Tibetan Wildlife Recovering from Illegal Slaughter

NEW YORK, New York, June 20, 2003 (ENS) - Wild animals on the Tibetan plateau that were illegally hunted to the brink of extinction just 10 years ago are beginning to recover, according to biologist Dr. George Schaller of the New York based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

A survey conducted this spring by Dr. Schaller and scientists with the Tibet Forestry Department, Peking University and Shanghai's East China Normal University, found increasing populations of Tibetan antelope or chiru, Tibetan gazelles, wild asses and wild yak.

Dr. Schaller reports that populations of these animals are growing compared to previous surveys he took 10 years earlier around the Chang Tang Reserve, an enormous wildlife sanctuary WCS helped create in 1993.

Back then, poachers were wiping out chiru by the thousands for their soft, fine wool which is woven into shahtoosh shawls, for illegal sale in the lucrative high fashion markets of Europe and the United States.


Chiru browsing on the Tibetan plateau (Photo by George Schaller courtesy TRAFFIC)
Schaller now says that 10 years later, Tibet's Forest Department has made wildlife protection a priority, with the result that populations of rare animals are rebounding.

"Protection of wildlife in the region has greatly improved during the past decade," said Schaller. "Patrols search for poachers, guns have been confiscated, and education has created awareness about wildlife laws among nomads and officials," he said.

According to Schaller's surveys, populations of chiru have risen from an estimated 3,900 in 1991 to 5,890, while wild asses or kiang had jumped from 1,224 to 2,241.

Tibetan gazelles grew from 352 to 487, and numbers of wild yak jumped from 13 to an estimated 187 plus.

"The Tibet Forestry Department has obviously made a dedicated and successful effort to protect wildlife in the area, Schaller said.

Still, Schaller warned that Tibet's Forestry Department must manage species to reduce conflicts with the growing human population in the area.

For example, wild yaks sometimes attack and kill people during their rut in August and September, resulting in problem animals being shot. This could be largely prevented by educating people to keep a safe distance from bulls during the mating season.

Meanwhile populations of kiang sometimes destroy fences by running into them, which could be avoided by simply hanging pieces of cloth or plastic to ward off animals. Competition between kiang and domestic livestock is a more complex issue currently being studied.


Dr. George Schaller has spent many years studying the wildlife of the Tibetan plateau. (Photo credit Earthkeeper)
The Wildlife Conservation Society has identified other more detailed solutions to better protect wildlife in Tibet, and is looking to work more closely with Tibet's Forestry Department toward that end.

Dr. Schaller, an American zoologist, was born in 1933 in Berlin and moved to Missouri as a teenager. Currently, vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Science and Exploration Program and holder of the Ella Millbank Foshay Chair in Wildlife Conservation, Schaller spends most of his time in the field.

Spending most of the past 50 years in the wilds of Asia, Africa, and South America, Dr. Schaller has studied and helped protect animals as diverse as the mountain gorilla, the giant panda, the tiger, the lion, and the wild sheep and goats of the Himalayas.

His studies have been the basis for his numerous scientific and popular writings. The winner of several awards, including the National Book award, his 15 books include "The Serengeti Lion," "The Year of the Gorilla," and "The Last Panda."

For the past decade, Dr. Schaller has studied wildlife mainly in Mongolia, Laos, and the Tibetan Plateau of China. Two of his most recent books are "Tibet's Hidden Wilderness" and "Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe."