Animals on Tibetan Plateau

According to the statics in 2012 from Wildlife Conservation Association of TAR, Tibet has 2,300 species of insects, 64 species of fishes, 45 species of amphibians, 55 species of reptiles, 488 species of birds and 142 species of mammals.

Among Tibetan animal species, 125 are under Chinese state protection, accounting for one third of the total protected species in China; 45 species including Tibetan wild ass, Tibetan wild yak, black-necked crane, and snow leopard are endemic to China. The 488 species of birds in Tibet, making up 40% of the known bird species in China, with 69 under Chinese state protection, and 22 of which are endemic to Tibet. The amount of species and quantity of Tibetan Schizothorax (a kind of fish) achieves 90% of the entire genus of Schizothorax globally. The 142 mammal species of Tibet comprise 39% of those in China, with 52 on a list of China’s key protected animals.

By 2012, it was recorded and estimated that on Tibetan Plateau, there existed 10,000 Tibetan wild yaks, 50,000 to 60,000 Tibetan wild asses, 40,000 to 50,000 Tibetan antelopes (also named as Chiru), 160,000 to 200,000 Tibetan gazelles, 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetan takins, 570 to 650 Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, 5 to 10 Bengal tigers. Besides, in comparison with other regions in the globe, Tibet is also rich in species related to families of bear, deer, leopard, wild deer, wild goat, and rare birds.

In this article, we’ll introduce five mammals and one bird species who play the role of flagship species. And through the protection of them, the other species sharing the same habitat are benefiting as well.

Tibetan Antelope

IUCN Status: endangered, with the trend to be vulnerable from 2016
Population: 300,000 in China;
Distribution: endemic to Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, China; small dispersed groups in Ladakh area, India.
Description: Tibetan antelope (also known as Chiru) is 117 to 146 cm in body length; with a tail 15 to 20cm long, and their shoulder height varies from 75 to 91cm. The weight is around 45 to 60 kg. Entirely coated with thick and thin hair, their body is in color of yellowish-brown and light pink; their underparts and inner sides of the legs are both white. The face and front parts of legs are blackish-brown. The distinctive horns are only exclusive to males. Nearly in perfect vertical shape, these glossy and black horns, slightly curved, are normally 60 cm long, with the known longest as 72.4cm. There are over 20 horizontal arrises growing parallel from the bottom to the upper part, making the horns resemble long whips. Looking at them from the side view, only a single horn is in sight, thus Tibet’s Unicorn is given to them as a nickname.

Tibetan antelopes are crepuscular species, foraging in the dawn or dusk. Their habitats are mainly desert meadows, alpine steppes, at the elevation of 4,600 to 6,000m. They feed on plants of poaceae family, sedge family, and varieties of weeds. They are either migratory or residential. From the winter mating ground to the spring calving ground, the distance can be as far as 300 km. They are group living species. Before being endangered, the largest group can be with 15,000 Tibetan antelopes. When they encounter predators, they would not split open from the group and run away, but gather round, using their horns to defend themselves.

Tibetan Antelope
Tibetan Antelope

Mating and Breeding:

The females reach sexual maturity between 1.5 and 2.5 years old. They mate between late November and December. After 7 to 8-month pregnancy, they will expect the cubs in June or July. In one litter, one baby Tibetan antelope is given birth.

Existence current status:

Dating back to the early twentieth century, when the national population of Tibetan antelope is around one million. By the end of the twentieth century, the amount plummeted to 75,000. The huge deduction is due to the mass killing from illegal poaching for the underfur to make a luxurious material for scarves and shawls, which is called Shahtoosh, to feed the craving for fashion in the West. The poachers lied to the customers that they collected fleece in the forest that fell naturally from the body of the animals. The truth of killing revealed by American natural historian George Beals Schaller to the world.

To stop the acute trend of extinction, Chinese government have established nature reserves in the range of this species, comprising of protected areas in Changtang, Siling Lake, Trari Namtso Wetland, Koh Xil, Three Parallel Rivers, and Aerhchin Mountains. Chinese State Forestry Administration has organized special anti-poaching actions to end the black trade. By 2012, the population of China’s Tibetan antelopes recovered to 170,000. And the updated announcement in 2017 reported an estimated amount of 300,000 were believed to inhabit in China. Therefore, the status has defined as vulnerable instead of endangered. To know the nearly fatal encounter of Tibetan antelopes, the film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, released in 2004, is recommended.

Snow Leopard

IUCN Status: endangered
Population: 2,000-2,500 in Tibet; 4,510-7,350 globally
Distribution: in China: Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan; and 11 other countries including Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Description: Snow leopard got the name because they are active in and around snow lines in the mountain areas. They are endemic to central and south Asia. These adorably looking creatures have white fur as body background color, with predominant black dots and less obvious black circles scattered on the upper parts, and whitish underparts. Their heads are small and round compared with their chubby body, and their tails are long, broad and fuzzy. Their well-cushioned paws are not only cute but also highly functional when climbing the cliffs because the hair between the toes increase helpful friction. The snow leopard adults are 1.1m to 1.3m in length, and their tail is around 0.8m to 1.1m. They are mainly living in rocky mountain massifs and are carnivores whose prey include goats, blue sheep, goral, deer, weasel, hare, or marmot.

Snow Leopard on Tibetan Plateau
Snow Leopard on Tibetan Plateau

Mating and Breeding: They are sexually mature at 2 or 3 years old. January to March is usually when they enter into heat period which lasts for 5 to 7 days. After mating and the gestation period of 98 to 103 days, the babies are due in April to June. The female gives birth to a litter of 2 to 3 cubs as a normality, and the biggest litter ever recorded is 7 cubs in one litter. The newborn weights just 300 to 700 grams, while an adult can be 80 kilograms. They will depart their mom once they get 18 to 22 months old and seek their own territory.

Existence current status: snow leopard is endangered because of commercial poaching for their fur and bones, hunting for trophy, killing from livestock owners to stop them catching the domestic animals, and starvation resulting from decreased preys such as blue sheep. Since China has 60% of the total species, to protect them from extinction, China has established four reserves for the conservation and preservation of snow leopard’s habitat. They are: Qomolangma Nature Reserve, in Tibet; Turpan Nature Reserve, in Tianshan mountain range area of Xinjiang; Hoh Xil Nature Reserve, in Qinghai; Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area, in Yunnan, and the three latter are listed as World Nature Heritage by UNESCO. The virtual total amount is unclear due to its wide distribution in 12 countries. However, the area with biggest density measured is in the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Area in Qinghai, which is 3.1/ 100 sq km.

Himalayan Blue Sheep
IUCN Status: Least Concern
Population: 300,000 in China;
Distribution: endemic to Tibetan Plateau, distributed in Himalayan area inclusive of India, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, and Pakistan
Description: Himalayan Blue Sheep, also named Bharal, is an indigenous species in Tibet. Their appearance resembles both goat and sheep. Their figure is like a sheep, but their horns are not spiral. Their body is 120 to 140cm in length, 70 to 90cm in height, and 60 to 75 kg in weight. The tail is 13 to 20 cm long. They live in alpine areas and have high-level of tolerance to frigid climate, often found foraging in bare rock areas. Their main diet is wormwood, sedge, and stipa, or the leaves of rhododendron, spirea, etc.

Blue Sheep on Tibetan Plateau
Blue Sheep on Tibetan Plateau

Mating and Breeding:
When they are 1.5 to 2 years old, they are sexually mature. Their rutting season is in December or January. Among the males, competitive behaviors for a female is similar with other sheep or goat species but are considered relatively less violent. The duration of pregnancy is roughly five or six months. Like Tibetan antelope, they give birth to one litter with one cub. The young become adequate rock climbers as their parents when they are only 10 days old. The life span of Himalayan Blue Sheep is about 20 years.

Existence current status:
The meat of Himalayan Blue Sheep used to be massively exported to Germany during the three decades from 1950s to 1980s. A yearly amount of 5,000 to 10,000 were killed for the meat export products, which excluded the data of reduction from local hunting activities. 

The species is under China’s second-class state protection. In the recent years, methods of reforestation closing, deferred grazing, grazing prohibition jointly help preserve the habitat of Himalaya Blue Sheep.

Tibetan Wild Yak
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Population: 10,000
Distribution: endemic to Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, in Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu
Description: Yak is the most recognizable animal of Tibet. They are domestic animals for carrying cargoes and their milk and meat provide the essential daily nutrients to Tibetans. The wild species of yak in Tibet is strong and bulky. They are 200 to 260cm long; the length of their tails varies from 80 to 100cm. The shoulder height is 160 to 180cm. They weigh up to 600 kg. Normally males are in larger figure than females. These giants are herbivores and they are crepuscular animals. Both males and females have horns. Their digestive organs are bigger than normal cattle. Their bovine teeth are hard in texture. A special layer of horny barbs is on the upside of the tongue, giving them ability to lap the stiff plants.  

Tibetan wild yaks are living in alpine meadows above 3,000 to 6,000m. They are highly tolerant to coldness, thirst, and hunger. They are social animals and love to roam and forage in a group of 20 to 30, sometimes a huge gang of 200 to 300 is assembled, especially in need of protecting their young. The adults would form a circle, and enclosing their young in the middle, fighting against the enemies. Most yaks would escape from the potential harm. But some irritated individual strikes back and can even overturn a vehicle.

Tibetan Wild Yak
Tibetan Wild Yak

Mating and Breeding:
They reach sexual maturity at the age of 3. They mate between September to November. Males become quite aggressive to compete for a female. The pregnancy lasts for 8 or 9 months. The calves are born in June or July, 1 litter with 1 calf. After about half month tender care from their moms, the young can join the herds and they won’t be weaned until the summer of the following year. Life span of wild yak is around 24 years.

Existence current status:
The population of Tibetan wild yak was estimated as 30,000 to 50,000, according to the static in 2012. Haphazard hunting shrinks the distribution range. Their tracks used to be found as far as south Qaidam Basin (in Qinghai Province), and east of Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Now, they are only found in the areas of west Qinghai-Tibet Railway, and the southern and northern Qaidam Basin. They are a species on the list of China’s first-class state protected animals.

Himalayan Tahr

IUCN Status: Near Threatened
Population: 500 in China
Distribution: Gyirong Town, Nyalam County, Tibet; mainly in southern slope of Himalayan, Kashmir, Nepal
Description: Himalayan Tahr was first discovered in China in 1974. Its stout figure is 120 to 140cm long, the shoulder height is 80 to 100cm. The weight of an adult male can reach 90 kg. The shape of the head is long and narrow. Both male and female have greyish-brown horns, while the horns of males are wider and bigger than those of the females. The hair of the body is coarse, in colors of dark greyish-brown, or brown. The length of the hair at the neck, shoulder, and the buttock can be 12 to 18cm. They inhabit in the steep mountains of bare rocks and the mountain-edges, well adaptable to frigid and wet climate. They are active in groups of dozens, and within quite fixed range. They are very alert and rarely approachable. They live on herbs, and also eat tender leaves of shrubs.

Tibetan Wild Yak
Himalayan Tahr

Mating and Breeding:
The mating season is late winter and early spring. After carrying the baby for 6 or 7 months, they give birth to the cubs in June, with usually one litter of one cub, and the occasional exception is one litter of two cubs.

Existence current status:
It’s under Chinese first-class state protection. However, in New Zealand, this introduced species from Asia has become a pest and influenced the indigenous vegetation which have not been accustomed to alpine mammals. That Himalayan tahrs are being excellent mountain climbers, leaving the vegetation in the higher areas unlikely to survive. Therefore, the fate of Himalayan tahr differs in a nearly converse way in China and New Zealand.

Black-necked Cranes

IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Population: 10,000 globally
Distribution: China, India, Nepal
Description: This is the latest discovered crane species in the world, and making as the 15th crane species known globally. It is also the only species of crane of which the reproduction and growth are both in the plateau area. In 1876, Russian explorer discovered Black-necked crane in Qinghai Lake. It is numbered the 26th among the 98 species of birds that are endemic to China. Swamps, lakes and wetlands are the perfect home to them. The red skin at the top of the head is the most distinctive feature of their appearance. The main body coat is gray and white feathers. Dominant parts (two thirds) of the head and neck are in black, which gives them this relevant name. The main food sources of black-necked cranes are the roots and sprouts of green plants, and occasionally they eat insects, frogs, fishes, and molluscs, etc.

Black-necked Cranes
Black-necked Cranes

Mating and Breeding: May sees the beginning of their reproduction. They mate during the period of morning to noon, and eggs are laid at the end of May. A pair of parents-to-be have one or two eggs each year. The hatch takes 31 to 33 days to complete. About the early June, the hatched chicks will have their first summer. The chicks often fight against each other. The weaker one die in the battle. The survivor grows rapidly. To master the flight before October is essential for a chick. Because the southward migration in the upcoming winter is tough and can be fatal for the unqualified chicks in the course of the harsh climate, lacking food and enemies. 

Existence current status: Diverse reasons cause the shrinking habitat and by 1983, the total population of black-necked cranes is only 200 globally. After many years of protection, the total amount rises again to 10,000. In China, there are 15 nature reserves providing shelter and sanctuary for this species.

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