John Hare has just returned from the expedition in China which Prince Albert of Monaco’s Foundation for endangered species and Ran Fiennes’s Transglobe Expedition Trust generously supported. The expedition consisted of two separate stages.
There were with John Hare on this stage two Chinese scientists, Professor Yuan Guoying and Yuan Lei, who have worked with WCPF on wild camel conservation for over 16 years. They travelled up the Keriya River, which stretches 250 kilometers from the town of Keriya to the south of the Taklamakan Desert and the Kunlun Mountains. These mountains form the northern escarpment of Tibet, and border the vast Taklamakan sand dune desert – the largest in the world. The purpose of this investigation was to follow up a report that wild camels had been seen near the point where the Keriya River finally drains into the desert sands. We reached the end of the river having interviewed herdsmen and elders along the way and made our final investigations at the village of Dariya. After thorough research the conclusion we reached is that there are definitely herds of wild camels in the Taklamakan (possibly three) and their total number varies between 30 and 50. As the Xinjiang government had not allowed us to proceed further with domestic camels into the vast area of Taklamakan sand dunes because of our proximity to oil prospecting, we had to terminate out investigations at Dariya – but our findings are highly significant. These 30- 50 wild camels are outside the area of the Lop Nur Wild Camel National Nature Reserve which our UK registered charity, The Wild Camel Protection Foundation, helped the Chinese government to establish in 2002 after initiating four previous surveys. Our next task is to work out how best to protect them. It is impossible to create a new Reserve among shifting dunes of sand, so we are concentrating on awareness-raising locally and specific education programmes for local schools.
John Hare and Yuan Lei travelled with 15 domestic camels and four Kazakh herdsmen on a 305 kilometre journey over two huge barriers of sand dunes from the Hongliugou valley to Lapeiquan Spring. The route we took had not been attempted before and we were slightly unnerved to find we were faced with sand dunes over 400 metres high, one of which took over 2 hours to cross. The complete journey lasted just under three weeks. We encountered extremely low temperatures and two sand storms of considerable intensity and our head Kazakh herdsman (one of four) had his right arm removed from its socket by a kick from a camel. The arm was manipulated by the other three herdsmen and went back into place with a resounding ‘plop’ amidst a grind of gristle. Another Kazakh suspended himself by one leg on a rope upside down for half an hour to cure as he said ‘a swollen knee.’
They reached the spring of Kum Su which we had ‘discovered’ in 1999 and which is a spring deep below the level of the desert sands and which contained not only fresh water but a naive population of wildlife – wildlife which had never experienced the machinations of man. On returning there in 2005 from the east, we discovered that the spring had been polluted by illegal gold miners using potassium cyanide. On John Hare’s return to England in 2005 he protested through various channels (the Chinese Embassy in London, the Ministry of the Environment in Beijing, the National Geographic and the RGS) to the Chinese Government who said they would clean up the pollution. It was a huge relief to find that they had kept their promise, cleaned up the spring and that the wildlife was returning. But of course they are no longer naive and are now only too aware of what a rapacious species ‘man’ is.
Lastly and by no means least, we spotted 128 wild camels out of a Chinese total population of 600 which by any standards is encouraging. However, we are concerned that very few two-year-old and three-year-old camels were sighted due, we believe, to an increase in the wolf population.
The Chinese provincial government in Xinjiang considers our expedition to have been a great success.
1. We confirmed that there were 30 – 50 wild camels in the Taklamakan desert.
2. We pioneered a previously unmarked route over huge sand dunes and proved it was negotiable.
3. We saw 128 wild camels
4. We discovered that Kum Su spring had been cleaned up by the Federal Government.