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ChangTang On Assignment

ChangTang On Assignment

Chang Tang
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Tailing a Herd

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By Rick RidgewayPhotographs by Galen Rowell

In photographer Galen Rowell's final assignment, four mountaineers set out for the remote calving grounds of the endangered Tibetan antelope.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

As we pull our heavy carts, we empathize with the pregnant females on their nearly 200-mile migration. Why do the chiru do it? Not for grass and browse; that's more abundant in the southern part of their range than here. There may be fewer predators here in the north, but the stress of such a long migration probably outweighs that benefit.

For us the mystery makes the migration even more compelling. For two days we follow the chiru northward, crossing the border into Xinjiang and leaving the animals' safe haven in the Chang Tang Reserve. Mile after mile as I pull my ricksha, I play Ravel's "Bolero" over and over in my mind. Germans call this an "ear-worm"— when you have a song stuck in your head—but this worm doesn't bother me: "Bolero" seems perfect for pulling carts at 17,000 feet across Central Asia. In the distance I see chiru going the same direction, at the same speed. We are two different animals, one migrating, one trekking.

On the 12th day of our trek the single migration scatters in multiple tracks across a snowy plateau, but all hoofprints point toward a ridge of low hills. We follow what on our topographical map appears to be a moderate passage through the hills toward the Shar Kul basin. We find the prints of about a hundred chiru frozen in mud and outlined by drifting snow. But now we are less concerned whether they are leading us to their calving grounds than whether we are following them into a dangerous canyon.

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Get a glimpse of what four intrepid adventurers go through to track Tibet's rare and coveted chiru in this clip from the National Geographic EXPLORER TV special Deadly Fashion.

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Read adventure photographer Gordon Wiltsie's tribute to friend and colleague Galen Rowell.

Explorers Hall

See one of the rickshaws used on the Chang Tang trek, on exhibit at the NGS headquarters through June 8, 2003.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
When photographer Galen Rowell died in a small-plane crash last August, just after returning from the Chang Tang expedition, he left an unmatched legacy in adventure photography. It's a living legacy, because Galen shared everything he knew with anyone who wanted to learn. Take, for example, the Chang Tang team's videographer, Jimmy Chin. He wasn't even supposed to be on the expedition. But when famed mountaineer David Breashears couldn't join this effort to track the migration of the endangered Tibetan antelope, team member Conrad Anker suggested Jimmy as a replacement, and Jimmy's mentor and friend Galen Rowell supported the idea of bringing the 28-year-old on board.
An American born to Chinese parents, Jimmy could translate for the team, he was a mountain climber in his own right (a member of the North Face climbing team), and he was a budding photographer to boot—he could shoot video, someone suggested. Not that he was an expert: "I read the instruction manual on the plane," Jimmy recalls, laughing.
Four years earlier Jimmy had wanted to test his mountaineering skills in Pakistan's Charakusa Valley, which he'd heard about from Peter Croft, experienced climber and friend of Galen Rowell.  Though he knew Galen only by reputation, Jimmy drove from his home in Wyoming to Galen's studio in Berkeley, California, where he sat for four days, waiting patiently for Galen's schedule to clear so they could talk.

"I was too nervous to really get to know him when I first met him," says Jimmy. "I was in hero worship mode and was pretty stoked that he was taking several hours to help me out and talk about climbing. He even gave me my own personal slide show and pointed out cool objectives in the valley."
They continued to visit over the years, with Galen and his wife, photographer Barbara Cushman Rowell, who also died in the plane crash last August, attending Jimmy's slide show at a meeting of the American Alpine Club. "When you're a young unknown climbing bum/photographer, it means a lot to have Galen and Barbara Rowell sitting up front and commenting on your photography," says Jimmy. "Actually working with him in Tibet, seeing him in action, was certainly a great learning experience. He was over twice my age, and I could barely keep up. He charged full steam ahead, whether it was climbing a mountain or getting a photo. I'm not sure that I was ever able to express my gratitude to him for everything before he died."

One of Jimmy's photographs appears in the Chang Tang article, and the two-page photograph of Galen in On Assignment is also his. "That means a lot to me, says Jimmy, "it completes the circle for me. It makes me think of the beautiful morning we had to summit a new peak together after an already outrageous expedition. The glint in his eye was for real."

Footage from Jimmy Chin's video appears in the National Geographic EXPLORER program Deadly Fashion, airing this summer.

—Mary Jennings

Did You Know?

Related Links
Wildlife Conservation Society—The Tibetan Antelope
Read more about this species from the organization that helped establish the Chang Tang Reserve.

Earth Island's Tibetan Antelope Resource Page
A great resource for history of the chiru, also known as the shahtoosh, as well as links to additional sources, news articles, and more.

Wildlife Trust of India
Get reports and news updates on efforts to conserve the chiru.

International Fund for Animal Welfare: Tibetan Antelope Campaign
Link to the campaign for the Tibetan antelope to read what this U.S.-based organization has done to investigate the shahtoosh trade, and read more to learn what you can do to help stop it.

Wildlife Protection Society of India
Learn more about the legal efforts of this organization including persuading the state government of Jammu and Kashmir to ban trade in shahtoosh.

Traffic: Tibetan Antelope
Find links to press releases and news articles from the wildlife-trade-monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Union.


Colacello, Bob. "OK, Lady, Drop the Shawl," Vanity Fair (November 1999), 182-94.

Dam, Julie, and others. "Fashion Victims," People (June 14, 1999), 133-34.

Labi, Nadya. "Soft, Warm and Illegal," Time (October 18, 1999), 58.

Traffic Network. "Fashion Statement Spells Death for Tibetan Antelope," (October 21, 1999). Available online at

Schaller, G. B. Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe. The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Schaller, G. B. Tibet's Hidden Wilderness: Wildlife and Nomads of the Chang Tang Reserve. Harry Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1997.

Wright, B., and A. Kumar. Fashioned for Extinction: An Exposé of the Shahtoosh Trade. Wildlife Protection Society of India, 1997.


NGS Resources
Davis, Nicole. "Lake Manasarovar, Tibet." National Geographic Adventure (September 2002), 120.

Schaller, George B. "In a High and Sacred Realm: Tibet's Remote Chang Tang." National Geographic (August 1993), 62-87.

Baker, Ian. "Tibet Embraces the New Year." National Geographic (January 2000), 82-93.

Wilby, Sorrel. "Nomads' Land: A Journey Through Tibet." National Geographic (December 1987), 764-85.


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