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Indoor Adventure Why make a harrowing trek across the Tibetan steppe? To save a baby antelope, of course

May 31, 2004
May 31, 2004

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May 31, 2004

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Indoor Adventure Why make a harrowing trek across the Tibetan steppe? To save a baby antelope, of course

THE BIG OPEN
By Rick Ridgeway
National Geographic Books, 294 pages, $26

This is an article from the May 31, 2004 issue

Picture a critter that might have been drawn by Dr. Seuss, its
head like a baby monkey's, perched atop a yaklike body, its legs
as rickety as a newborn pony's. This is a baby chiru, a Tibetan
antelope that has been hunted nearly to extinction. The only way
to save it is to locate its calving ground so the area can be
declared a wildlife preserve. Are you willing to wander Tibet's
desolate, freezing Chang Tang steppe looking for it while hauling
250 pounds of gear behind you in a rickshaw?

Well, you don't have to, because Ridgeway, a freelance
writer-adventurer, and Galen Rowell, a photographer-adventurer
who died in 2002, have already done it. Humans might never have
ventured into the Chang Tang were it not for chiru wool, better
known to Tibetans as shahtoosh, or "king of wools"--just one
seventh the diameter of a human hair. A shahtoosh shawl is the
snuggliest $15,000 garment you've never worn, which is why, over
the past century, hunters have reduced the chiru population by
90%.

To find the calving grounds, Ridgeway's four-member team had to
follow the nimble creatures over land that is icy in the morning
but turns to soupy mud in the noonday sun. Jeeps would have been
useless, as there are no Texaco stations in the Chang Tang, and
beasts of burden tend to die there even quicker than people. So
Ridgeway's team hauled its supplies in rickshaws, a mode of
transport so punishing that one hiker likened it to "playing
rugby while being beaten up."

In finding the calving grounds, Ridgeway has done a great
service, and Chinese officials recently declared their intention
to preserve the grounds. But he has not, alas, written a
wonderful book. It's mainly a chronicle of discomfort, punctuated
with witticisms that probably seemed profound and hilarious in
the thin air of the Chang Tang but fall flat when repeated in
print. Still, should you meet Ridgeway on a trail somewhere,
shake his hand and thank him, on behalf of Mother Earth and all
of her adorable monkey-faced, yak-bodied, pony-legged children.
--Charles Hirshberg

COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC