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China's fledgling environmental movement may have found its icon

Christina LarsonThe New York Times

The giant panda may be China's most recognized endangered species to outsiders, but the Chinese themselves would likely point out another icon. 

Within China, one of the most iconic conservation battles has been the fight to save the Tibetan antelope, which in the 1980s and '90s was threatened by poachers seeking its silky underbelly wool. While many conservation campaigns have floundered in China, efforts to protect the Tibetan antelope – which became a touchstone for the country's fledgling citizen environmental movement – have shown some success.

Since the antelope's population plunged from more than 1 million in the early 1900s to just 70,000 in 1995, its numbers have stabilized and rebounded to more than 100,000, according to 2009 field estimates by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a US-based nonprofit.

The Tibetan antelope, also known as the chiru, is a fine-limbed creature with slender curved-back horns (on males) and distinctively soft downy hair on its underbelly. But illegal poaching emerged as a significant threat in the 1980s, as international demand grew for scarves made from their silky fur. The pelts of antelopes killed in Tibet were sold and smuggled to workshops in India and Kashmir where the wool was woven into luxurious "ring scarves" – so finely textured they could be drawn through a wedding ring. The scarves became a high fashion item from Italy to Dubai.

But the poaching angered the local population. An armed vigilante band of Tibetan activists, dubbed the Wild Yak Brigade, began to monitor areas near antelope breeding grounds. The grass-roots campaign caught the attention of China's public (it was the subject of an epic 2004 film "Kekexili: Mountain Patrol") as well as local authorities, which viewed the activists as a threat. Eventually, the local government disbanded the brigade, but assumed its anti-poaching mission (and absorbed some of its members).

One of the most celebrated wildlife crusaders was a Tibetan activist named Sonam Dorje. In 1994, while patrolling the remote Hoh Xil region, he encountered a caravan of poachers. They shot him from the side of a jeep, in the same drive-by shooting fashion used to kill antelopes. His body lay frozen in sub-zero temperatures for two weeks before he was found and cremated as a hero.

The grisly death inspired his friend, Yang Xin, a nature photographer, to quit his accounting job in Chengdu and found Green River, one of China's first nongovernmental environmental organizations.

Working with Liang Congjie, founder of Beijing's Friends of Nature, he campaigned to raise awareness of the Tibetan antelope's plight through public workshops and write-in campaigns to politicians, including Britain's Tony Blair.

"At that time, China had just begun to have NGOs and the public had just begun to feel concern [for] wildlife," Mr. Yang says. "We also wrote a lot of letters to business people in America. The women never knew that their shawl killed three to four antelopes."

In 1995, George Schaller, a conservation biologist, oversaw a WCS research expedition to make a baseline estimate of the antelope's diminished numbers; his team found the population had plunged to about 70,000.

By 2009, their field research indicated that the population had climbed to "above 100,000," says Kang Aili, a WSC scientist based in Beijing.

In explaining this trend, she said that multiple layers of government – "from the national level down to the county level" – had made a coordinated effort to crack down on poaching.

"The local government first set up Chang Tang Nature Reserve to cover the heart of the antelope's habitat. It's the second-largest land nature preserve in the world and a big commitment."

Later, China's government elevated the 334,000 sq. km (129,000 sq. mi.) region to a national reserve, making funding available to pay for rangers' salaries, patrol jeeps, computers, GPS devices, and training.

"Fifteen years ago," says Ms. Kang, "no one really understood what is conservation – it was a new concept. Today, local people believe it's important."