Saving the Tibetan Antelope

Apr 17, 2009
*Special to asia!

Does the selection of the Tibetan Antelope reflect Beijing's commitment to a Green Olympics?


Greenwashing* is exactly what the Beijing Olympic mascots are wrought with. I’m not talking about Beibei, Huanhuan, or Nini, which represent abundance, passion, and strength, respectively. Perhaps even Jingjing manages to wiggle out of this discussion because it represents a “desire to protect nature’s gifts” – and “desire” does not necessarily imply commitment, but simply means there is intent. Yingying, the symbol of the Tibetan antelope, a creature of Western China’s vast Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, has a much different, darker and disturbing history.

During a visit to Tibet’s Potala Palace, my fluent and well-travelled Tibetan guide told me the myth about this creature – natively known as the Chiru – which once roamed the great plateaus of the Qinghai-Tibetan plains. Using the word “genocide” he described that the antelopes there were hunted to extinction and that none currently exists.

The existence of Tibetan antelope may be relatively unknown but their existence is no myth. Conservationists believe there are only about 50,000 Tibetan antelopes surviving in the wild and “untouched” altitudes of 3,250-5,500 metres.

Chiru are hunted for their wool, called shahtoosh, which in Persian means “the king of wool”. Unlike sheep wool, a Chiru has to be killed for its wool to be harvested because the wool grows extremely close to its skin. It takes up to six animals to make a single shawl, and it can sell for up to US$24,000 on the black market. Shahtoosh wool is so fine the entire shawl can be passed through a wedding ring.

In 2002, Indian officials confiscated 215kg of shahtoosh wool, and then in August 2007, 57 shahtoosh shawls were seized in Delhi. Two months later, in October 2007, less than a year before the Beijing Olympics, a Sky News investigation led to one of the biggest seizures of shahtoosh in eight years and the arrest of two dealers. That same month a Bangkok luxury storeowner was convicted of illegally importing and selling shahtoosh shawls. In February this year, a British government-supported project helped rehabilitate the people of Kashmir associated with shahtoosh trade by establishing the Kashmir Handmade Pashmina Promotion Trust to promote Kashmir handmade pashmina and to establish it as an exclusive brand.

The Chinese government did not play a single role in any of the above efforts to stop the trade in shahtoosh wool. The anti-poaching task force on the Tibetan Plateau is run entirely by volunteers from the community and is unfunded. Men armed with basic ammunition and the desire to protect the Chiru sacrifice life and limb when they come head to head with poachers in the desolate landscape; some of them get away with slashed ears and torsos when poachers employ desperate measures to escape.

The Beijing Olympic Committee describes the Chiru as a symbol of the vastness of China's landscape, the antelope carries the blessing of health, the strength of body that comes from harmony with nature…

Chiru can reach speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour. Such power contained within such delicate beauty makes for a fitting mascot for the Beijing Olympics. The Beijing Olympic Committee describes the Chiru as “a symbol of the vastness of China's landscape, the antelope carries the blessing of health, the strength of body that comes from harmony with nature… Yingying is a quick-witted and agile boy who represents the yellow Olympic ring.” While these traits are befitting of the Chiru, it is hardly reflective of China’s “commitment to a Green Olympics”. Tangible and concerted efforts are desperately needed to safeguard the Qinghai-Tibetan landscape and ensure that the “the essence of a species unique to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau” does not lose the race against extinction. But the Chinese are taking part in none of those.

*Footnote: Greenwashing is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.

Source: SourceWatch


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debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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