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Chang Tang's Endangered Antelope

Mountain climbers often set off on expeditions to summit unconquered peaks, but in this month's edition of National Geographic Radio Expeditions, NPR's Alex Chadwick tells the story of four mountaineers on a daring expedition across a vast, desolate landscape in northern Tibet for the goal of conservation. They were searching for the birthing grounds of a rare and endangered Tibetan antelope called the chiru.

The chiru produces the finest wool in the world -- a single woven shawl sells for up to $15,000. The demand for their pelts also puts the chiru in danger of being hunted to extinction. George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society has fought for and studied the endangered species for 15 years. He's constructed the natural history of the chiru, but was lacking one critical piece of information -- where the females went to have their calves. Finding and protecting the birthing area might ensure the species' future.

Schaller talked about this missing piece of information with documentary-maker and mountaineer Rick Ridgeway, and an expedition began to take shape. "I thought, 'What if you tried to follow these animals on foot,'" Ridgeway recalls. Schaller told him it would be possible -- barely possible. Schaller himself had attempted to find the calving ground a year earlier, but his trek failed when his pack animals died.

Ridgeway set up a team of four men who would try to find and follow the migration route of the chiru more than 200 miles across the remote Chang Tang Plateau. "I felt the only real qualification to join this trip would be toughness," says Ridgeway. "We needed people who had experience on expeditions, preferably who were mountaineers."

Galen Rowell, a near mythic figure in mountaineering and wildlife photography, was recruited for the journey. Rowell, 62, had the light-weight physicality, conditioning and stamina that climbers around the world told stories about. Along with Rowell, there was Conrad Anker, one of the greatest American mountain climbers, and Jimmy Chin, a Wyoming-based climber and photographer with a reputation for steadfastness.

There was some doubt as to whether the team would be able to locate a migrating herd of pregnant females, but one week into the search, they stumbled upon 70 to 80 chiru grazing in a valley below their camp. They followed the herd for days, and eventually emerged into a broad valley filled with hundreds of antelope, some already giving birth.

"That moment was singular in the whole expedition," says Conrad Anker. "It wasn't about attaining some goal that makes our ego feel good. It was about these rare and endangered animals that are tied into the bigger picture of the health of our planet."

The team spent two days photographing the calving ground and gathering data that would be used by conservationists to persuade China to protect the area. As supplies dwindled, they packed up and began to hike for the nearest town. But just two days out, they made a second important discovery -- new threats to the chiru.

"We were shocked to see a goldmine," says Anker. "A large operation, hundreds of miners. And they had just come in, in the past two months, punched a road in there, and they had degraded the environment to quite a large extent. It made it easier for us to get out, but worse was that it was easier now to get in there in a vehicle."

Where there is a road, poachers and hunting rifles will soon follow. It was a somber end to an expedition that otherwise worked as planned. And worse personal news lay ahead. This would be the last expedition for Galen Rowell. Within months of returning to the United States, he and his wife Barbara died in a small plane crash. Their friends still mourn them.

"For him, and I think for all of us," says Ridgeway, "it was the most fulfilling trip we've had because it was about applying our skills as mountaineers to a conservation effort, that, if we really succeeded, could make a difference."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.