Chirus are a kind of antelope. Resembling a cross between a reindeer and an impala, they have long slightly curved, upward-pointing black horns, black faces and grayish brown bodies covered with extremely soft, warm and thick fur. According to Wikipedia the Tibetan antelope or chiru is a medium-sized bovid native to the Tibetan plateau. Less than 75,000 individuals are left in the wild, down from a million 50 years ago. Although the lifespan of Tibetan antelopes is not known with certainty, since so few have been kept in captivity, it is probably around 10 years.
Chirus feed mainly on grass and can run very fast. They live at elevations of 4,300 meters and above on the arid, treeless steppes and grasslands of the Tibetan-Qinghia plateau and in the Akai Chin (a militarized zone in the Himalayas claimed by both China and India). They are especially numerous in western Qinghai province, particularly the 30,000-square mile Kekexili area, a vast grassland where there are still large numbers of chirus and chiru breeding grounds.
The chiru has a shoulder height of about 83 centimeters (33 inches) in males, and 74 centimeters (29 inches) in females. Males are significantly larger than females, weighing about 39 kilograms (86 pounds), compared with 26 kilograms (57 pounds), and can also be readily distinguished by the presence of horns and by black stripes on the legs, both of which the females lack. The coat is pale fawn to reddish-brown, with a whitish belly, and is particularly thick and woolly. The face is almost black in colour, with prominent nasal swellings that have a paler colour in males. In general, the colouration of males becomes more intense during the annual rut, with the coat becoming much paler, almost white, contrasting with the darker patterns on the face and legs. [Source: Wikipedia]
The males have long, curved-back horns that typically measure 54 to 60 centimeters (21 to 24 inches) in length. The horns are slender, with ring-like ridges on their lower portions and smooth, pointed, tips. Although the horns are relatively uniform in length, there is some variation in their exact shape, so the distance between the tips can be quite variable, ranging from 19 to 46 centimeters (7.5 to 18 inches). Unlike caprines, the horns do not grow throughout life. The ears are short and pointed, and the tail is also relatively short, at around 13 centimeters (5.1 inches) in length. The fur of Tibetan antelopes is distinctive, and consists of long guard hairs and a silky undercoat of shorter fibres. The individual guard hairs are thicker than those of other goats, with unusually thin walls, and have a unique pattern of cuticular scales, said to resemble the shape of a benzene ring.
Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on shatoosh Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Chirus Wikipedia ; Film: “Mountain Patrol: Kekexili” is a National- Geographic-backed film about the patrols that protect the chiru in the Kekexili Reserve. It was released in China in 2004 and was popular and won the Golden Horse Award at Taiwan Film Festival. China.org article on Tibetan animals china.org.cn ;Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/china
Chiru Behavior and Reproduction
Tibetan antelope feed on herbs, grasses, and sedges, often digging through the snow to obtain food in winter. Their natural predators include wolves, lynx, and snow leopards, and red foxes are known to prey on young calves. During the spring most chirus migrate north. Males disperse to forage on herbs and grasses during the short three-month growing season. Females make off for their calving grounds. After giving birth, the females return to their south with the young. Nearly half of all newborns perish during the journey.
According to the New York Times: Chiru have the fifth longest migration of any mammal: Female Tibetan antelopes travel about 430 miles each year to and from their calving grounds in the Kunlun Mountains. “These Great Dane-sized bovid species with woolly coats edged out more well-known contenders to enter the top five, including the millions of blue wildebeests that travel about 400 miles through the Serengeti, as well as Montana’s 270-mile pronghorn migration. [Source: Cara Giaimo, New York Times, November 13, 2019]
Tibetan antelope are gregarious, sometimes congregating in herds hundreds strong when moving between summer and winter pastures, although they are more usually found in much smaller groups, with no more than 20 individuals. The females migrate up to 300 km (190 mi) yearly to calving grounds in the summer, where they usually give birth to a single calf, and rejoin the males at the wintering grounds in late autumn.
The rutting season lasts from November to December. Males form harems of up to 12 females, although one to four is more common, and drive off other males primarily by making displays or chasing them with head down, rather than sparring directly with their horns. Courtship and mating are both brief, without most of the behaviour typically seen in other antelope species, although males do commonly skim the thighs of females with a kick of their fore legs.
Mothers give birth to a single calf between June and July, after a gestation period of about six months. The calves are precocial, being able to stand within 15 minutes of birth. They are fully grown within 15 months, and reach sexual maturity during their second or third year. Although females may remain with their mothers until they themselves give birth, males leave within 12 months, by which time their horns are beginning to grow. Males determine status by their relative horn length, with the maximum length being achieved at around three and a half years of age.
Chirus are endangered animals. In the early 20th century several million roamed the Tibetan Plateau. In 1990, around 200,000 remained and it was still possible to find herds with several hundred and even several, thousand, animals.
The population of chiru has reportedly improved to about 150,000, double the estimate in 1999. The chiru population dropped as low as 50,000 to 75,000 at the beginning of the 21st century as entire herds were poached. According to some estimates 20,000 chiru were killed every year during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The populations of chiru have bounced back as result of crackdowns on poachers. By 2006 there numbers had climbed back to around 130,000. But they are increasingly having to share their habitats with livestock.
The new railroad to Lhasa cuts through chiru feeding grounds. So that collisions with trains are kept to a minimum 33 “migration passages” have been built below the track. Some even have spotlights to allow uninterrupted migration at night. Videos set up at the passages show that herds often are apprehensive about using the passages but once the lead animals use it the others follow.
Chiru Habitat and Conservation
Endemic to the Tibetan Plateau, the Tibetan antelope inhabits open alpine and cold steppe environments between 3,250 and 5,500 m (10,660 and 18,000 ft) elevation. They prefer flat, open terrain, with sparse vegetation cover. They are found almost entirely in China, where they inhabit Tibet, southern Xinjiang and western Qinghai; a few are also found across the border in Ladakh, India. Today, the majority are found within the Chang Tang Nature Reserve of northern Tibet. The first specimens to be described, in 1826, were from Nepal; the species has apparently since been extirpated from the region. [Source: Wikipedia]
Tibetan antelope are listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service due to commercial poaching for their underwool, competition with local domesticated herds, and the development of their rangeland for gold mining. The chiru's wool, known as shahtoosh, is warm, soft and fine. Although the wool can be obtained without killing the animal, poachers simply kill the chiru before taking the wool.
To develop testing for shahtoosh, a Hong Kong chemist and a senior forensic specialist looked at the material though a microscope. Using this method, they discovered shahtoosh contains coarser guard hairs unique to the species. By doing this, the duo had found a convenient way to prove this was poached material.
In July 2006, the Chinese government inaugurated a new railway that bisects the chiru's feeding grounds on its way to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In an effort to avoid harm to the animal, 33 special animal migration passages have been built beneath the railway. However, the railway will bring many more people, including potential poachers, closer to the chiru's breeding grounds and habitat.
Shahtoosh is an incredibly soft wool made from the fleecy underwool of the neck of chirus. It is one of the most expensive materials in the world, worth its weight in gold several times over. Shatoosh means “king of wools” in Persian.
Most shahtoosh is made into two-meter-long shawls that weigh only 160 grams. These "ring shawls" are so fine and light they can be passed through a wedding band and are warm enough to hatch a pigeon egg. "Next to shahtoosh, cashmere feels like burlap" one cloth merchant told National Geographic.
Shahtoosh "ring shawls" sell in the United States for up to $30,000. The most expensive ones are off white. These are made with wool taken from the belly and the throat of the animal, which accounts for only 12 to 14 percent of a chiru’s fur.
Shahtoosh has been prized or centuries. It was highly valued by Mogul Emperors and presented to as a wedding gift to brides in wealthy families. Napoleon gave a shatoosh shawl to Josephine, who reportedly was so enamored by it she ordered 400 more.
In India, shahtoosh is regarded as a status symbol among the rich and is one of the most valuable dowry gifts a person can give. Shahtoosh didn't really become big in the United States and Europe until the 1980s, when fur became unfashionable. One rich New York socialite told Time, "Shahtooshes are so utterly tightly woven of this wonderful thin wool. We started wearing them when people were harassed about wearing fur." Demand for shatoosh tends to increases when fur falls out favor and decreases when fur is more acceptable.
It takes the fur of three to five chiru to make one six-foot shawl. Dealers who sold the shawls used to tell buyers that no animals were killed to make them. Instead, they said, they were made of fibers collected by peasants that came from hair shed or rubbed against bushes after the winter. In the old days some traders claimed the fibers came from the fictitious "toosh" bird.
Until June 2000, when a ban was imposed, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, was the only place in the world where shahtoosh could legally be produced. Many shahtoosh weavers live in the Edgar district of Srinagar, Kashmir. They make the shahtoosh shawls at home or in small workshops using handlooms. It takes a weaver about one month to a year to weave a single shawl. An estimated half million weavers make shawls.
A worker who spends a year making a $27,000 shawl earns about $540. The weavers generally don’t know any other trade. They have had an especially hard time in recent years because of the fighting in Kashmir. One weaver told the Times of London, “If there were other jobs I’d give this up instantly but unemployment here is terrible.”
Kashmir style “tooshes” are dyed and embroidered. The fibers are so fine that they must be treated with starch made from rice so they won’t break. Finished shawls sell for about $500 in India and can fetch 30 times that amount in the United States and Europe. Because the trade is lucrative people in the business are willing to take all kinds of risks.
Shahtoosh and Poaching
The stories about chiru fibers being collected from bushes is a myth. For one thing there aren't really any bushes or trees on the Tibetan plateau for animals to rub against. The truth is the fibers come from dead chirus. According to some estimates 20,000 chirus are shot and skinned by poachers every year for their soft hair. Conservationist estimate that if chiru continue to be poached they will be extinct in five to ten years. The renowned biologist George Schaller told Time, “Any woman who wears shahtoosh should be deeply embarrassed. It's not a shawl. it’s a shroud."
Most of the poachers are Huis (Muslim Han Chinese). Many of them are former illegal miners who came to Qinghai during the gold rush in the 1980s and 90s and realized that it was much easier to make money killing chirus than digging gold for $1 a day.
Poachers use machine guns and semi-automatic weapons to hunt chirus year round, not just when their coats are the thickest. They hunt mostly at night in vehicles with bright headlights that cause the chirus to freeze in their tracks, making them easy targets to hit with a volley of bullets. Sometimes 80 or more are mowed down in a single night.
The poachers like to attack the females during the breeding season when they are pregnant, relatively slow and gather in large numbers. A Chinese environmental group has released gruesome photographs of heaps of skinned carcasses left behind by poachers.
Poacher sell the pelts for between $60 and $85 a piece to middlemen who sell them for considerably higher prices to other middlemen who smuggle the airy fibers from China to India. In New Delhi, they are sold to dealers in third-class hotel rooms, then sent to weavers in Kashmir.
Efforts to Stop Chiru Poaching
In China, chiru poachers face a $130 fine and a six year prison sentence if they get caught. Even so they don't seem worried. They hunt in remote areas where there is little danger of being caught. If they are caught they make enough money so they can pay off authorities with bribes.
To protect the chiru, the government has only 15 officers covering an area the size of Switzerland. There is a government unit, called "Operation No. 1, whose job it is to track down chiru poachers. But they do little. They have never caught any poachers and on one patrol they ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere and had to be rescued. The Chinese government is reportedly looking into ways to capture and domesticate chiru and harvest their wool. Conservationists are trying to come with alternative trades for weavers of shahtoosh shawls.
Trade in shahtoosh has been banned in much of Indian since 1977 but is still practiced in Kashmir, where the shawls are made. In 1995, an international ban on trade of shatoosh was signed by 142 countries. Kashmir does not abide by the treaty. Even so the market has been seriously damaged. Since the ban was imposed, sales have fallen by 50 percent. Weaving workshops that used to make 40 shawls a year now make only a dozen. Kashmiris involved in the shahtoosh trade have been arrested outside of Kashmir. In 1999, Kashmiris trading shahtoosh shawls were arrested in a number of Indian cities. Shahtoosh traders have also been arrested in Hong Kong.
A global ban on shahtoosh sales was introduced in 2002. The ban is enforced half-heartedly in Kashmir. Police ignore the problem and raids are rare. In the United States shahtoosh is sold only on the black market. The high fashion market has been targeted. Socialites have been subpoenaed for information on their shawls
The global ban has made shahtoosh more desirable in some circles. Shahtoosh is still in high demand in Europe and smuggling operations meet the demand. In Britain shahtoosh shawls are sold by wealthy women who operate like drug dealers. In Delhi they are sold under the counter at shops that sell pashmina wool products.
Wild Yak Brigade
The Wild Yak Brigade (Yemaoniu) was group of volunteers who saved chirus by tracking down poachers that kill them. Founded in 1992, the group roamed around western Qinghai looking for poachers. When the found them they tried to arrest them even though the Wild Yaks were not police and had no legal authority beyond that of ordinary Chinese citizens. They wore uniforms so they looked more official in the eyes of criminals.
The Wid Yaks were made up of ex-soldiers, ex-policeman, high school graduates, herdsmen who never went to school and several former poachers. They were very poor. They often wnt long spells without food. They relied on donations. They received two jeeps from a Chinese group called the Friends of Nature and a $10,000 grant from the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare. When they first started out they sold pelts they confiscated to make money but ended the controversial practice soo after that.
Wild Yak Brigade Captures Poachers
The Wild Yaks patroled the 30,000-square mile Kekexili area in western Qinghai around 20 times a year, focusing much of their attention on chiru breeding grounds in the area and tracking poachers as if they were animals. A member of the group told U.S. News and World Report, "We follow the poachers in the dark and then in the morning, surprising them all at once, shooting above their heads because we are not allowed to shoot at them until they open fire on us. Sometimes it’s fun, but sometimes it's frightening.” In one raid the Wild Yaks captured 20 poachers and seven trucks loaded with 800 dead chirus.
The first two leaders of the Wild Yak Brigade’suonandaijie and Zhabadoujie — were both murdered. Suonandaijie was shot dead while reloading his gun by poachers who had been captured by the Wild Yaks and then turned on them. Zhabadoujie reportedly committed suicide. Many environmentalists are skeptical about this explanation. For one, he was found with three bullets in body. How many suicide victims shoot themselves three times?
In January 2001, the Wild Yak Brigade was forced to disband by the Chinese government. Leaders were relocated and the remaining members were absorbed by a rival group
Image Sources: Chiru images: animal information
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2022