Living on the high, sparse steppe of the Tibetan plateau, the Tibetan antelope – or chiru – has found itself squeezed between the lines of the economic development that brought railways and roads to Tibet, stabbing in from the rest of China. The Beijing-Lhasa railway threatened to split the chiru’s habit in two, creating a permanent and dangerous line between one side and the other, and as the Chinese government encouraged Han Chinese to move west in the 1980s and 1990s, cattle farming began to expand into more remote areas, which were often the habitat of the chiru. The population of chirus, which can herd in their hundreds or even thousands when migrating between pastures, has been in decline since population numbers were first recorded, and whilst the pressure put on them by the human and agricultural encroachment into their habitat has exacerbated the situation, the principal reason behind the decline has been poaching.
The new roads laid down by the Chinese government allowed hunters to move easily between one location and another, and gave them ample opportunity to move and trade in their target product: wool. The underfur of the chiru is known as ‘shahtoosh’, and it is this wool that has cost many thousands of Tibetan antelope their lives, as it is used to make soft, warm, delicate shawls, so fine that they can be passed through a ring. The shawls have traditionally been given as wedding gifts in India and Pakistan, and they are still available to “serious buyers” in Islamabad and Karachi, despite their prohibitive price of $4,000, and their protected status. It is illegal to process or wear a shahtoosh in India, and in Pakistan, those that sell them can face up to two years in prison, as well as fines of up to £5,805. It is sometimes reported, such as in the Guardian, that the fur of the chiru cannot be taken when the animal is alive, but that does not appear to be the case: the animals are simply butchered, skinned, and left to the elements.
Chiru numbers are thought to currently be around 75,000, though the data on their decline is limited. That is not considered a large population for an antelope, especially considering the size of their habitat on the Tibetan plateau. The chiru is slow breeding, giving birth to a single offspring each year and a half, and the mortality rate of newborns within the first two months is about 50%. The chiru is not able to deal with population pressure, and even struggles to survuve in harsh winters. The Chinese government has taken some steps toward chiru conservation, though protecting such a large area of habitat always proves difficult. The Beijing-Lhasa railway was built with underpasses for the chiru to continue to migrate (which played a part in a controversy), and some populations have responded to the law enforcement practices the government has put in place. However, it is the demand for the fur itself that needs to be tackled.