The Tibetan antelope or chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii) (Chinese 藏羚羊) is a medium-sized bovid which is about 80 centimetres (2.6 ft) in height at the shoulder. It is the sole species in the genus Pantholops and is placed in its own subfamily, Pantholopinae. It is native to the Tibetan plateau including China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai province, and Xinjiang Autonomous Region; and in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir region of India and Pakistan. The Tibetan antelope is also known commonly by its Indian English name, chiru. The coat is grey to reddish-brown, with a white underside. The males have long, curved-back horns which measure about 50 centimetres (1.6 ft) in length. There are less than 75,000 individuals left in the wild, down from a million 50 years ago.
It was formerly classified in the Antilopinae subfamily, but morphological and molecular evidence led to separation of the Chiru in the monotypic Pantholopinae, closely allied to goat-antelopes of the subfamily Caprinae (Gentry 1992, Gatesy et al. 1992, Ginsberg et al. 1999).
Tibetan antelope are gregarious, sometimes congregating in herds hundreds strong. The females migrate up to 300 kilometres (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 (Schaller 1998). Chirus live on the high mountain steppes and semi-desert areas of the Tibetan plateau such as Kekexili, where they feed on various forb and grass species. The average life span is about eight years.
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; the Chiru's numbers have dropped accordingly from nearly a million (estimated) at the turn of the 20th century to less than 75,000 today. The numbers continue to drop yearly. The struggle to stop illegal antelope hunting was portrayed in the 2004 film, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol.
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, thirty-three 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.
On February 22, 2008, The Wall Street Journal Online reported that China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, issued a public apology for publishing a doctored photograph of Tibetan antelope running near the Qinghai-Xizang railway. Liu Weiqing, a 41-year-old photographer, was identified as the author of the work. He had reportedly camped on the Tibetan plateau since March 2007, as part of a series by the Daqing Evening News, to raise awareness regarding the Tibetan bovid. He was also under contract to provide images to Xinhua. He has since resigned from Daqing Evening News. Despite the impression given by the faked photo, the antelope are getting used to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, according to a letter to Nature on April 17, 2008, from researchers of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
- Gatesy, J., D. Yelon, R. DeSalle, and E. Vrba. (1992). "Phylogeny of the Bovidae (Artiodactyla, Mammalia), based on mitochondrial ribosomal DNA sequence." Mol. Biol. Evol. 9: 433–446.
- Gentry, A. (1992). "The subfamilies and tribes of the family Bovidae." Mammal Review 22:1–32
- Ginsberg, J. R., G. B. Schaller, and J. Lowe. (1999). "Petition to list the Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) as an endangered species pursuant to the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973." Wildlife Conservation Society and Tibetan Plateau Project.
- ^ Mallon, D.P. (2008). Pantholops hodgsonii. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 29 March 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of endangered.
- ^ Spencer, Jane (2008-02-22). "China Eats Crow Over Faked Photo Of Rare Antelope". The Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120363429707884255.html?mod=yhoofront. Retrieved 2008-02-26.
- ^ Yang, Qisen; Lin Xia (2008-04-17). "Tibetan wildlife is getting used to the railway". Nature. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v452/n7189/full/452810c.html. Retrieved 2008-04-29.