Pantholops hodgsonii (also known as the Tibetan antelope and Chiru (Department of Interior 2000) is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau. It is found between Ngoring Hu in China and the Ladakh region in India (Tibetan Plateau Project 2001a). The Chiru range once extended to western Nepal, but none have been seen in Nepal for several years and the species is presumed to be extirpated from that region (Department of Interior 2000).
Chiru are most often found along the alpine steppe in northwest Tibet and China, where annual precipitation is less than 16 inches and elevations are between 13,000-18,000 feet (Massicot 2001). Chiru prefer flat or gently rolling topography, but are also known to inhabit high rounded hills and mountains (Massicot 2001).
Adult Chiru range in size from 35-50 inches in height (Tibetan Plateau Project 2001a) and weigh between 26-40 kg (Massicot 2001). Adult males develop long, straight horns up to 23 inches in length, while females are hornless (Tibetan Plateau Project 2001a). Chiru coat coloration varies from beige and grayish to whitish, with black markings on the face and legs (Wildlife Conservation Society date unknown).
During the mating season, Chiru males attempt to form harems of 10 to 20 females (Massicot 2001). Although apparently non-territorial, males violently defend their harem against competing males (Schaller, 1996). When a female approaches a male, the male prances around her with his head held high (Schaller, 1996). If the female does not flee, the male then mates with her (Schaller, 1996). After mating, females leave the males, and there is no apparent bond between sexes (Massicot 2001).
Conception among female Chiru begins at 1.5-2.5 years of age (Massicot 2001). The gestation period lasts between 7-8 months, at which time the female gives birth to a single calf, usually after mid-June to early July (Massicot 2001).
According to Schaller (1998), mortality among young is high. Within the first two months of birth, up to half of Chiru young die; and 2/3 die before two years of age.
Young males stay with their mother for one year, at which time they leave and join with other males (Schaller, 1996). Female young typically stay with their mother well after their first year and accompany them during migration to the calving grounds to the north (Schaller, 1996, Massicot 2001).
According to Schaller (1998), the maximum age of a Chiru in the wild is about 8 years.
Movement patterns among populations and even sexes vary depending upon the season (Massicot 2001). Males and females congregate along wintering grounds during the rut (Massicot 2001). In spring, some females remain on winter grounds, but most females (and their female offspring if they have one) migrate north to summer calving grounds, where they remain until late July or early August (Schaller, 1996). The movement of males is characterized by two types of patterns: some remain in the wintering grounds as resident populations while others disperse along the Plateau to summer ranges (Massicot 2001). As a result of this seasonal movement, herd sizes vary in number, from as little as 5 to nearly 1000 individuals (Massicot 2001).
When resting, Chiru often dig bowl-shaped depressions in sandy and silty soil approximately 45 in. in diameter and 6-12 in. deep (Massicot 2001). Although the function of these depressions is not entirely known, Schaller (1996) suggested the depressions act to conceal Chirus from oestrid flies.
Chiru are good runners and can move as fast as 50 m.p.h. (Massicot 2001).
The Chiru is considered a grazer and possibly a browser (Schaller, 1998); however, there is little information on the diet of Chiru.
There are no known predators of Chiru, although Schaller (1996) hypothesized that one reason females migrate north to calving grounds may be to avoid wolves during pregnancy and birth.
The wool, called shahtoosh, is very valuable (Tibetan Plateau Project 2001a).
Historic population estimates are inaccurate, but there are several documented sightings of large herds in several areas by western explorers (Department of Interior 2000). Rawling (1905), cited in Schaller (1998) wrote the following excerpt regarding herd size:
"Almost from my feet away to the north and east, as far as the eye could reach, were thousands upon thousands of doe antelope with their young… Everyone in camp turned out to see this beautiful sight, and tried, with varying results, to estimate the number of animals in view. This was found very difficult however, more particularly as we could see in the extreme distance a continuous stream of fresh herds steadily approaching: there could not have been less than 15,000 or 20,000 visible at one time."
Although the data on population dynamics is incomplete, it is clear that the total population has declined during the past 30 years. According to the IUCN (2000), population estimates between 1950-1960 ranged from 500,000 to 1 million individuals; however, a population study conducted by R. East in 1993 revealed a population size of slightly greater than 100,000 (Massicot 2001). In 1998, Schaller (1998) released a paper that estimated total population numbers to be less than 75,000 individuals.
There are a number of reasons for the decline of Chiru. According to the 2000 Federal Register (Department of Interior 2000), one cause of population decline may be due to loss of habitat from increased human activity in the Tibetan Plateau, such as infrastructure development, pastoral settlements, rangeland conversion for livestock grazing, and natural resource extraction.
A second reason for declines in Chiru populations can be attributed to adverse weather. The Tibetan Plateau is an extreme landscape characterized by harsh weather, which can lead to starvation among Chiru populations (Department of Interior 2000). Those most adversely affected by this weather are females and young, presumably because they are smaller and more susceptible to the cold and lack of food resources (Department of Interior 2000).
Although loss of habitat and adverse weather certainly contribute to population declines, the most serious threat to the Chiru is poaching (Department of Interior 2000, Massicot 2001). According to the 2000 Federal Register (Department of Interior 2000), approximately 20,000 males, females, and young are killed each year by poachers who value the Chiru for their wool, known in international markets as shahtoosh (meaning “from nature and fit for a king”). Shahtoosh fibers are extremely fine (1/5 that of human hair) and are considered the softest and warmest wool in the world (Tibetan Plateau Project 2001a).
In China, most poaching occurs in the Arjin Shan, Chang Tang, and Kekexili Nature Reserves (Department of Interior 2000). The most efficient way to collect shahtoosh is to kill chiru (Department of Interior 2000). There are no documented cases of capture-and-release of any Chiru, and reports that shahtoosh can be collected from shrubs where Chiru have brushed against them are false (Department of Interior 2000).
After killing the Chiru, poachers usually skin the animal immediately (Department of Interior 2000). The 2000 Federal Register (Department of Interior 2000) reports that the hides are then sold to dealers who prepare the shahtoosh. Shahtoosh is then smuggled out of China by truck or animal caravan through Nepal or India, and into the states of Jammu and Kashmir, the only two locations in the world where the possession and processing of shahtoosh is legal (Department of Interior 2000, Tibetan Plateau Project 2001a).
Once shahtoosh reaches Jammu and Kashmir, it is processed into expensive and fashionable shawls and scarves, then smuggled into European and United States markets (Department of Interior 2000), where they typically sell between $7,000-$15,000 each and are coveted by the rich and famous (Shahtoosh date unknown).
Approximately 4-5 ounces of shahtoosh can be processed from one Chiru carcass (Department of Interior 2000), and 3-5 hides are necessary to make one shawl (Tibetan Plateau Project 2001a).
In China, Chiru are Class 1 protected under the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife law, which prohibits the killing of any chiru with the exception of written permission by the Chinese government. Under the Wildlife Protection Act of India, Chiru are listed as a Schedule I species. In 1975, it was listed as an Appendix II species under CITES until 1979 and moved to Appendix I status in 1979, where it remains at present.
The 2000 Federal Register (Department of Interior 2000) documents that any trade in shahtoosh is strictly prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as well as Indian and Chinese law.
Jeffery Rebitzke (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ondrej Podlaha (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
parental care is carried out by females
union of egg and spermatozoan
an animal that mainly eats leaves.
An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.
fertilization takes place within the female's body
makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.
having more than one female as a mate at one time
breeding is confined to a particular season
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
associates with others of its species; forms social groups.
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Dept. of Interior, F. April 25, 2000. "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants;; 90-day Finding on Petition To List the Tibetan Antelope as Endangered Throughout Its Range" (On-line). Accessed November 19, 2001 at http://policy.fws.gov/library/00fr24171.html.
Hilton-Taylor, C. 2000. "2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). Accessed November 19, 2001 at http://www.redlist.org/search/details.php?species=15967.
Massicot, P. August 16, 2001. "Animal Info - Chiru (Tibetan Antelope)" (On-line). Accessed November 19, 2001 at http://www.animalinfo.org/species/artiperi/panthodg.htm.
Schaller, G. May 1996. Realm of the Snow Antelope. New York: American Museum of Natural History.
Schaller, G. 1998. Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shahtoosh, "Shahtoosh - King of Wools" (On-line). Accessed November 19, 2001 at http://www.shahtoosh.com/.
Tibetan Plateau Project, 2001a. "A Petition to List the Tibetan Antelope (*Pantholops hodgsonii*) as an Endangered Species Pursuant to the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973" (On-line). Accessed November 19, 2001 at http://www.earthisland.org/tpp/Exec_Summ.htm.
Tibetan Plateau Project, 2001b. "The Tibetan Antelope Resource Page: Tibetan Antelope Conservation and the Shahtoosh Trade" (On-line). Accessed November 19, 2001 at http://www.earthisland.org/tpp/antelope.htm.
Wildlife Conservation Society, "Tibetan Antelope" (On-line). Accessed November 19, 2001 at http://wcs.org/home/18/570/670.