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July 20, 2009

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Rare gazelles at risk despite help

WILDLIFE photographer Ge Yuxiu hides behind a bush and points his camera at five lively Przewalskii gazelles.

It is a peaceful scene, but a barbed-wire fence spoils the perfect shot. Ge begins to worry. He knows they are not good hurdlers.

Fence crossing is often a matter of life and death for Przewalskii gazelles, a rare species native only to China's northwest Qinghai Province. Some gazelles are seriously injured or even killed while trying to jump such fences.

Occasionally, some dead gazelles - they either bleed to death or suffocate - can be seen hanging off the fences. Ge takes pictures if he sees such scenes.

"Although it hurts me every time, I feel obliged to take the pictures to let more people see the brutality of the fences with their own eyes," Ge said.

Ge, 55, a veteran and an environmentalist, was among the first to call for protection of the animal. When he took his first picture of the gazelles in 1996, only 300 were left in the world, all scattered about the grasslands around Qinghai Lake.

In the same year, the Przewalskii gazelle was added to the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world's largest global environmental network headquartered in Gland, Switzerland.

Named after a Russian explorer who first discovered the species in Inner Mongolia 130 years ago, Przewalskii gazelles used to roam in a broad swath across China's central and western interior, including Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu, Xinjiang and Qinghai.

Although there are now around 600 gazelles after a 495,200 hectare nature reserve was built around Qinghai Lake in 1997, the species is still among the most vulnerable of hoofed animals. Some claim it is more precious than giant pandas.

To secure pastureland for their own livestock, herdsmen erect barbed wire fences, often about 1.5-meters high. Some even use fire crackers to scare gazelles away.

In 2007, Qinghai provincial government invested 200,000 yuan (US$29,280), and donations totaling 140,000 yuan, were tapped to set up a watch tower and three drinking pools for gazelles.

"But it's far from enough," said Ge.


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