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Bloody Shawls Exterminating Chiru

By Bao Jiannu

China Daily, January 14, 1999

SHAHTOOSH shawls made from the fur of Tibetan antelope are being "fashioned for extinction," according to Liang Congjie, a retired history professor and now president of China's most active environmental group, Friends of Nature.

The Beijing-based non-governmental organization (NGO) has launched a campaign to save the Tibetan antelope or chiru, an endangered species being killed illegally to make shahtoosh shawls which sell for thousands of dollars in fashion shops in London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong.

Their action has partially contributed to the Chinese Government's resolve to appeal for international efforts to put an end to the illegal trade in the fur of Tibetan antelopes.

The government announced its determination to crack down on the poaching of the Tibetan antelope in a white paper issued last month by the State Forestry Bureau, the top authority in charge of wildlife protection.

Liang had acted much earlier. On October 6, he sent a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair during his official visit to China,  asking him to use his personal influence to raise awareness of the plight of the Tibetan antelope.

"I sincerely hope Britain can be at the forefront of an international effort to eradicate the shahtoosh trade," Liang wrote.

Blair's response was encouraging. He assured the 66-year-old campaigner in his written reply the following day that he shared Liang's "revulsion over the slaughter of the antelopes," and would be contacting British and European Union environmental authorities about the illegal trade, in the hope that it could be ended.

While Blair's support came as a boost to Friends of Nature, Liang and other members of the group were subsequently stunned to learn of the death in mid-November of Zhaba Doje, commander of the wild yak anti-poaching squad. Zhaba Doje's squad of 17 rangers regularly patrolled Hoh Xil, a nature reserve of more than 100,000 square kilometres in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, home to the antelope. In carrying out their job, they braved appalling conditions and were often subject to attacks by poachers.

The local press reported that Zhaba had committed suicide after a quarrel with his wife.

"I just can't believe that such a lively, courageous, and kind-hearted person would commit suicide," sighed Liang. "This is a fatal blow to the anti-poaching cause, and to wildlife protection in general."

Liang had met Zhaba in September 1998, when Friends of Nature and China Green News, a publication under the State Forestry Bureau,  invited Zhaba and two of his colleagues to Beijing for discussions with environmental officials and fund-raising activities.

Just a few hours before the tragedy, Zhaba had talked about his ambitious anti-poaching plans in a phone call from his home in Qinghai to Liang in Beijing.

Against all odds, Liang, also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and his organization are rising to the challenge of carrying on the battle. Their approach is not to chase poachers on the plateau, but to draw international attention to the bloody slaughter of the chiru.

Set up in 1994, Friends of Nature has attracted more than 500 individual members to lobby the Chinese Government and raise national awareness on such issues as deforestation, protection of the gold snub-nosed monkey and environmental education in schools. But its biggest campaign to date is to save the chiru.

The Chinese Forestry Association estimates that some 20,000 Tibetan antelopes, living in a hostile habitat on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau some 4,500 metres above sea level, are being slaughtered each year.

Liang blames the carnage directly on international demand for chiru fur products, which has soared in recent years despite the Chinese Government's ban on poaching.

The fur of the Tibetan antelope is sold illegally to make the world's most expensive shawl. A shahtoosh shawl is said to be so fine and soft it can be threaded through a wedding ring.

Shawls on sale for US$11,000 each were seized in 1997 by British police during a raid on a shop in South Audley Street, Mayfair,  London. In the same year, Hong Kong police found 186 shawls. French customs have reportedly seized 1,000 shahtoosh shawls since 1994.

Increasing demand for shahtoosh shawls has resulted in prices for the fur soaring, according to the State Forestry Bureau. In India, chiru fur was sold for US$1,715 per kilogram in 1996, up from US$1,115 in 1992, while ordinary cashmere was traded at prices between US$43 and US$86 during the same period.

Traders claim that the antelope fur is collected by tribesmen from spiny bushes and branches when the animals moult.

But the truth is that, because there is no market inside China for any Tibetan antelope product, poachers shoot or trap antelopes, cutting the hair from their throats and then leaving their carcasses, bones and horns to rot, according to the white paper.

One antelope yields just 120-150 grams of fur.

The fur is smuggled out of China through Nepal or Pakistan to make shawls in Kashmir.

Some 300 to 400 grams of fur are needed to make a shahtoosh shawl,  usually 2 metres long, 1.5 metres wide and weighing 100 grams. At least three antelopes have to be killed to provide enough fur for a single shawl.

Srinagar, a well-known shawl-weaving centre in Kashmir, is reported to have 100,000 workers producing an annual output of US$160 million. An estimated 20,000 antelopes are killed each year to maintain the fur processing trade.

"As long as the illegal fur trade exists, the poaching of Tibetan antelopes can never be stopped," Liang said.

Large-scale poaching of the rare species started in the late 1980s,  when hundreds of thousands of gold-diggers flooded into desolate areas on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, according to the State Forestry Bureau.

Individual gold-diggers originally killed antelopes for food. But since 1992, poachers have slaughtered the animals primarily for their fur.

Poachers use automatic weapons to kill hundreds of antelopes at a time. In Hoh Xil, some poachers even tie logs to the sides of their trucks to mow down the animals.

Poaching has intensified: once confined to winter and spring, it now goes on all year and hunters have started to enter the antelopes' breeding areas to slaughter them.

A patrol expedition led by Zhaba last August discovered the corpses of more than 800 female chiru which had been shot shortly after giving birth. Patrollers tried to feed powdered milk to some of the orphaned kids but their efforts came too late.

The wholesale slaughter has led to a dramatic drop in the Tibetan antelope population in recent years. In 1995, there were an estimated 75,000-100,000 antelopes on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, just one-tenth of their estimated number a century ago.

Experts predict that the antelope will face extinction in the next 20 years if the killing does not stop.

Since 1990, the authorities have caught about 3,000 poachers and confiscated more than 17,000 Tibetan antelope hides and 1,100 kilograms of fur. Soi'nam Daje, Zhaba's brother-in-law and deputy head of Zhiduo Autonomous County, volunteered to lead a patrol in the vast Hoh Xil area to protect the antelope. He was killed in a gunfight with poachers in January 1994.

Zhaba succeeded him in August 1995, and picked a team of 17 anti-poaching fighters known as the "Wild Yak Anti-Poaching Squad."  Despite a lack of funds and appalling conditions, the squad had captured more than 400 poachers and confiscated 3,307 antelope hides by September 1998, according to Li Wen, an official with the Qinghai Provincial Forestry Bureau and an admirer of the two Tibetan officials.

"Zhaba's death has made the anti-poaching situation even more serious," Li said. "The adverse conditions in Hoh Xil and the mobility of poachers make any offensive against them difficult.  Anti-poaching work this winter will be seriously affected by Zhaba's departure."

But the provincial government will continue its efforts to fight against poaching in Hoh Xil, he said.

"Anti-poaching work is costly, and much remains to be done, but I am sure our government will take more effective measures to protect the Tibetan antelope," Liang said.

Meanwhile, Friends of Nature and other Chinese NGOs are calling on people worldwide, women in particular, to boycott the blood-tainted shahtoosh shawls.

"We hope those who can afford the shawls show some mercy to animals on the verge of extinction as a result of human cruelty," said Wang Yongchen, co-founder of Green Earth Volunteers, another environmental NGO. "We think the most effective measure to stop poaching in Hoh Xil is to block its outlet -- the infamous shahtoosh trade."

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