Animal Info - Chiru (Tibetan Antelope)

(Other Names: 藏羚, 西藏羚羊, チルー(チベットアンテロープ), Antílope del Tibet, Antilope du Tibet, Orong, Orongo, Tchirou, Tibetantilope, Tschiru, Tstosh, Zangling)

Pantholops hodgsonii

Status: Endangered


Contents

1. Profile (Picture)
2. Tidbits
3. Status and Trends (IUCN Status, Countries Where Currently Found, Population Estimates, History of Distribution, Threats and Reasons for Decline)
4. Data on Biology and Ecology (Size and Weight, Habitat, Age to Maturity, Gestation Period, Birth Season, Birth Rate, Dispersal, Maximum Age, Diet, Behavior, Social Organization, Age and Gender Distribution, Mortality and Survival, Density and Range)
5. References


Profile

Pictures: Chiru Herd (20 Kb JPEG) (UN FAO), Male Chiru (10 Kb JPEG) (Earth Island)

The chiru is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau. It weighs 26 - 40 kg (57 - 88 lb) and favors alpine steppe or similar semiarid habitats. The chiru prefers flat to rolling terrain, although it readily ascends high rounded hills and penetrates mountains and crosses passes by following valleys. It can be found at elevations from 3250 - 5500 m (10,660 - 18,000 ft). Movement patterns of the chiru are complex, with females following different patterns from males.  Females can migrate up to 300 km (190 mi) between winter mating grounds and summer calving grounds. Chiru herds also vary widely in size and composition. Although herds of 15,000 are no longer seen, as they were a century ago, herds of 1000 or more can still be observed.

The chiru is found primarily on the alpine steppe of northwest Tibet in China. There are a number of both migratory as well as resident populations. The only chirus found outside China are in the Ladakh area of India and comprise only about 200 animals. From Ladakh, the chiru's distribution extends 1600 km (990 mi) eastward across Tibet and southern Xinjiang to Qinghai. The range of the chiru from west to east appears to be much as it was a century ago. However, the range has contracted in central Tibet and eastern Qinghai.

Poaching is the most serious threat to the chiru. It is being slaughtered illegally by the thousands for its wool, which is known in the international market as "shahtoosh" or "king of wool."


Tidbits

*** "Almost from my feet away to the north and east, as far as the eye could reach, were thousands upon thousands of doe antelope with their young...  Everyone in camp turned out to see this beautiful sight, and tried, with varying results, to estimate the number of animals in view.  This was found very difficult however, more particularly as we could see in the extreme distance a continuous stream of fresh herds steadily approaching: there could not have been less than 15,000 or 20,000 visible at one time." (Rawling 1905, cited in Schaller 1998)

*** Chirus paw bowl-shaped hollows in sandy and silty soil, roughly circular hollows 110 - 120 cm (43 - 47 in) in diameter and 15 - 30 cm (6 - 12 in) deep. These hollows are distinctive, quite unlike the shallow scrapes made by blue sheep and argalis on a hillside for resting, the trampled and churned depressions created by wallowing yaks, the fan-shaped pawed sites at gazelle latrines, or the irregular holes and trenches with their litter of feces dug by kiang. The seasonal use of hollows, their dispersion, and the lack of feces appear related and suggest that the hollows function primarily to conceal chirus from oestrid flies, which probably find hosts by sight and smell. (Schaller 1998)

*** The chiru is a remarkable runner. Despite the thin atmosphere on the high plateau, it can run as fast as 80 km/h (50 mi/h). This is not only because it is so light and nimble, but also because its muzzle is particularly swollen and it has many air sacs in its nostrils, aiding its breathing. (Tan 1996)

*** There are no known chirus in captivity (Mallon & Kingswood 2001).


Status and Trends

IUCN Status:

Countries Where the Chiru Is Currently Found:

2003: Occurs in China (Qinghai, Xinjiang) and India (Ladakh/Jammu & Kashmir). May be extinct in Nepal. (IUCN 2004)

Population Estimates:

[Note: Figures given are for wild populations only.]

History of Distribution:

The chiru is endemic to the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It is found primarily on the alpine steppe of northwest Tibet in the remote Chang Tang area of China. There are a number of both migratory as well as resident populations. The only chirus found outside China are in the Ladakh area of India's state of Jammu & Kashmir. At present, the chiru occurs in only two small areas of eastern Ladakh, where about 200 animals, mostly males, cross the border seasonally from Tibet and Xinjiang. A few once strayed into western Nepal, but there is no evidence that they still do so. From Ladakh, the chiru's distribution extends 1600 km (990 mi) eastward across Tibet and southern Xinjiang to Qinghai. Its current range is divided into two areas: a northern one of about 490,000 sq km (190,000 sq mi) and a central one of about 115,000 sq km (44,000 sq mi).  The range of the chiru from west to east appears to be much as it was a century ago. However, the range has contracted in central Tibet and eastern Qinghai. The great herds of 15,000 animals or more that Western explorers reported a century ago are now gone. (Schaller 1998)  On the other hand, recent reports indicate that the number of chirus has increased lately due to improved enforcement by Tibetan officials against poaching (G. Schaller, cited in Wildl. Cons. Soc. 2004).

Distribution Map (7 Kb GIF) (Huffman 2004)

Threats and Reasons for Decline:

Poaching is the most serious threat to the chiru. It is being slaughtered illegally by the thousands for its wool (actually, the underfur of the chiru), which is known in the international market as "shahtoosh" or "king of wool." Shahtoosh is considered to be one of the finest animal fibers in the world and, since the 1980s, expensive shahtoosh shawls and scarves have become high fashion status symbols in the West, selling for as much as $10,000 each. Several chirus are killed  to provide wool for a single shawl. (Collection of the underfur causes the death of the chiru.) Wool is smuggled from Tibet mainly to Kashmir in India, where it is woven into an extremely fine fabric from which the shawls and scarves are woven. Although the chiru is protected in China, it is still legal to weave shahtoosh in India. (IUCN 2000a, Oryx 2000, IUCN 2004)

Other threats to the chiru include habitat loss due to the expansion of domestic livestock herding, fencing of rangeland, and economic development. Their horns are also used in traditional medicine in China.


Data on Biology and Ecology

Size and Weight:

The chiru stands 83 - 100 cm (33 - 39") at the shoulder. Females weigh about 26 kg (57 lb); males weigh about 40 kg (88 lb). 

Habitat:

The chiru prefers flat to rolling terrain, although it readily ascends high rounded hills and penetrates mountains and crosses passes by following valleys. Alpine steppe or similar semiarid habitats are favored, it being rare or absent from those parts of the alpine meadow region that have an average annual precipitation of 400 mm (16 in) or more. Desert steppe and other such arid areas have also been occupied, at least seasonally. In some areas the chiru frequents elevations as low as 3250 m (10,660 ft), but most of its range lies above 4000 m (13,100 ft), and in northern Ladakh it can be found as high as 5500 m (18,000 ft). (Schaller 1998)

The chiru is one of the species that live in both the Himalaya and Mountains of Southwest China Biodiversity Hotspots (Cons. Intl.) and the Tibetan Plateau Steppe Global 200 Ecoregion. (Olson & Dinerstein 1998, Olson & Dinerstein 1999)

Age to Maturity:

As with many medium-sized ungulates, female chirus probably first conceive at the age of 1.5 or 2.5 years and give birth at the age of 2 or 3 years. (Schaller 1998) 

Gestation Period:

7 - 8 months (Nowak 1999).

Birth Season:

Female chirus give birth in the second half of June and early July (Schaller 1998). The approximate main mating season is in late November and December (Schaller 1977).

Birth Rate:

Females give birth to a single young.

Dispersal:

Sometime in late April or May, most 10- to 11-month old males separate from their mothers and either join their male peers or associate with adult males until early winter, when, like the adult males, many join mixed herds. Young females remain with their mothers. (Schaller 1998)

Maximum Age:

At least about 8 years (wild) (Schaller 1998).

Diet:

The chiru is a grazer and perhaps a browser (Nowak 1999). It feeds mainly on forbs, grasses, and sedges (Mallon & Kingswood 2001).

Behavior:

Movement patterns of the chiru are complex, and the movements of the two sexes must be discussed separately. Males and females are mostly on the same winter grounds during the rut.

  • During spring, some females remain on the winter grounds in resident populations, but others migrate. In May and June the migratory females and their female offspring separate from the males and travel up to 300 km (190 mi) north into desolate and uninhabited terrain to summer calving grounds. They migrate back to the fall and winter grounds in late July and early August.
  • Males have several movement patterns.  At some point in late April or May, most 10- to 11-month old males separate from their mothers and either join their male peers or the adult males, which also part from the females at that time. Some males remain on the winter grounds as resident populations. Many males travel at least a short distance to a summer range. Some males travel far from their winter grounds, usually northward, dispersing widely, and then in autumn return to traditional fall and winter grounds for the rut. As a result of these diverse movement patterns, males, in contrast to females, tend to be scattered throughout the range of the species during summer.

(Schaller 1998)

Social Organization:

Herd dynamics vary greatly by sex and season as herds change in size and composition and animals shift associations. As with many ungulate species, the only long-lasting association is between a female and her young, a bond which may persist well into the offspring’s second year. All other associations appear to be unstable, lasting from minutes or hours to perhaps days. Three types of herds are evident: males (yearling (age: 1 year - maturity) and adult) were often either alone or in all-male herds; female herds consisted of only females with their offspring; and mixed herds contained one or more animals of both sexes. (Schaller 1998)

Average and range of herd sizes for Qinghai in 1985, Qinghai in 1986 and Xinjiang in 1987:

  • Male herds: averaged from 5.0 - 7.4 (range 2 - 38)
  • Female herds: averaged from 5.2 - 7.2 (range 2 - 20)
  • Mixed herd: averaged from 11.5 - 36.4 (range 2 - 279)

However, the above figures do not show the full range of possible female herd sizes during rapid migratory movements. Over 7000 chirus in one population of females and newborns included 3.2% in herds of 2-50, 8% in herds of 51-100, 26.6% in herds of 101-500, and 62.2% in herds exceeding 500, with the largest including at least 1000. (Schaller 1998)

During the mating season, each adult male attempts to form a harem of 10 - 20 females, which it guards jealously. If one doe attempts to leave a harem , the male tries to drive her back. Meanwhile, the other does may use the opportunity to desert, as there is apparently no lasting bond between the sexes. (Nowak 1999)

Age and Gender Distribution:

Composition of various migratory chiru populations from 1990 - 1993 (Schaller 1998):

  • Adult males: 13.6 - 29.7 %
  • Yearling (age: 1 year - maturity) males: 4.7 - 10.2 %
  • Adult and yearling females: 48.5 - 60.7 %
  • Young (age: less than 1 year old): 7.4 - 24.8 %
  • Males/Females: 35.3/100 - 75.3/100
  • Yearlings/Females: 18.3/100 - 23.5/100
  • Young/Females: 30.8/100 - 47.7/100 (n (number of populations) = 6), 12.2/100 (n = 1), and 5/100 (n=1) (exceptionally low)

Between 1990 and 1993, the combined central and eastern populations in the Chang Tang region of Tibet averaged 29% males, 53% females, and 18% young. Under normal circumstances the ratio of young to females ranged from about 30:100 to 50:100. (Schaller 1998)

Mortality and Survival:

Schaller concluded that mortality of young was high, up to half dying within a month or two after birth, and that at least 2/3 of the chirus died between birth and the age of 2 years (Schaller 1998).

Density and Range:

Densities:

  • 1.47 individuals/sq km (3.81 individuals/sq mi) (3087 chirus in 2100 sq km (810 sq mi); November 1986; Qinghai)
  • 0.015 individuals/sq km (0.039 individuals/sq mi) (281 animals in 17,900 sq km (6900 sq mi); November 1986; Qinghai)
  • Minimum density of 0.11 individuals/sq km (0.28 individuals/sq mi) (438 animals in 4000 sq km (1500 sq mi); July 1988; Xinjiang)
  • 0.16 individuals/sq km (0.41 individuals/sq mi) (2946 animals in 18,000 sq km (6900 sq mi); 1988; Arjin Shan Reserve)
  • 0.36 individuals/sq km (0.93 individuals/sq mi) (635 animals in 1800 sq km (690 sq mi); August 1990; Aru Basin in the Chang Tang Reserve, Tibet)
  • Extensive census in the Chang Tang, Tibet: 1991 - minimum of 0.22 individuals/sq km (0.57 individuals/sq mi) over 17,500 sq km (6800 sq mi); 1993 - 0.29 individuals/sq km (0.75 individuals/sq mi) over 10,500 sq km (4100 sq mi). These densities are probably not exceeded elsewhere over such a large area.

(Schaller 1998)


References

Bhatnagar 2002, Cons. Intl., Earth Island, East 1993, Huffman 2004, IUCN 1996, IUCN 2000, IUCN 2000a, IUCN 2002, IUCN 2003a, IUCN 2004Mallon & Kingswood 2001, Nowak 1999, Olson & Dinerstein 1998, Olson & Dinerstein 1999, Oryx 1999b, Oryx 2000, Rawling 1905, Schaller 1977, Schaller 1998, Tan 1996, UN FAO, Wildl. Cons. Soc. 2004


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