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Chang Tang, Tibetan Plateau - China
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Chang Tang, Tibetan Plateau - China

Wild yak bull on the Chang TangThe Chang Tang (meaning “northern plain” in Tibetan) is a huge area of alpine and desert steppe that covers much of the northwestern part of the Tibetan Plateau. Reaching elevations of 4,300 to 5,200 meters (14,000 to 17,000 feet), the area extends over three Chinese provinces or autonomous regions: Tibet, Xinjiang, and Qinguai. A unique large-mammal fauna exists in the Chang Tang, some of which are listed as endangered, including wild yak, Tibetan antelope or chiru, Tibetan wild ass or kiang, Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan argali sheep, snow leopard, Tibetan brown bear, wolf, and lynx. WCS has done research and conservation work in the Chang Tang since 1985.

Initially, the purpose of the project was to determine the status and distribution of wildlife species on the Chang Tang. It soon became clear that this upland ecosystem needed protection; poaching was heavy, especially of wild yak for its meat and chiru for its wool. Chiru wool is the finest known, and is smuggled to Kashmir, India where it is woven into shahtoosh shawls. These shawls are sold worldwide to the wealthy for as much as $15,000 each. WCS began an international effort to end the mass-slaughter of chiru and the sale of shawls. In 1993, Tibet established the 334,000 square kilometer Chang Tang Nature Reserve (the second largest in the world). Adjoining areas have also been given protection for a current total of about 550,000 square kilometers (212,000 square miles). 

In June and July of 2005 a team from the Xinjiang Forestry Department, WCS, and Peking University studied chiru on their calving Female chiru nursing her young on the Chang Tanggrounds in the Xinjiang province. Female chiru migrate north, 200 kilometers or more, into desolate terrain where they calve and then return south. An estimated 4,000 to 4,500 female chiru came to the calving ground in 2005, concentrating in a 350 square kilometer area. Several newborns were radio collared and their movements followed. It is still unclear why chiru travel to this area to calve; forage is more scarce than farther south, but predators (wolf, red fox, and raptors) are few, and the area is uninhabited. Perhaps chiru seek peace away from predators, people, and livestock.

WCS is now making an effort to designate a 25,000 square kilometer area as a reserve, which would connect the Mid-Kunlun Reserve to the east in Xinjiang and the Chang Tang Reserve to the south in Tibet. Kang Aili, of the WCS China Program, will conduct wildlife surveys during the summer of 2006 to determine the status of wild yak populations and chiru migration in the area.

In the Tibet and Quighai provinces, Tibetan wild ass, or kiang, have increased in recent years, to the point that nomads and officialsKang Aili, of WCS, and Liu Yanlin, of Peking University, radio track chiru on the Chang Tang complain that they compete too much with livestock for graze. However, no research has been done and even kiang numbers remain unknown. Peking University will begin an intensive kiang-livestock study in the summer of 2006, in cooperation with Tibetan institutions and WCS. 

Little is known about the status of wildlife in the northern Chang Tang in winter when temperatures may drop to -40°C and winds are fierce. A 2,400 kilometer (1,500 mile) expedition is planned for October and December of 2006, to traverse the region west to east, mostly through uninhabited terrain. The wildlife areas of the west will be compared to those of the east, where the grazing situation is less competitive. Expedition members will also promote conservation among the nomads living in this area.

WCS continues to monitor the wildlife in this vast region, in cooperation with Peking University, Tibetan institutions, and local forestry departments. The challenge now is to manage the Chang Tang to achieve a measure of harmony between the needs of wildlife, the rangelands, and the nomad population with their livestock.

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