape took them to altitudes between 16,000 and 17,000 feet, and represented the first-ever comprehensive survey of the species. Schaller and his colleagues, which included a team of Tibetan and Han-Chinese biologists and field assistants, counted nearly 9,000 chiru—many more than expected. The team also reported that they witnessed no direct evidence of the widespread poaching that was evident just a few years before.

WCS has worked to publicize the damaging effects of purchasing shatoosh and collaborated with the Patagonia Company to finance a guard post and training courses to reduce poaching. With WCS help, the local government established the West Kunlun Natural Reserve for chiru and other wildlife at this site.

Currently, WCS continues to work with Tibetan authorities to develop a comprehensive management plan for the region to help preserve the Tibetan antelope and its high-elevation home.

From the Newsroom

The Rougher Side of CashmereJuly 24, 2013

A new study by WCS reveals that the proliferation of the cashmere garment industry poses dangers to wildlife, including snow leopards, wild yak, Tibetan antelope, gazelles, and kiang, pictured here.

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