The International Campaign for Tibet has criticised Beijing’s adoption of the Tibetan antelope as one of five doll mascots for the 2008 Olympics, saying that it should not co-opt this symbol of Tibet’s wildlife heritage, especially without better protecting its survival as a species.

“The appropriation of the Tibetan antelope as the Olympic mascot is a way of China attempting to assert the legitimacy of its rule over Tibet,” said John Ackerly, President of ICT. “It is ironic that they have chosen a species that is endangered in Tibet partly as a result of the Chinese presence in the region.”

The Tibetan antelope is believed to have numbered approximately a million at the turn of the 20th century, but thousands were slaughtered for sport and meat by soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In the 1980s, when the antelope’s fine wool, called shahtoosh, became popular internationally, Chinese and Tibetan poachers began taking a large toll, up to 20,000 animals per year. The total number is estimated to have dropped to under 100,000 in the mid 1990s. Although it has since recovered slightly, the animal is still in danger of extinction, and China’s record at protecting it is poor.

The railway currently being constructed from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa in Tibet may endanger the Tibetan antelope further. While tunnels have been built to allow the antelope to cross the railway line, the railway will bring many more people and potentially more poachers – closer to the antelope’s breeding grounds and habitat.

The Tibetan antelope was listed as a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1975. In 1979 all international trade in Tibetan antelope parts and derivatives became illegal. The U.S. government listed the Tibetan antelope, also known as chiru, as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in 2003.

“The threat to the Tibetan antelope’s survival can be compared to the threat to the survival of the Tibetan people’s unique cultural identity as a result of hard-line policies and fast-track development by Beijing,” said John Ackerly, President of the International Campaign for Tibet.

Beijing chose five stylized doll mascots for the 2008 Olympic Games on Friday representing a panda, a Tibetan antelope, a swallow, a fish and the spirit of the Olympic flame. The choice was announced in a live nationwide broadcast today. The mascots will join the official games slogan, “One World, One Dream”.