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April 19, 2011

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Saving tiny gazelle 'ballerinas'

RARE miniature gazelles known as "plateau ballet dancers" are fighting for survival against wolves and high barbed wire fences that they cannot jump over in northwest China's Qinghai Province. Ji Shaoting and Wu Guangyu report.

In the 1950s there were hundreds of thousands of tiny gazelles bounding around the mountains and plains of western China. Today there are just 1,200 of the pint-sized antelope and their battle for survival is another sign of man's encroachment on nature.

The Przhevalsky gazelles, named after Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky (1839-1888), measure just 110-160 centimeters from nose to tail, stand 50-70 centimeters at the shoulder and weigh no more than 32 kilograms. Their scientific name is Procapra Przewalskii.

Przhevalsky, who explored Central Asia, compared them to a "plateau ballet dancer" because they jumped in beautiful arcs.

Today the tiny beasts are unable to jump the 1.5-meter-high barbed wire fences on the grasslands of the Qinghai Plateau.

"The gazelles are small, they cannot leap over high fences and many have been found dead, hanging on the barbed wire every year, their bodies torn apart by wolves," says 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, but now I seldom see them," he says.

The animal has large eyes and short, pointed ears; the horns are long and ridged. The gazelles are yellowish-brown in color with a white underside and white heart-shaped patch on its rump.

They used to roam the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Gansu Province, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Now they are only found near Qinghai Lake.

Their numbers decreased sharply in the 1960s and 1970s as a food shortage caused people to hunt them. The population continued to fall in the 1980s when agriculture expanded and animal herds invaded the gazelles' habitat, says He Yubang, director of the Qinghai Lake Administration.

The newest killers of the gazelles are the barbed wire fences, which were built to divide the pasture for herdsmen; they divided the living areas of the gazelles and cut off passages.

In 1988 the animal was placed on China's list of most endangered species. In 1996 it was recognized as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The gazelle attracted less attention than the endangered Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), which now has a population of 70,000, he said.

The situation improved in the 1980s when illegal hunting was curtailed and later after guns were banned in 1995.

The numbers were only an estimated 150 in the 1980s, 300 in 1990s and 600 in the 2000s. Currently it is estimated at around 1,200.

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

Residents reported that 64 gazelles died on the fences from October 2009 to May 2010, but He says there are far more unreported.

The gazelles now live in 10 separate areas around Qinghai Lake, which have been isolated by fences. The communication between the communities is stopped, which interferes with migration, and so single colonies interbreed.

Efforts are made to protect the animals include monitoring, investigation and protection with the help of local residents, but the way to save gazelles is quit simple - take off the barbs and lower the fences from 1.5 to 1.2 meters, says Lu Zhi, founder of the Shan Shui Conservation Center, an NGO. The center is working with the Qinghai Lake Administration and the Sino-EU Biodiversity Project.

He Yubang says herdsmen have already been paid around 1 million yuan (US$153,073) for removing barbs and lowering their fences. Three experimental passageways for the gazelles have been opened up; the passageways were designed by the US Wildlife Conservation Society. New water ponds have also been built since roads have blocked their original sources of water.

"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 says.

It isn't easy to persuade residents to change their fences.

"They think it violates their rights, which isn't true. It doesn't matter to livestock if the fences are a little lower."

The most disappointing thing is that conservationists are trying to lower the fences while the agriculture and animal husbandry departments are building fences and adding barbs to them. "We are doing the opposite things at the same time," says He.

But the standard fences have their defenders. "They were developed by provincial government experts and are appropriate to prevent livestock and people from entering private grasslands," says 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 says. "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."

New projects for 1.5-meter barbed wire fences were started last year, which disappointed the conservationists.

"We have been trying to communicate with the agriculture and animal husbandry departments and suggested that the standard is not suitable everywhere - it can be changed in some places," say Geng Dong, a member of the Shan Shui Convention Center.

The gazelles are also endangered by overgrazing, bad weather, parasites and wolves, says Namgyal, who has rescued more than 12 gazelles over 20 years.

Now his family lives with a 2-year-old gazelle that he took home after its mother was eaten by a wolf.

It's a pet that sleeps with his children, just like a family member.


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