National Geographic : 2003 Apr
shuttle, but finally we escape into the broad Shar Kul basin. We spend another hour reinforcing the carts with tape and wire. "Let's see if this works," Conrad says. No one suggests what we will do if it doesn't. Next day we search for where the chiru were heading when they left the gorge. Once again we enter the hills, but this time we find a valley that is easy to ascend. We feel even luckier when we begin to see chiru, at first groups of 20 to 30, then a herd of 130 animals, so many they make the slope appear to shift like wind blowing across hillsides of wheat. By midafternoon we arrive at a high plain and park our carts. With my bin oculars I scan foothills to the west, bringing into focus what look like scores of rocks peppering the hillsides. They shimmer in the heat waves as hour count. To get close enough for good shots, Galen reminds us to approach the chiru slowly and quietly, using hills and gullies for cover. The following morning, to minimize our presence, Conrad and I stay hidden, while Galen and Jimmy, draped with camouflage netting and cameras in hand, stalk up a ravine. Soon they are inching forward on knees and elbows toward a crest where earlier we had spotted a herd of chiru. If the animals are still there, will they have their young? Galen and Jimmy drop to a belly crawl, and as they peer over the crest, they see the herd quietly grazing. They are all pregnant females-except one with a newborn suckling! The mother moves away a few feet, and while Jimmy and Galen's cameras hum and whir, the fledgling totters on skinny legs back to its mother. In the weeks they spend in this remote sanctuary, they can birth their young unconcerned about poachers. suddenly one rock, then another and another, moves in a slow amble. "The hills are covered!" I yell to the others. Covered with hundreds of chiru. We have found the calving grounds at last. In one sweep of the eye, we count 1,300 animals. In the larger area, we estimate there may be another 3,500. To com plete our main objective, we must now doc ument their birthing on film and video. We set up what we call Maternity Ward Camp and reassess our food supply. We have only enough to stay for two days, so we have to make each 120 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * APRIL 2003 CONFIRMED DELIVERY We spotted this day-old calf, its mother nearby, not far from some 1,300 browsing and birthing chiru (right). This is the first photographic proof of a calving ground northwest of the Chang Tang Reserve. Why the mothers migrate here, where forage is thin, is a mystery. But this much we know: To save the chiru, we must safeguard this wild nursery. A day later, alone on a hillside, I watch a herd of 18 pregnant females, their bellies bulging, and behind them a single mother with a tiny calf. They don't see me, but they raise their heads in the direction where an hour earlier I had seen a large wolf. The chiru remain wary of such nat ural enemies, but at least for the few weeks they are here they can birth their young unconcerned about poachers. Elsewhere in China hunters may claim as many as 20,000 chiru a year. With as few as 75,000 chiru left in the world, that will spell disaster if unchecked. The Chinese have made a valiant effort to control poaching in the preserves, but the challenge must be met by everyone in the chiru wool trade, including those who make poaching profitable by purchasing expensive chiru wool shawls.