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A model for conservation in China? The Tibetan antelope

Since the antelope's population plunged to around 70,000 in the early 1900s, its numbers have stabilized at more than 100,000, according to 2009 field estimates by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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Out of all of China's endangered species, the giant panda might be the most recognizable to outsiders. But within China, one of the most iconic conservation battles has been the fight to save the Tibetan antelope, which in the 1980s and '90s was threatened by poachers seeking its silky underbelly wool.

While many conservation campaigns have floundered in China, efforts to protect the Tibetan antelope – which became a touchstone for the country's fledgling citizen environmental movement – have shown some success.

Since the antelope's population plunged from more than 1 million in the early 1900s to just 70,000 in 1995, its numbers have stabilized and rebounded to more than 100,000, according to 2009 field estimates by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a US-based nonprofit.

The Tibetan antelope, also known as the chiru, is a fine-limbed creature with slender curved-back horns (on males) and distinctively soft downy hair on its underbelly. But illegal poaching emerged as a significant threat in the 1980s, as international demand grew for scarves made from their silky fur. The pelts of antelopes killed in Tibet were sold and smuggled to workshops in India and Kashmir where the wool was woven into luxurious "ring scarves" – so finely textured they could be drawn through a wedding ring. The scarves became a high fashion item from Italy to Dubai.

But the poaching angered the local population. An armed vigilante band of Tibetan activists, dubbed the Wild Yak Brigade, began to monitor areas near antelope breeding grounds. The grass-roots campaign caught the attention of China's public (it was the subject of an epic 2004 film "Kekexili: Mountain Patrol") as well as local authorities, which viewed the activists as a threat. Eventually, the local government disbanded the brigade, but assumed its anti-poaching mission (and absorbed some of its members).


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