Yemaoniu Dui, the Tibetan Wild Yak Brigade   

Heroes of China's Wasteland

(LA Times)Troops of the Tibetan Wild Yak Brigade sacrifice youth and health--and sometimes their lives--to protect endangered antelope from poachers seeking prized fur. But the force itself faces extinction.

By CHING-CHING NI, Times Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2000

KEKEXILI, China -- Night falls. Headlights blaze. Hundreds of Tibetan antelopes, many of them pregnant, gallop toward the deathtrap. Shots echo. Animals shriek. Dust turns pink.

The poachers drive off. A skinned antelope wakes up dripping blood, scurries a few steps, collapses.

Next day. Baby antelopes cling to life, nursing on the cold breasts of mothers killed for their fur.

This is the ritual that fuels the lucrative trade in shahtoosh shawls and scarves sold illegally in the West.

This is the memory that turns a ragtag army of husky Tibetan men into weeping storytellers. This is the reason they cast their health and youth to the wind, surviving on dry ramen noodles and melted ice, to hunt down the hunters.

Calling themselves the Yemaoniu Dui, or the Wild Yak Brigade, these 32 guardian angels of the vanishing antelopes have come to personify a kind of old-fashioned heroism fast fading in a changing country obsessed with the pursuit of personal wealth.

But like the animals they're trying to protect, the Wild Yaks face extinction. Threatened not only by well-armed poachers and forbidding terrain, they've also become something of a rogue guerrilla force pitted against a rival group set up by the government to do the same job. And their past haunts them: Years ago, desperate for money, the Wild Yaks sold some of the antelope fur they had retrieved from poachers.

Yet as their folklore spreads, for most Chinese it is their imperfections as much as their valor that make their story so spellbinding.

The men keep saying two Tibetan names over and over, like a prayer: Suonandajie and Zhabaduojie, consecutive leaders of the troop, both cut down in their prime.

Suonandajie--who, like most Tibetans, used only one name--was the first to venture into the vast wilderness in western Qinghai province called Kekexili, a Mongolian word for "beautiful young girl."

The rest of Qinghai is known for its harsh labor camps, sparse human population and research centers for China's first atomic and hydrogen bombs. The Dalai Lama was born in the province, most of which once belonged to Tibet.

Nearly every inch is covered by sweeping grassland, much of it dry and brown. Nothing grows for hundreds of miles except telephone poles. The average altitude is 15,000 feet above sea level; icecaps and mountain ridges are the only road signs. The skies are so tempestuous that a hot summer afternoon could suffer the wrath of snow and hail. The winters are a gamble with God.

In 1992, Suonandajie first targeted the illegal gold diggers who had poured into the region by the tens of thousands. The gold rush that began in the 1980s was like a plague of locusts on these vistas that had been left undisturbed for many millenniums. In a flash, riverbeds were sifted dry, rare animals were slain for food.

Those who couldn't find gold soon discovered something worth a lot more. The Tibetan antelope, or chiru, is an endangered species seen only near the treacherous peaks of western China. This goat-like creature produces the finest wool in the world. Its undercoat is of such high quality that a shawl can be slipped through a wedding ring, thus gaining the moniker "ring shawls."

Although the shahtoosh trade has been banned under international law, the garments continue to be bought, almost exclusively outside China, reportedly for $1,400 to $15,000 apiece. Poachers make less than $100 per pelt--already a small fortune in China. But the price escalates as the fur is smuggled abroad and sent to scarf makers and retailers.

Each shawl marks the death of at least three animals. Nearly 20,000 antelopes are slaughtered every year, but many buyers of scarves in the West are still under the illusion that no animal is killed. In fact, at the home of shahtoosh production in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, until June the only place in the world where it remained legal to make garments from the wool, manufacturers still insist that the fine fur is collected from bushes and trees after the antelopes shed their fleece.

That's a lie, according to those who patrol the thousands of miles of great empty expanses here. There are simply no trees onto which that much fur could cling. And there is no way to get near the creatures without shooting them. The Wild Yaks say they've talked about the idea of domesticating the wild animals but realized that they don't have the resources or the knowledge to do so.

When Suonandajie reached Kekexili in 1992, about 200,000 antelopes roamed the highlands, running in breathtaking herds of hundreds and even thousands. Now, perhaps fewer than 50,000 are left, their packs cut down to just a few dozen each, at most reaching the low hundreds, said members of the Yemaoniu Dui.

On a numbing winter's night six years ago, Suonandajie and his team of four men captured 20 poachers and seven trucks loaded with up to 800 fresh kills. As they were making the long trek back to civilization, the captives turned on them. Suonandajie was shot dead as he was reloading his gun.

Zhabaduojie, Suonandajie's brother-in-law, picked up the mantle.

"The Tibetans have a tradition--the unfinished business of the dead must be completed by the living," said Aoyang Rongzong, who watched his friend painstakingly round up 59 men to join him in the cause.

A year later, Zhabaduojie was found dead in his home with a gunshot wound to the head. The official conclusion was suicide. To many, his death remains a mystery. After the deaths of the charismatic Suonandajie and Zhabaduojie, the earthy Liang Yinquan took over the leadership.

The 47-year-old looks like a burly Santa Claus in Chinese army green. In his youth, he was an ace cavalry cadet and police detective. Zhabaduojie personally recruited him from the lowlands to be his deputy. But up here near the ceiling of the world, Liang feared that he could never measure up to his Tibetan predecessors.

One of three Han Chinese in the group, he's the only one not raised in the high-altitude climate. The thin air still makes him woozy. If he could afford it, he would be popping pills to protect his bad heart.

"After Zhabaduojie died, everybody was afraid I'd leave," Liang said, sitting in his concrete-floored living room, beneath his favorite poster of Chairman Mao. "It would be the end of this army. I was torn. Can I do it? Can I lead this team? Then the men got on their knees. I didn't know what to say."

Since then, the Yemaoniu Dui has cracked 92 cases, confiscated 8,601 antelope skins, 101 vehicles, 114 rifles and semiautomatic weapons, plus 140,000 rounds of ammunition, and taken 376 suspects into custody. Although the brigade desperately needs the firepower--its 32 members have a total of five guns--all of it has gone to the state, as have the confiscated skins.

"Despite our efforts, we were able to prevent only 20% of the antelope skins from reaching the market," Liang said. "At this rate, the antelopes will be wiped out in eight to 10 years."

Group Gets By on a Pittance

And by no means is the future of the Yemaoniu Dui assured. There's no money because the county of Zhiduo that the group reports to is dirt poor. Of the 32 men, only eight make between $85 to $146 a month. The rest are temporary workers drawing a pitiful $32 a month. That's too little even for the no-frills lifestyle in their home base of Golmud.

On that pittance, the brigade patrols a wide swath of the crater-like plateau of Kekexili, a jurisdiction covering more than 30,000 square miles. The Wild Yaks make the rounds about 20 times a year. Each trip takes anywhere from a week to two months to complete. Just gasoline and repair costs eat up more than $2,000 per journey. The county can afford to give only about $37,000 a year; the rest comes from private contributions in China and abroad, this year totaling about $60,000.

"Without these donations, we cannot survive," Liang said. "But this is still not enough. We are still about $34,000 in debt."

Compounding their troubles, the state created a nature preserve three years ago, to better protect the area's endangered species. According to the Wild Yaks, not only did the office-bound bureaucrats leave out the most important breeding ground for the antelopes, they created a separate agency to carry out the anti-poaching mission. That left the Yemaoniu Dui in a state of limbo. Tensions began to brew.

The Wild Yaks claim that the well-financed rookies patrolled just once in three years. Not only did they not catch anything, the Yaks say, they embarrassed themselves this summer by running out of gas and having to be rescued.

The rookies concede that the Yemaoniu Dui has more experience but say that they also made forays, albeit shorter ones, into the mountains and didn't return empty-handed. In return, they criticize the Yemaoniu Dui for having in the past sold the antelope skins it confiscated and for continuing to wear police uniforms when not all the men are certified.

"If the government guaranteed our funding, we would never have done such a thing," Liang said of the pelt sales. "That was when we first got started. We had nothing. We sold 20% of what we caught so we could protect the 80% that still faced death. We don't do it anymore--why do they keep mentioning it?"

As for the uniforms, the government can't afford to make everybody full-fledged police officers, Liang said. Out on the frontier, criminals would never fear them if they didn't look official, so they wear the uniforms.

According to Liu Zhong, a director of the new organization, any conflict between the two groups should be minimized by the fact that they share the common goal of protecting the animals.

"I think it would be best if we combine the two forces," Liu said. "The leaders have already discussed it. It's just a matter of time."

As to why the Wild Yaks were left out in the first place, nobody knows. Nor does anyone deny the pioneering effort that has made the Yemaoniu Dui legendary among a fledgling wave of Chinese environmentalists and college students.

Even though most of the men haven't been paid since May, they continue to work. As always, they use their own meager savings to buy food and clothing for the long trips. Most settle for cheap ramen noodles, salty pickles and buns, which become frozen bricks by the time they bite into them.

Shabby Homes and Chronic Ailments

Until last year, the whole gang, including wives and children, lived in a rundown three-bedroom apartment above the group's shabby office. They finally managed to buy a block of simple brick homes so that the married could have their own space while the 16 single men squeeze two or three to a room.

All of them have stomach ailments from irregular eating habits and severe arthritis from wading through icy rivers and falling asleep soaking wet.

Then there's the race against time to catch fast-driving poachers, some armed to the teeth. The Yemaoniu Dui have their five guns and five rickety vehicles. Their prized stallion is a 10-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser that has already clocked more than 150,000 miles. If Buddha is willing, maybe it could run another 10 years.

A rich brotherhood bonds the men and keeps their spirits surprisingly high. No one thinks twice about sharing, even if it's just a chipped cup of Tibetan butter tea or a few cheap Chinese cigarettes.

Their members include ex-military and a man once put away for participating in a brawl, high school graduates and herdsmen who never went to school, and even two men who are reformed poachers.

"I gave the prime of my life to Kekexili. I have no wife, no children and nothing to my name. I have no regrets," said Jiangwenzhaxi, a 29-year-old Tibetan with the physical bearing of a Harvey Keitel. He gave up a chance to go to a traditional Tibetan medical school when he enlisted in the brigade five years ago. "I tell my parents we eat well and live well here. Otherwise they would never let me stay."

If they were to leave the Yemaoniu Dui, the men could probably land better-paying jobs. All of them drive, and most can fix cars. Nearly half the original 59 men have already quit for health or family reasons.

Riga is so handsome, he might be a teen idol in another life. He nearly left the group when his girlfriend agreed to marry him early this year. Then he went on a fund-raising trip to Beijing and nearby Tianjin.

"A 6-year-old girl told me she loved animals and donated her entire savings of $365. A taxi driver who found out who we were told us, 'You work so hard, the ride is on me.' How could I leave now?" said Riga, now happily married to his girlfriend, who worries about him but supports his career wholeheartedly.

As for his buddies who wonder if they can hack it anymore, all they have to think about is the carnage that drew them here.

"Even the poachers don't have the heart to watch the abandoned babies die," said a wild-haired Garenqin. "Some even cut out a dead antelope's nipple and stuck it onto a soda bottle filled with powdered milk. We tried feeding the babies too. But they can't make it, not without their mothers."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

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