The number of Tibetan antelopes has increased significantly in Tibet's. (China Daily Photo)
It's an uphill task to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope, prized for its ultra fine wool, from poachers. But recent efforts are paying off.
As the sun goes down over the horizon, a Tibetan antelope collapses from exhaustion after being chased. A poacher on his motorcycle races up, skins her and speeds away. The pregnant antelope slowly regains consciousness and struggles to stand up, but falls to the ground, dead.
Tibetan forest policeman Jigme is shocked and enraged when he hears this confession from a poacher, during an interrogation.
Police eventually confiscate 66 antelope skins from the group of 20 poachers, who are all sentenced to 4-6 years in prison, in accordance with China's Wildlife Protection Law.
All this happened in 2007 but Jigme's anger has still not abated. This was evident as he recalled the story at a ceremony held in Beijing to honor him with the China Border Wildlife Guardian Award, last week, which he accepted on behalf of the Forest Security Bureau of Nagqu prefecture in northern Tibet.
Jigme, which means "the fearless" in the Tibetan language, has been working in Nagqu since graduating from the Nanjing Forest Police College, six years ago. At 27, he is the youngest deputy bureau director in the prefecture.
A native of Shannan prefecture in southern Tibet, he had to adapt to the conditions in Nagqu. "It is very different from Shannan, with much lower temperatures, stronger winds and more barren land," he says.
With an average altitude of 4,500 m above sea level, Nagqu covers 420,000 sq km, over half of which is uninhabited. It is home to more than 100 species of wild animals and the largest concentration of the indigenous Tibetan antelope, or chiru, in the world.
The wool of the antelope, called shahtoosh, is soft, ultra fine, warm and much sought-after. A shahtoosh shawl can fetch thousands of dollars in the international market. Illegal dealers say they collect the wool when the antelope molts, but according to the United States-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), it can only be obtained by killing the animal, as the best wool is found on the animal's underside. It takes the killing of 3-5 antelopes to make a shawl and a pregnant chiru is particularly prized as it can produce more wool. Also, since shooting reportedly ruins the wool, the animals are often beaten to death.
According to George Schaller, chief scientist with WCS, who has been working in the area for 20 years, the antelope's population has dwindled from more than 1 million in the early 1890s to around 70,000 in the mid-1990s, due to rampant poaching.
Jigme's bureau was founded in 1993 to conserve wildlife and enforce the law. But even today it is badly understaffed, with just eight people - five Tibetans and three Han - who are poorly equipped in terms of vehicles and communication devices.
The bureau's case is not unique. Forest security bureaus in the region are understaffed, with just 34 forest officials, which works out at an average of one official in charge of more than 10,000 sq km.
Jigme says each year two large-scale patrols are held - one in May and the other in November, corresponding to the chiru's reproduction and mating seasons respectively -- and lasts almost a month. 【1】 【2】