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Volunteers help Tibetan antelope hit the road

By Cui Jia and Dachong  (China Daily)

09:10, September 09, 2011

Volunteers Zhang Fan (R) and Zhang Yongfei feed antelope in Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve in Qinghai province on July 25. Zo(Photo / China Daily)

'Fairies of plateau' get guidance for perilous journey, Cui Jia and Dachong report from Qinghai.

Liu Qiuying waved her arms as quickly as she could in the middle of the busy Qinghai-Tibet Highway while a heavily-laden truck hurtled toward her. After the driver abruptly applied the brakes she politely asked him, and those behind, to wait because "a group of VIPs will be passing by".

The "VIPs" were not high-ranking officials. They were not even human beings. They were Tibetan antelope, which are endemic to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau of western China. The species is considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and tops China's protection list.

Liu, 20, was one of several volunteers who came in July to the Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve in Qinghai province. Their goal was to help protect Tibetan antelope, also known as "fairies of the plateau", as they embarked on a perilous journey. Liu's job was to guide them through the toughest passage of their migration, along the busy Qinghai-Tibet Highway and Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

Every June and July, female Tibetan antelope gather in various places, including Hoh Xil, which has an average altitude of 4,620 meters and no human settlements. Once gathered, they commence their journey to their preferred breeding grounds, usually places like Zonag Lake and Sun Lake, which are both in the nature reserve and have an abundance of water and grass.

A month later, the antelope bring their newborns back to their original home. Mankind has made both the initial and return trips dangerous for the animals; the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and Qinghai-Tibet Railway run right through their migration path.

Even worse, the antelope's migratory period coincides with the one of the busiest times of year for the highway, when the section of road they cross will at times convey as many as 276 vehicles an hour.

"Tibetan antelope are usually timid by nature and are frightened by busy traffic on the highway when they are going through this area," said Gama, a conservation officer at Hoh Xil, who, like many Tibetans, only has one name. "Although signs warning people to watch out for wild animals have been put up along the highway, the Tibetan antelope desperately need people to stop traffic for them during their prime migration period."

The 2,100-km-long Qinghai-Tibet Highway, which was opened in 1954, starts at Xining, capital of Qinghai, and ends in Lhasa, capital of Tibet. It runs through places that have an elevation of more than 4,000 meters and is the busiest highway among the four that connect Tibet to the rest of China.

On the July day that Liu guided the animals across the highway, she had been told of their location by Gama, who had been patrolling in the area in a pick-up truck. Gama, who has been a conservation officer for more than 30 years, had spotted them wandering near the place where they usually cross the road.

Recognizing that sign, he instructed Liu and four other volunteers to put on bright green vests that make them more noticeable and to stop the traffic coming from both directions on the highway, leaving a gap area of 1 km for the animals to walk through.

Helping the antelope cross the road safely is not the only responsibility entrusted to Liu and her colleagues.

She and seven other volunteers who arrived in Hoh Xil in the middle of July are also helping to raise baby antelope to maturity. Five of them were stationed for nine days at Wudaoliang, a base where Gama and other conservation workers spend much of their time, and three others for two weeks at the Sanandaj, a base that is about 59 km east of Wudaoliang.

The volunteers helped to separate newborn antelope from their mothers and bring them up in captivity. That work has allowed the antelope population to increase faster than it would in nature, where only about one in four of the animals that are born lives to maturity.

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