Two kiangs are seen in Hoh Xil in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, June 30, 2017. Hol Xil has an average altitude of over 4,600 meters, making it an ideal habitat for Tibetan antelopes, kiangs and other animals. It was enlisted as one of the UNESCO's World Natural Heritages in July 2017. (Xinhua/Wang Bo)
Every time the patrollers pass the Sonamdaje monument on Kunlun Mountain, they stop to pay their respects the Tibetan way, offering hadas and barley wine.
Sonamdaje, a former official in Qinghai Province of northwest China, was shot to death by poachers when patrolling the Hoh Xil region in 1994.
With an average altitude of over 4,600 meters, the inhospitable Hoh Xil is an ideal habitat for endangered Tibetan antelopes and other wildlife such as Tibetan gazelles and wild yaks. The region was added to the world heritage list last month.
The area was beset by poachers in the 1980s, who hunted Tibetan antelopes for their hide, which was made into expensive shahtoosh shawls. Each shawl, priced as high as 50,000 U.S. dollars, was made at the expense of the lives of three to five antelopes.
The antelope population declined sharply from 200,000 to 20,000 due to the illegal hunting.
Local people began riding yaks to patrol the mountain in 1992. When the Hoh Xil nature reserve was set up in 1996, a 16-person patrol team was set up. Currently, over 70 people are employed by the nature reserve to patrol the mountains.
The patrols are dangerous. Besides the steep mountainous roads and dangerous wetland and marsh, the patrollers also have to face the threats of guns and wild animals.
Zhao Xinlu has been patrolling the area for 20 years. He recalls catching a gang of poachers all armed with rifles.
"We were not as well-equipped as they were, and the seized rifles were all loaded," he said.
A dozen years ago, Zhao and his team seized over 500 antelope skins, but the smell of blood soon attracted a pack of wolves.
"They followed us to our vehicles and surrounded us at night," he said. "We fired shots into the air to scare them away."
Thanks to intensive protection efforts, the antelope population is now back over 60,000.
"Ten years ago, tourists asked me what the antelopes look like. Now they ask whether an antelope is male or female," said patroller Lodro Cering, while feeding a baby antelope with a bottle of milk.
In the protection station where Lodro works, patrollers are taking care of seven baby antelopes.
Starting every June, when it is time for antelopes to give birth and migrate, patrollers save a number of antelopes who are either ill or orphaned. Since 2001, they have saved over 500 antelopes.
Besides professional patrollers, thousands of local villagers are employed by the local government as part-time rangers to clean up garbage and protect local wildlife.
Herder Dawa is a ranger in Zhiduo and is paid 1,800 yuan (270 U.S. dollars) each month.
"Although we were asked to keep less cattle to help the environment on the grassland, our income has increased thanks to the new job. It's great to see the grassland turning cleaner and the wildlife population growing," Dawa said.
Hoh Xil is facing new challenges posed by climate change, said Budro, head of Hoh Xil nature reserve administrative bureau.
"The thawing icebergs have led to overflowing local lakes, forming new lakes totalling about 200 square km," Budro said.
Some tourists illegally pass through the core area of Hoh Xil with the help of navigation equipment and high quality vehicles. Scientific knowledge about the ecology of Hoh Xil is still lacking, according to Budro.
The successful inclusion into the world heritage list has raised the standards for Hoh Xil protection, and a more scientific and effective ecological protection mechanism will be established to help Hoh Xil tackle the challenges, he said.
During the past year, special courses have been arranged to help the patrollers gain basic knowledge about the local ecology.
"In the future, we will not only patrol mountains, but also work as ecological observers to help heighten the environmental awareness of local people," Lodro said.