Is wildlife adapting to the Qinghai-Tibet railway?

Earlier this year, a Chinese photographer was exposed for faking a photo of migrating Tibetan antelopes. But some wildlife experts say that despite the photo trickery, the scene was accurate. Cai Rupeng reports.

On April 17, 2008, Nature published a letter from two Chinese scientists, headlined “Tibetan wildlife is getting used to the railway”. It is regarded an honour to be published in Nature, one of the world’s leading scientific publications, but in this case the Chinese scientists were writing to correct what they perceived as an error in the journal.

Yang Qisen and Xia Lin are both members of the Mammal Research Group at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology, which since 2003 has been evaluating the railway’s impact on wildlife on the Tibetan plateau.

The February 27, 2008, issue of Nature contained a news article about the Qinghai-Tibet railway and the Tibetan antelope. It was a report about the revelation that an award-winning photo of the railway had been faked. It also cast doubts on the Chinese government’s efforts to protect the environment around the railway.

In 2006, a photo by Liu Weiqiang, a photographer at Daqing Evening News,was reproduced in hundreds of newspapers. It appeared to show a herd of Tibetan antelopes migrating under a bridge as a train passed overhead, and was named by state broadcaster CCTV as one of the 10 best photos of that year. However, in early 2008 it was exposed on the internet as a photoshopped fake.

This prompted some non-Chinese media outlets to call the Qinghai-Tibet railway into question and ask if the Chinese government was using faked photographs to portray it as environmentally friendly. Some of the headlines that appeared were: “When Nature Won’t Cooperate in China – Photoshop!” and “How Photoshop Helped Aid Chinese Propaganda”. The report in Nature inferred that the actual situation on the railway was the opposite of that portrayed in the photo. 

But speaking to China Newsweek, Yang Qisen said: “Liu Weiqian’s photo was faked, but the scene it portrays is real. We have seen antelopes passing under the bridge as trains go overhead.” Yang’s research group carried out a field study at the same time Liu Weiqiang was taking his photos, and Liu once showed him that particular image. “My first reaction was that it was a great shot – he’s a professional after all. I never thought it would be faked, as the scene it showed is real.”

In fact, Yang said he and others had taken photographs of the antelope and the train together before, but they were taken from far away and lack the impact and aesthetic appeal of Liu’s shot.

The article in Nature gave the impression that the Chinese government’s evaluation of the environmental impact of the railway was based largely on that photo. But Yang said that was not the case. “The environmental standards for the railway were very strict; they even went beyond the impact of the railway itself. Years of monitoring have shown that the antelopes are getting used to the passageways under the railway.” Yang felt it was unjust that a world-renowned journal should publish such a report, and he decided to respond.

Yang thought to contact his old friend, the prominent field biologist George Schaller. Schaller, 75, studies the plight of wild animals with a rigorous scientific approach. He works with the Wildlife Conservation Society and has carried out research and conservation work in China. They felt that support from Schaller, an authority on the conservation of the Tibetan antelope, would carry more weight. In the end, Schaller supported Yang’s position, and said the two scientists should write to Nature requesting a correction. But Schaller declined to add his name to the letter, saying Yang and colleagues who had completed the work.

The process of getting the letter published was also not an easy one. Xia, who submitted the letter, said that there were “at least three or four rounds of changes made with the editors.” The exchanges were about their differing viewpoints, the grounds of their arguments, their wording and their phrasing. Xia said that Nature initially believed the scientists were official scientists speaking on behalf of the government. However, Xia maintained that they worked independently and that their evaluation was scientific and not influenced by government. Nature agreed to compromise by not mentioning the words government or science, but using the word “officially” in a way that could refer to the government or to objectivity. It was the years of research and data by Yang and his colleagues that eventually swayed the editors, however.

Since the 1970s, Chinese scientists have been carrying out detailed surveys of the wildlife along the route of the Qinghai-Tibet railway. They found that the distribution of the Tibetan antelope is now limited to the Altyn-Tagh, or Altun Range, in Xinjiang, Qiangtang in Tibet, the Three Rivers’ Fountainheads Nature Reserve in Qinghai and Kekexili, also known as Hoh Xil. Antelope populations are no longer connected in the way they were a century ago.

Every year a large number of female antelopes migrate to Kekexili to give birth; about one month later they return with their offspring. Those migrating between Kekexili and the Three Rivers reserve need to cross the Tibetan Railway.

This population, the smallest of the four, has been most affected by the new railway. “We initially estimated there were 3,000 or 4,000 of them,” says Xia. “Between 1,500 and 2,100 will migrate to Kekexili; this number increases to between 2,300 and 2,900 when they return.” In order to avoid cutting off their migratory routes, 15 wildlife passageways were built along a 260-kilometre length of the railway.

This was the first Chinese project to include passageways of this nature. The money spent on environmental protection was also unprecedented. Li Jincheng, chief engineer for the project, said that 2.1 billion yuan (US$303 million), or 7% of the total cost of the project, was spent on environmental protection.

However, some environmentalists worry that the animals would not know to use these passageways. That was almost the case. In 2003, many antelopes failed to complete the journey and gave birth without reaching Kekexili. Yang says that the railway did have an impact on the antelopes, but that in the following years the situation started to change.

Data from field observations showed that more and more antelopes have started to use the tunnels. In 2006, the research group found 2,962 antelopes returned from Kekexili, 98.17% of them using the passageways. “This means that the Tibetan antelopes have become used to migrating under the bridges,” he said.

In the letter to Nature, Yang wrote that although the antelopes’ behaviour was initially disturbed by the railway, they quickly adjusted their migratory routes and became used to the changes in the environment caused by the railway. His observations indicate that the wildlife passageways were, in fact, a success.  


This article is adapted and translated with permission from issue 370 of China Newsweek

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