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08:47 Apr 02 2011

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Przewalski's gazelles face fight for survival in front of thorny fences
08:47, April 02, 2011  

The world's remaining 1,200 Przewalski's gazelles are now facing a fight for survival in front of the thorny fences of the grassland around Qinghai Lake in northwest China's Qinghai Province.

"The gazelles are small, they cannot jump over the high fence. Many of them have been found dead while hanging on the barbed wire every year, with their bodies torn apart by the barbs or wild wolves," said Namgyal, a 47-year-old herdsman who lives on the marshes in east Qinghai Lake. He has been trying to protect the animals for the past 20 years.

"I grew up with the gazelles. During the 1950s, there were thousands of them running around the mountains and plains. But now, I seldom see them," said Namgyal.

Przewalski's gazelle, which has the scientific name Procapra Przewalskii, was named after Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, a Russian explorer who found a specimen and brought it back to St. Petersburg in 1875.

The 110-millimeter-long animal, which has a short tail and long horns, was called a "plateau ballet dancer" by Przhevalsky because it can jump in a beautiful curve.

They are relatively small and slender antelopes with large eyes and short, pointed ears. The animal is yellowish-brown in color and has a white under-side and a white heart-shaped patch on its rump that is partially bisected by a light brown vertical line.

The species used to be found in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Gansu Province, Ning Xia Hui Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Tibet Autonomous Region, Now, however, the animal can only be found by Qinghai Lake.

The number of Przewalski's gazelles decreased sharply in the 1960s and 1970s as a food shortage caused people to hunt them. The gazelle population continued to fall in the 1980s when fast developing agriculture and animal herds invaded the living space of the gazelle, said He Yubang, the director of the Qinghai Lake Administration.

The new killer of the gazelles in the 1990s were the barbed wire fences, which were built to divide the pasture for herdsmen, divide the living areas of the species and cut off the passages between the areas, He said.

The species was listed as first-class national protected animals in 1988 and was listed as one the most wild animals in the National Wildlife Conservation and Nature Reserve Construction Project. They were also considered a critically-endangered species in 1996 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and was finally named an endangered species in 2008.

The Przewalski's gazelle, which also lives on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, attracted less attention than the Tibetan antelopes (Pantholops hodgsonii), which now has a population of 70,000, He said.

"However, things were better for the gazelles in the 1980s when the illegal hunting was reduced. The situation further improved after guns were banned in 1995," He said.

The number of the species was only 150 in the 1980s, 300 in 1990s and 600 in the 2000s. Currently it has increased to 1200.

"Now, the biggest killer is the thorn fences," He said.

Residents reported that 64 gazelles died on the fences from October 2009 to May 2010. "That was the only reported number. There must be more we have not found," He said.

He added that the gazelles now live in 10 separate areas around Qinghai Lake, which have been isolated by fences. "The communication between the three communities is interdicted, which goes against the animals' migratory habits. This has forced them to intermarry," he told Xinhua.

Three aspects of the effort to protect the animals, which includes monitoring, social investigation and protection with the help of local residents, had been organized by the administration, the Shan Shui Convention Center (a non-governmental environmental conservation organization) and the Sino-EU Biodiversity Project, said Lv Zhi, the founder of the Shan Shui Convention Center.

However, the way to save the gazelles is quite simple -- take off the thorns and lower the fences from 1.5 meter to 1.2 meters, Lv said.

He Yubang said that 1 million yuan had been invested to compensate herdsmen for taking off the thorns and lowering their fences. The funds have also been allocated for opening 300 experimental passages designed by the U.S. Wildlife Conservation Society.

New water ponds were also built for animals, as roads block their way to their original sources of water, He said.

"Actually, the best way to protect the wild animals is not to disturb them, so we should simply give them the passages they used to have," he said.

"It was not an easy job to persuade residents to alter their fences. They think the action violated their rights, which is not true. It makes no difference to them if the fences are a little bit lower," he said.

"The most disappointing thing is that we are trying to lower the fences while the agriculture and animal husbandry departments are building fences and adding thorns to them. We are doing the opposite jobs at the same time," he said.

"The standard 1.5-meter-high fence was developed by experts of provincial governments. The height is appropriate to prevent livestock and people from entering private grasslands," said Gong Aiqi, the director of the Prairie Office of the Qinghai Provincial Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Department.

"We admit that the fences had affected wild animals. However, history needs time to change. Currently, we have to meet the needs of people first, then later, we may think about the animals," Gong told Xinhua.

"Gazelles were not considered during the last century when we tried to pull people out of hunger. But now, it's time to face it," Gong said.

"To lower all the fences will cost too much. It might be practical to lower some of them in the areas inhabited by the gazelles," he said.

"It is true that we lack cooperation between departments. We may sit down together to discuss it formally in the future," he said.

However, new projects for setting 1.5-meter-high fences with thorns were started last year, which disappointed the Qinghai Lake Administration and Shan Shui Convention Center.

"We have been trying to communicate with the agriculture and animal husbandry departments. We suggested that the standard is not suitable to every place. It could be changed in some places," said Geng Dong, a member of the Shan Shui Convention Center.

"Not only the fences, other elements such as parasites, wolves, bad weather and overgrazing also endanger the gazelles' lives," said Namgyal, who had rescued and helped over a dozen Przewalski's gazelles in the past 20 years. He was "employed" as an environmental protection volunteer coordinator of the Qinghai Lake Administration.

Now Namgyal's family is living with a two-year-old Przewalski's gazelle that he took home after its mother was eaten by a wolf. The animal sleeps with his children just like any family member.

"I often tried to persuade villagers to take off the thorns. Some are friendly while some abused me for poking my nose into their business," Namgyal said.

"I cannot just let them disappear. I will keep going and do my best to protect them," he said. Enditem

Local reporters Chen Guozhou and Hu Xing also contributed to the story.

From: Xinhua

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