What is a Tibetan antelope?
Tibetan antelopes, also known as ‘chiru’, are a small, unique species related to goats and sheep that are found exclusively in the Tibetan plateau. This is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet—the average annual temperature is below freezing, and winter temperatures can drop below -40°C (-40°F). Chiru have adapted to live in this area thanks to their thick, woolly coats, the underfur of which is one of the lightest and warmest in the world. Males have long vertical horns that begin growing after about a year and reach up to 60 centimetres in length.
They live off ground vegetation, including shrubs and alpine grasses, on which they graze during most of their waking hours. While they live in large herds with as many as 20 individuals, males and females live separately except during the mating season. When it’s time to procreate, the males challenge each other to determine dominance and create groups of 10 to 20 females with which they mate.
Gestation lasts around six months and females travel to birthing grounds where there are fewer wolves to prey on the young and more protein-rich foods for them to eat. Calves weigh around three kilograms at birth, can stand on their own feet after just 15 minutes, and follow their mothers after just one hour. Even though females usually have just one calf at a time, the survival rate in the harsh environment of the Tibetan plateau is only around 50%.
Tibetan antelopes are famous for their underfur, which has long been used to make shawls and scarves as fashion items. The lightness of the fur coupled with its superior insulating abilities make it a high-demand item. Even today, people will pay up to $20,000 for a product—with each scarf requiring the lives of around three to five chiru.
As grazers, chiru are important players in the health of their habitats, helping circulate seeds and nutrients to promote plant growth and alleviating competition by pruning areas with higher amounts of vegetation. They are also important to predators like lynx, snow leopards, and wolves, who count on them as a food source.
What is a Tibetan antelope’s scientific name?
The scientific name for Tibetan antelopes, or ‘chiru’, is Panthalops hodgsoni.
Are Tibetan antelopes endangered?
The number of wild chiru antelopes drastically reduced towards the end of the 20th century, going from as many as one million to as few as 65,000 in the 1990s. After this, protections were put in place to help increase numbers. By 2016, their status on the IUCN Red List was changed from endangered to near threatened with an increasing population trend.
However, chiru are still threatened, predominantly because of their highly sought-after underfur, known as ‘shahtoosh’. The scarves and shawls made from this uniquely soft wool remain in high demand and can cost up to $20,000. Tibetan antelopes are also threatened by a loss of habitat, disruption from infrastructure, and the harsh natural environment they live in—which is predicted to become even harsher due to climate change.
Where do Tibetan antelopes live?
Though the species historically lived across the entire Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, their range has since reduced in size, with their main stronghold now in the Chang Tang area of northwestern Tibet. They live at high elevations of 3,250 to 5,500 metres in alpine, desert steppe, and meadow areas.
Tibetan antelopes are a migratory species, often travelling as much as 400 kilometres between their summer and winter grounds. To give birth, females congregate in secluded birthing grounds where they can safely care for their young, out of sight of predators like wolves.
The hostile environment in which they live can plummet to temperatures as low as -40°C (-40°F) and experience heavy snowfall. Despite their warm fur, these conditions are challenging for Tibetan antelopes, particularly when thick snowfall and freezing conditions bury or kill the plants they eat.
Tibetan antelopes face a variety of threats, despite their recently increasing numbers. These include being poached for their wool, competing with livestock for food, human disturbance, a harsh environment, and climate change.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the underfur of Tibetan antelopes became extremely popular as a material for shawls and scarves because it’s so light and soft while still being warm. This spike in demand was followed by a period of unregulated poaching that reduced chiru numbers by as much as 90%. Though protective measures are now in place, demand for the product remains high and poaching is still an urgent threat to chirus.
The Changtang region of China was once an empty space where Tibetan antelopes could roam freely. Today, though, it is increasingly used as farmland to rear livestock, with over eight million domesticated animals now sharing the plateau with wild chirus. This has increased competition for food and reduced the antelopes’ natural habitat, interrupting their migration patterns and fragmenting herds.
Railways and human infrastructure
The construction of railways and other infrastructure, like fencing and roads, has divided the Tibetan antelope’s habitat and now prevents them from travelling freely. As a result, herds are more isolated, which makes it harder for them to mingle and dilute their gene pool, resulting in increased inbreeding. It also restricts their access to food and cuts pregnant females off from their traditional birthing grounds.
Harsh natural environment
The plateaus where Tibetan antelopes live experience significant snowfall, confining these animals and limiting their access to food. When temperatures drop below what they can typically withstand, there’s a significant risk that they will freeze to death. Permafrost also makes ground vegetation completely unreachable, leading to malnutrition and starvation.
Some studies predict, due to climate change, that the Tibetan antelope habitat will become even more extreme in the next 100 years, and over 50% of their existing habitat could become uninhabitable. These predictions include more snowfall, more permafrost, and a significant loss of vegetation—all things that severely affect the Tibetan antelope’s ability to survive.
What do Tibetan antelopes look like?
Male Tibetan antelopes have long, thin horns that are only slightly curved and sprout almost vertically from the head. While females have a mixture of sandy and white fur, males have contrasting black fur on their faces and the front of each leg. Both sexes have thick, woolly coats during the winter, short fluffy tails, and small ears.
How big are Tibetan antelopes?
Tibetan antelopes are relatively small. While females are 74 centimetres (29 inches) tall and weigh as little as 25 kilograms (55 pounds), males are slightly bigger, standing around 83 centimetres (33 inches) tall at the shoulder and weighing approximately 40 kilograms (88 pounds). Their legs are long and slim to help them run fast and escape predators.
What is the Tibetan antelope called?
While often called the Tibetan antelope because of where it lives, this animal is also referred to as the chiru. Its scientific name is Panthalops hodgsoni.
What do Tibetan antelopes eat?
As herbivores and grazers, Tibetan antelopes eat large amounts of low alpine grasses, forbs (herbaceous flowering plants), and shrubs. They spend most of their waking hours slowly feeding on available vegetation before moving to a new area to continue grazing.
Because of the incredibly low temperatures on the Tibetan plateau, the plants are sometimes covered with snow, and Tibetan antelopes have to dig to find them. When there is a lot of sudden snowfall, vegetation can become unreachable, putting them at risk of malnutrition and starvation.
What eats Tibetan antelopes?
Are Tibetan antelopes actually antelopes?
Despite their appearance and name, Tibetan antelopes are not considered true antelopes. Instead, they are the sole surviving members of a group that split off from sheep, goats, and goat antelopes about 23 million years ago.
How long do Tibetan antelopes live?
Tibetan antelopes have an average lifespan of 8 to 10 years.
What is Tibetan antelope shahtoosh?
Because they live in such cold areas, Tibetan antelopes have developed extremely warm and insulating underfur to help them regulate their temperatures. Despite being so warm, their fur is also extremely light and fine, making it desirable for high-quality, warm but light shawls and scarves. This fur, and the accessories made from it, are called shahtoosh—meaning ‘king of wool’ in Persian.
How fast can a Tibetan antelope run?
Thanks to adaptations that allow them to breathe well at high elevations, Tibetan antelopes can take in plenty of oxygen to help them run. They can even reach speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour (50 miles per hour).
Why are Tibetan antelopes endangered?
Tibetan antelopes and their habitat are being affected by a number of issues such as competition with livestock, infrastructure, and climate change. However, the most urgent threat to Tibetan antelopes is poaching. Their underfur is very high quality and keeps them extremely warm and comfortable, even though it’s so fine and almost weightless. Despite protective measures being put in place, the demand for this fabric is still high, which encourages poachers to target these animals.
How many Tibetan antelopes are left in the world?
The IUCN estimates that there are 100,000 to 150,000 mature Tibetan antelopes left in the world. Before the 20th century, estimates suggest that there were around one million Tibetan antelopes, but their numbers plummeted in the 1990s to as low as 65,000—almost entirely due to poaching for their fur. Since then, strong protective measures have helped numbers grow to six figures.
Why are Tibetan antelopes important?
As grazers that feed on many types of local vegetation, Tibetan antelopes have a significant impact on their ecosystems. They prune vegetation, which reduces competition for nutrients and promotes growth, and they disperse seeds through their faeces. These kinds of processes are essential for healthy and lasting plant life in an area like the Tibetan Plateau. The antelopes are also a prey species, meaning they act as an important food source for predators like wolves, lynx, and snow leopards.
In 2000, IFAW led an investigation into the illegal trade of shahtoosh. At the time, the market for this high-quality fur was still at its peak, and the consequences on the Tibetan antelope population had been severe. The investigation looked into the sole supplier of woven shahtoosh—Jammu and Kashmir—and the socio-economic impact that enforcing a ban on shahtoosh would have.
With around 30,000 people employed in the weaving of Tibetan antelope wool, IFAW concluded that severe side effects could be avoided if the industry switched to weaving pashmina. This wool is similar to shahtoosh in a lot of ways—and sometimes mistaken for it during customs checks—but it is sourced ethically by simply combing pashmina goats.
In 2002, our campaign to enact the solutions from our investigation finally succeeded when Jammu and Kashmir banned shahtoosh and placed the Tibetan antelope under the highest level of protection.