TIBETAN ANTELOPES – CHIRU
Species name: Pantholops hodgsonii
Status: Near Threatened
Habitat: North-Western Tibet and Qinghai Province – Changtang Nature Reserve, at elevations ranging from 3,700 to 5,500 meters. (12,000 to 18,000 feet)
Tibetan Antelopes or Chiru live in some of the most hostile environments on the planet. We can often see them in the Northern areas of Tibet, Southern Xinjiang, and Western areas of Qinghai. The majority of antelopes roam the Changtang Nature Reserve area. Their habitat is alpine valleys, cold steppe, and meadows.
TIBETAN ANTELOPES’ SOFT UNDERFUR
Tibetan antelopes can live in areas with annual average temperatures below freezing and withstand temperatures as low as -40F. It’s all due to their special adaptations.
Antelopes have long bristle hairs and warm silky undercoats. Their underfur is extremely warm, while very light and soft. It is called shahtoosh (meaning ‘king of wool’ in Persian). That’s why it became in high demand to produce high quality, light, and warm shawls.
The price of the shawls could go from USD 1,000 up to USD 20,000 with record prices going even higher. Unfortunately, the only way to collect the precious underfur is to kill the animal. And it takes the fur of 3-5 animals to make one shawl. High demand and modern technology, such as snowmobiles and firearms caused massive hunting of antelopes.
PROTECTING TIBETAN ANTELOPES
It is estimated that over a million Tibetan antelopes lived around 1900, and their number plummeted to about 75,000 in the second half of the 20th century. The main reason why Tibetan antelopes became endangered is hunting for their precious underfur. Other factors, such as road construction, fencing farmlands, and competition for food with livestock also affected the antelope’s population.
In 1997, Hoh Xil (Kekexili) National Nature Reserve was established to protect Tibetan antelopes. In later years more areas became protected to cover territories along the migration routes of chirus.
Fortunately, with strict laws prohibiting both hunting and trade of the precious fur, illegal poaching slowed down, and, according to IUCN, the antelope status is now Near Threatened.
With laws protecting antelopes, their population is recovering. According to the last estimate from 2016, there are about 100-150 thousand antelopes and their numbers are increasing.
ABOUT TIBETAN ANTELOPES
In addition, another adaptation to the harsh climate is that chirus have air sacs in their nostrils. It allows them to breathe at high elevations. Tibetan antelopes can run at speeds up to 80 km per hour.
Despite their name, Tibetan antelopes are relatives of sheep and goats.
Males are larger than females, males also have horns and black stripes on their legs. Antelope’s coat is light brown with red tones, and their belly is close to white. Their faces are close to black in color.
Males are about 80 cm high at the shoulder and weigh up to about 40 kg. Their slender, black horns curve slightly backward, reaching 54 to 60 cm in length and they don’t go throughout life.
TIBETAN ANTELOPES BEHAVIOR
Antelopes congregate in groups, some herds counting hundreds or even thousands of animals. However, typically, herds are smaller, especially in summer, counting up to 20 animals. Tibetan antelopes prefer staying in the valleys or rolling hills and are rarely seen on the mountain slopes. They are most active during dawn and dusk while resting during the day. Tibetan antelopes typically forage on grass, herbs, shrubs, and sedges.
The rutting season is in winter, from November until December. Male antelopes form a harem of 10-20 females. Pregnancy lasts for about 6 months. In summer, females with young female calves migrate to calving grounds that are at times 300 – 400km away. One of the possible reasons for such a move is to travel to the areas without wolves that can prey on the youngsters. Another reason is that Northern pastures have nutritious food with more protein, minerals, and other necessary elements for raising the offspring compared to the lowlands.
Antelopes give birth in June-July and return back to reunite with males in the fall. They usually give birth to 1 calf. Only after 12-15 minutes, the newborns can stand, after 1 hour they already walk and can follow their mother. The calves reach maturity after about 15 months. On average, the weight of the newborn is a little over 3kg. Unfortunately, only about half of the calves survive in the first 6 months, and only about two-thirds reach maturity. On male antelopes, horns start growing after 12 months. The length of a male’s horns determines their status.
Tibetan antelopes have a lifespan of 8-10 years. Snow leopards, wolves, and lynxes typically prey on Tibetan antelopes.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT CHIRU
Tibetan antelopes eat grass, leaf buds, cushion plants, thin roots, sedges, and graminoids.
It is hard to estimate the number of antelopes because many of them live in remote mountainous areas. It is believed, that there might be between 100,000 and 300,000 antelopes in the wild. Since the strict laws prohibiting trade and hunting were imposed, the number of antelopes is steadily increasing.
Shahtoosh translates from Persian as “King of Wool”. It is made from soft and light underfur of Tibetan Antelopes. The shawls woven from shahtoosh are very popular, especially in India and Kashmir. Sadly, the only way to collect this underfur is to kill antelope.
Tibetan antelopes were hunted to collect their precious underfur.
Tibetan antelopes are wary of people. If they notice you, they will run away to a safe distance. They generally don’t attack people. However, you should never approach wild animals, especially during rut season when males become more aggressive or when females have young offspring nearby.
Hunting of antelopes is strictly prohibited to protect the antelopes’ population. In addition to that, the trade of products containing more than 1% of antelopes underfur is not allowed.
MORE ABOUT WILDLIFE IN TIBET
POPULAR TOURS IN TIBET
LHASA TO EVEREST TOUR
A beautiful and exciting journey, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and going to the Everest Base Camp. The tour visits Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera, Drepung and Tashilhunpo monasteries, Kumbum Stupa, Yamdrok lake and Karola glaciers.
Both group and private tours are available.
15 DAYS MOUNT KAILASH PILGRIMAGE TOUR
One of our most popular group tours starts in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and goes to Mount Kailash for three-day trekking around this sacred mountain. During this tour, we visit Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse monastery and Kumbum stupa, Mount Everest, Lake Manasarovar, Mount Kailash, and much more.
XINING TO LHASA OVERLAND TOUR
This 11 days overland tour will take you through Tibetan wilderness. You start in Amdo, the Eastern part of Tibet, and travel through Qinghai Lake, Kekexili Mountain range, Changthang Grasslands, and Namtso lake. These areas are scarcely populated and many wild animals still live and thrive in these territories.