WCS Biologist George Schaller Reports Surprising Increase of Wildlife in Tibet
Several species of wildlife living on the windswept Tibetan plateau - including the Tibetan antelope slaughtered by poachers to make luxury “shahtoosh” shawls - have increased in number over the past decade, due to better enforcement by wildlife officials, according to recent field surveys by renowned biologist Dr. George Schaller of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Schaller, who visited the Tibetan Plateau earlier this spring, says that local populations of Tibetan antelope of chiru, Tibetan gazelles, wild asses and wild yak have increased from previous surveys he had taken ten years earlier around the Chang Tang Reserve, an enormous wildlife sanctuary WCS helped create in 1993. Back then poaching was rampant, particularly for chiru, whose wool is turned into shahtoosh shawls, sold illegally in the U.S. and Europe.
But Schaller reported that ten years later, Tibet’s Forest Department has clearly made protection of wildlife a priority. “Protection of wildlife in the region has greatly improved during the past decade. Patrols search for poachers, guns have been confiscated, and education has created awareness about wildlife laws among nomads and officials,” said Schaller. “The Tibet Forestry Department has obviously made a dedicated and successful effort to protect wildlife in the area.”
According to Schaller’s surveys, populations of chiru have risen from an estimated 3,900 in 1991 to 5,890, while wild asses or kiang had jumped from 1,224 to 2,241. Tibetan gazelles grew from 352 to 487, and numbers of wild yak jumped from 13 to an estimated 187-plus. Also participating in the surveys were scientists with the Tibet Forestry Department, Peking University and Shanghai’s East China Normal University.
However, Schaller warned that with wildlife populations stable or increasing, Tibet’s Forestry Department must now manage species to reduce conflicts with the growing human population in the area. For example, wild yaks sometimes attack and kill people during their rut in August and September, resulting in problem animals being shot. This could be largely prevented by educating people to keep a safe distance from bulls during the mating season. Meanwhile populations of kiang sometimes destroy fences by running into them, which could be avoided by simply hanging pieces of cloth or plastic to ward off animals. Competition between kiang and domestic livestock is a more complex issue currently being studied. The Wildlife Conservation Society has identified other more detailed solutions to better protect wildlife in Tibet, and is looking to work more closely with Tibet’s Forestry Department toward that end. To learn more about the work of George Schaller and WCS in Tibet, visit www.savingwildplaces.com.
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