China / Cover Story

Volunteers help Tibetan antelope hit the road

By Cui Jia and Dachong (China Daily) Updated: 2011-09-09 07:15

'Fairies of plateau' get guidance for perilous journey, Cui Jia and Dachong report from Qinghai.

Liu Qiuying waved her arms as quickly as she could in the middle of the busy Qinghai-Tibet Highway while a heavily-laden truck hurtled toward her. After the driver abruptly applied the brakes she politely asked him, and those behind, to wait because "a group of VIPs will be passing by".

Volunteers help Tibetan antelope hit the road

Volunteers Zhang Fan (R) and Zhang Yongfei feed antelope in Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve in Qinghai province on July 25. Zo[Photo / China Daily]

The "VIPs" were not high-ranking officials. They were not even human beings. They were Tibetan antelope, which are endemic to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau of western China. The species is considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and tops China's protection list.

Liu, 20, was one of several volunteers who came in July to the Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve in Qinghai province. Their goal was to help protect Tibetan antelope, also known as "fairies of the plateau", as they embarked on a perilous journey. Liu's job was to guide them through the toughest passage of their migration, along the busy Qinghai-Tibet Highway and Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

Every June and July, female Tibetan antelope gather in various places, including Hoh Xil, which has an average altitude of 4,620 meters and no human settlements. Once gathered, they commence their journey to their preferred breeding grounds, usually places like Zonag Lake and Sun Lake, which are both in the nature reserve and have an abundance of water and grass.

A month later, the antelope bring their newborns back to their original home. Mankind has made both the initial and return trips dangerous for the animals; the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and Qinghai-Tibet Railway run right through their migration path.

Even worse, the antelope's migratory period coincides with the one of the busiest times of year for the highway, when the section of road they cross will at times convey as many as 276 vehicles an hour.

"Tibetan antelope are usually timid by nature and are frightened by busy traffic on the highway when they are going through this area," said Gama, a conservation officer at Hoh Xil, who, like many Tibetans, only has one name. "Although signs warning people to watch out for wild animals have been put up along the highway, the Tibetan antelope desperately need people to stop traffic for them during their prime migration period."

The 2,100-km-long Qinghai-Tibet Highway, which was opened in 1954, starts at Xining, capital of Qinghai, and ends in Lhasa, capital of Tibet. It runs through places that have an elevation of more than 4,000 meters and is the busiest highway among the four that connect Tibet to the rest of China.

On the July day that Liu guided the animals across the highway, she had been told of their location by Gama, who had been patrolling in the area in a pick-up truck. Gama, who has been a conservation officer for more than 30 years, had spotted them wandering near the place where they usually cross the road.

Recognizing that sign, he instructed Liu and four other volunteers to put on bright green vests that make them more noticeable and to stop the traffic coming from both directions on the highway, leaving a gap area of 1 km for the animals to walk through.

Helping the antelope cross the road safely is not the only responsibility entrusted to Liu and her colleagues.

She and seven other volunteers who arrived in Hoh Xil in the middle of July are also helping to raise baby antelope to maturity. Five of them were stationed for nine days at Wudaoliang, a base where Gama and other conservation workers spend much of their time, and three others for two weeks at the Sanandaj, a base that is about 59 km east of Wudaoliang.

The volunteers helped to separate newborn antelope from their mothers and bring them up in captivity. That work has allowed the antelope population to increase faster than it would in nature, where only about one in four of the animals that are born lives to maturity.

Working dangerously

Volunteers help Tibetan antelope hit the road

Volunteers stop traffic on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway to form a passage through which antelope can cross the pavement. [Photo / China Daily]

Even before the volunteers can care for the antelope, they must make sure they protect themselves from the harsh environment. Hazards are not uncommon in Hoh Xil.

Many volunteers have got sick from being unaccustomed to the thin air they breathe at that high altitude. Others have struggled when they have had to carry water a long distance from rivers where Tibetan antelope drink.

A tour of duty has even proved fatal to some. In 2002, a volunteer was frozen to death after a jeep he was in had broken down in an isolated place. At one point, the volunteer program was abandoned by its organizers after they had come to believe that working in the nature preserve was too dangerous. It was only resumed this year.

Far less serious, some young volunteers have complained about the inconvenience of living without access to the Internet. Liu said she will not let the possibility of undergoing hardships deter her from her work.

"What we are doing here is so meaningful," she said on the day she had helped the antelope cross the road, shortly after explaining to drivers why they should stop temporarily. "We, as human beings, have taken so much from nature. It's time to give something back."

Liu, an accounting student from Jincheng College of Sichuan University, said she learned about the nature reserve where she now works from the movie Hoh Xil.

Volunteers help Tibetan antelope hit the road

"At first, my parents were against my decision to come here to be a volunteer because of the harsh conditions here," Liu said. "But my determination won them over. Now they are very proud."

Successful crossing

After Liu had tried for nearly an hour on that July day to help the herd cross the highway, the lead antelope, which usually tries to ensure the safety of the others, began to make a wary approach to the pavement. Nearby volunteers and passersby quickly became as quiet as they could to avoid startling the animals.

One by one, the 27 antelope in the herd crossed the highway in a straight line. Once on the other side, they relented to their instinctual fear of people and began to run.

Less than 1 km away from the highway came the second hurdle for the antelope - the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. There, though, they were faced with less difficulty; the antelope have always chosen to go under the highest bridge along the railway at times when there are no trains passing above.

The volunteers' conservation work is producing the desired results.

Because of illegal poaching during the 1980s, the number of Tibetan antelope in existence had decreased at one time from its peak of nearly 1 million to 10,000. Since then, though, it has increased to 60,000 and no evidence of large-scale poaching has been found since 2006.

"In the 1980s, illegal hunting to get the animals' fur almost made the species extinct," Gama said. "Now, though, poaching itself is almost extinct as China has worked harder to eliminate the illegal practice. Many ex-poachers have turned to the jade business instead because they know they don't have a market anymore (for illegal animal products)."

Worst threats

As poachers disappear, railways, highways, electrical grids and other public-works projects have become the biggest threats to Tibetan antelope's habitat and environment.

"The current economic development of western China, especially the construction and other human acts taking place on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, will inevitably affect the habitat and breeding grounds of Tibetan antelope," said Lian Xinming, a Tibetan antelope expert at Nanjing Agricultural University's college of animal science and technology.

One of conservationists' current fears is that the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and Qinghai-Tibet Highway will block the animals' migration route, further fragmenting their habitat and isolating various parts of the population from each other, he said. "It will take a long time for these wild animals to get completely accustomed to these new passages during their trips."

During the study this past year, Tibetan antelope or Tibetan gazelles were killed by motor vehicles on 15 occasions.

While recently conducting research, Lian repeatedly saw tourists walk up to Tibetan antelope almost every day and, many times inadvertently, disturb the animals' natural behaviors.

Lian said when people chase after the antelope, shout at them, photograph them or whistle at them, the animals' instinct is to think they are being threatened.

At least one of Liu's fellow volunteers has seen tourists acting in that way.

"Most people were very cooperative when we told them to wait for the antelope to cross," said Gong Wenjie, a volunteer from Changsha, capital of Hunan province. "But some decide to chase after them as soon as they get close, so they can take pictures."

"One driver refused to stop when we told him to wait for the antelope. Instead, he drove off the road while shouting that he could do whatever he wants."

The 32-year-old university teacher said she is saddened when she sees such behavior. "The antelope might not be able to cross the highway for days after they are scared like that," she said.

"Those people were behaving very selfishly and need to learn to respect wildlife."

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