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SCIENCE FILE

Team Reaches Antelope Birthing Site

March 22, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

After an exhausting 30-day trek through 300 miles of the isolated Chang Tang plateau of northern Tibet, an Ojai mountaineer has discovered the birthing grounds of the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru.

The exotic chiru, which once numbered in the millions, has fallen victim to the demands of fashion. Scarves made of fine shahtoosh wool from the chiru sell for $3,000 to $15,000, despite the fact that trade in the wool is illegal. The demand has resulted in a mass slaughter of the antelope by hunters with high-powered rifles, bringing the numbers down to less than 75,000. The wool is then smuggled into Nepal and Kashmir, where it is woven into scarves.

Rick Ridgeway of Ojai, who led the National Geographic Society-sponsored expedition, hopes the newly discovered birthing grounds will be included in a recently created nature preserve that covers much of their grazing area.

"The word is getting out that the consequences for shooting the animals are severe," he said. If the success in the southern part of the animals' grazing range can be duplicated in the north, he added, "the animals will be left alone." Ridgeway made the trek last year with climber Conrad Anker, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell and videographer Jimmy Chin.

Other explorers have attempted to follow the female chiru to its birthing grounds, but were unable to carry sufficient supplies for the trek over ground that is too rough for vehicles. To overcome the problem, Ridgeway designed and built aluminum rickshaws designed to carry more than 200 pounds of gear.

The team traversed elevations as high as 17,000 feet and endured hardships that included walking barefoot across partially frozen creeks while dragging the heavy rickshaws. "The trade-off was two minutes of cold feet versus two hours of wet boots," he said.

After it reached the birthing grounds, the group still faced a 100-mile trek to the nearest road, but it encountered another surprise before it got there. Only 40 miles from the birthing area, the team discovered a new mining camp, along with a 60-mile dirt access road. The road "could also give poachers easy access to the calving grounds," he said, making it even more important that they be included in the nature preserve.

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