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October 10, 2009

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Antelope poachers on the run

EARLY last century, hundreds of thousands of Tibetan antelopes roamed the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Twenty years ago, their peaceful paradise, the Hoh Xil, was turned into a hunting ground by ruthless poachers.

Flocks of antelopes fell in a hail of gunshots. Poachers immediately skinned them, dried the raw pelts in the sun, and smuggled them to India for processing.

"New-born foals, murmuring piteously for food, staggered around the stiff corpses of their mothers, and tried to suck the breasts already skinned by poachers," Wang Zhoutai, a 46-year-old anti-poaching ranger recalled.

The Hoh Xil, China's largest uninhabited zone, lies on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau which spans Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Tibetan antelopes were targeted by poachers because they produce the finest wool in the world, known as shahtoosh, a Persian word meaning "king of wool."

A shahtoosh shawl takes the wool from three to four antelopes and can fetch up to US$11,000 on the global market.

In the late 1980s, they became fashionable in Europe and the United States, fuelling a black market which led to a slump in the population of Tibetan antelopes from 200,000 to just 20,000 in 1997.

But, although protected by the Chinese government and with hunting and trading in shahtoosh banned, poaching still prevailed in the Hoh Xil.

To curb the slaughter, and save the antelopes from extinction, the government set up the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve in 1995.

In 2001, a Forestry Public Security Bureau was set up to crack down on poaching and in the past eight years, the rangers have sent about 180 injured Tibetan antelopes and 120 other wild animals to the rescue center at the nature reserve.

They have also stopped eight armed poaching gangs, and saved the lives of tens of thousands of antelopes.

By August this year, the rangers had conducted more than 300 patrols, impounding a total of 68 guns and more than 4,000 skins, said Cedain Zhou, director of the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve Administration.

The number of Tibetan antelopes in the nature reserve has climbed to 60,000, he said.


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