Tibetan Antelope, Pantholops hodgsonii

The Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), also known as the chiru, is native to the Tibetan Plateau. Its range is nearly completely restricted to China, including Xinjiang, Tibet, and Qinghai, with a few populations occurring in Ladakh, India. This species prefers a habitat on flatlands with open areas and little vegetation.

The Tibetan antelope is the sole member of its genus and holds no subspecies. Its genus name, Pantholops, means “all antelope” in Latin. There is one extinct species within this genus known as P. hundesiensis, which lived during the Pleistocene era and was smaller than the Tibetan antelope. It was previously placed in the Antilopinae subfamily, but genetic studies showed that it should be classified in its own subfamily known as Pantholopinae. This species is closely related to goat-antelopes in the subfamily Caprinae, although some experts disagree with this association and assert that the Tibetan antelope should be classified as a true member of Caprinae.

The Tibetan antelope varies in size between males and females, with males reaching an average height of thirty-three inches at the shoulder, while females reach a height of twenty-nine inches. Males weigh an average of eighty-six pounds, while females weigh an average of fifty-seven pounds. The fur of this species can vary from light brown to red brown, and males have black stripes that occur on the legs. The underbelly is white in color, while the face is typically black.

Male Tibetan antelope are easily distinguished by their horns, which reach a length between twenty-one and twenty four inches, as well as their fur color during mating season, which turns almost completely white. The horns are ridged and do not grow evenly. Unlike goat-antelopes, this antelope does not grow horns during its entire life.

As is typical to antelope species, the Tibetan antelope gathers in herd of up to hundreds of individuals, although most herds contain an average of twenty individuals. These herds travel between summer and winter grazing areas, with females moving an extra 190 miles to calving areas during the summer. This species consumes vegetation like forbs, sedges, and grasses and will hesitate to dig through snow to reach these preferred food types. Its common predators include snow leopards, lynxes, and wolves, and red foxes have been seen hunting young calves.

The breeding season for the Tibetan antelope occurs from November to December. During this time, herds will split into harem groups that contain one male and up to twelve females, with an average between one to four females per group. Males will defend their harem group by using displays, or by chasing a rival off, although the males will not typically fight with their horns. Mating is usually brief, a trait that is typical for antelope species.

After a pregnancy period of around six months, females give birth to one calf, which is able to stand and nurse only minutes after it is born. Adult size is reached at fifteen months of age, while sexual maturity is typically reached at two or three years of age. Females remain with their mother until they first give birth, but males leave their birth group at twelve months of age, when their horns begin to grow. These horns determine hierarchy status between males, with antelopes that bare larger horns reaching higher statuses.

The Tibetan antelope is threatened by illegal hunting, competition with domesticated species, and habitat destruction due to gold mining. Poaching is conducted in order to obtain the soft under wool of this species, although it is not necessary to kill the antelope in order to get the wool. This poaching has caused the total number of Tibetan antelope to decrease from an estimated one million at the beginning of the 20th century to just 75,000 today. In 2004, a film was released that portrayed the conservation efforts being taken to try and control the poaching of this species, called Kekexili: Mountain Patrol. In Hong Kong, one scientist has created a way to test the wool, also known as shahtoosh. This scientist, along with an expert forensic specialist, used a microscope to study the wool and found that it contained course guard hairs unique to the Tibetan antelope, and this has made it possible for authorities to distinguish the wool from other types of animal hair.

In 2006, the Chinese government announced a new railway that intersects the Tibetan antelope’s feeding ground. This railroad runs to the capital city of Lhasa, Tibet. In order to protect the antelope from losing numbers, the government built thirty-three migration passageways underneath the railway. This is thought to increase the safety of migrating antelope and other species, but the railway may also bring in more poachers to the area. For now, the majority of the Tibetan antelope’s entire population occurs in the Chang Tang Nature Reserve in north Tibet, and it appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Endangered.”

Image Caption: The Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), also known as chiru, lives on the Tibetan Plateau, in Central Asia. Credit: B_cool/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)