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China finds three new groups of critically endangered endemic gazelle
( 2004-01-11 14:47) (Xinhua)

Chinese scientists have found three new groups of an extremely endangered Chinese gazelle species, the Przewalski's gazelle, in places adjacent to the Qinghai Lake basin, a traditional habitat for the animal in northeast China's Qinghai Province.

The Przewalski's gazelle (Procapra Przewalskii), endemic to China like the famous Tibetan antelope, is the most endangered hoofed mammal species in the world.

The new findings could mean the gazelle is less endangered than previously believed, according to Jiang Zhigang, head of the experts team that made the findings.

According to Jiang, chief researcher and the gazelle program manager of the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, there are only about 1,000 giant pandas left in the wild, mainly in the hilly areas in China's Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, while it was reported that there were only some 350 Przewalski's gazelles living around Qinghai Lake in the mid-1980's. And the whole population further dropped to less than 300 now, according to previous field surveys.

Experts used to think the animal lived solely in the areas around Qinghai Lake, China's largest salty lake. Starting in autumn and winter in 2003, acting on the tips of local people, the team led by Jiang, along with experts from the Qinghai provincial forestry department, expanded the search scope and finally found the three new herds in separate regions.

They announced their findings recently.

One gazelle group is in the Gonghe Basin, south of the Qinghai Lake basin but isolated from it by mountains. Another two groups were found in Tianjun County in the Qaidam Basin, west of the lake basin. One of the two lives in a mountainous valley in the southwest of the county, and the other in Kuaierma Town near the county seat.

According to experts, both gazelle communities in the county are relatively in good conservation with a larger number of members. Jiang said they were closely watching the groups and the specific number of gazelles would be revealed following further observation and calculation.

Before this exciting new discovery, Jiang and his colleagues found only about 300 gazelles that were divided into three groups and isolated from each other by human activity areas, making natural exchange of animals, and consequently the gene exchanges, between the populations almost impossible.

Dong Jiansheng, deputy director of the provincial wildlife reserve, said the finding of new gazelle groups will be significant to the protective efforts of the animal for fresh supply of genetic biodiversity.

The Przewalski's gazelle was named after a Russian adventurer who collected a specimen and brought it back to St. Petersburg in 1875.

The historical distribution of the Przewalski's gazelle covered an area in central and northwest China, including the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Gansu and Qinghai provinces.

Its population has been affected by several decades of habitat destruction and reduction of its range. The increase of human and cattle populations and the development of cultivated land areas have reduced the availability of food for the gazelles.

To deal with the critical situation, Jiang Zhigang initiated a field project including research of the remaining populations living in other areas, creation of a nature reserve around Qinghai Lake, including some corridors between the three populations, identification of lands available for possible translocation and establishment of new populations.

The critical status of the gazelle also aroused attention worldwide. The Species Surviving Commission of World Conservation Union ranked the status of the species as CR (critically endangered) in the IUCN 1996 Red List of Endangered Species.

The ecology and status of the gazelle have never been documented thoroughly, according to Jiang who has led a team for years to probe its population ecology and to find out the proximate causes accounting for the population declines in the species.

Since 1994 Jiang and his colleagues formed a research team to monitor the behavior and population dynamics of the Przewalski's gazelle around Qinghai Lake. New evidence indicated that human activity and high juvenile mortality are major threats to survival of the Przewalski's gazelle.

Their research also revealed an inversely proportional link between wolves and the gazelle populations, and the proposal was made consequently to control the density of wolves in the area.

According to Jiang, the Przewalski's gazelle is a flagship species in the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and also an indicating species of the ecotone between typical steppe and desert.

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