Nikolay Przhevalsky (Russian: Никола́й Пржева́льский, also Przewalski or Prejevalsky)
Mongolia, the Tangut country, and the solitudes of northern Tibet, ch. 6
English translation (E. Delmar Morgan, 1876)
Another characteristic animal of the Tibetan highlands is the antelope, called by the Mongols and Tangutans orongo (Antilope Hodgsoni). The male is remarkably handsome; in size no bigger than a dzeren, with a beautifully shaped body set on long, slender legs, and with elegant black horns (twenty-three inches long) standing vertically above the head, slightly curved, and annulated on the anterior surface. In winter the hair on the upper part and sides of the muzzle, the sides of the breast, and fore parts of the legs are black, the neck, middle of the breast, stomach, and rump white, the back dun-coloured. When seen at a distance it appears white. The female is much smaller than the male, and has no horns or black marks on the body. We first saw the orongo after crossing the Burkhan Buddha range, beyond which it is distributed towards the south as far as the Tang-la mountains. It loves the valleys and rolling plains, and, after the yak, is the most numerous of the animals of Northern Tibet. Like the kulan and the yak it requires water, and selects those parts of the desert where rivers and springs abound.
It is found in small herds from five to twenty, or forty head, rarely collecting In large troops of several hundred, and this only where the pasturage is good and plentiful. Though a few of the old bucks, usually accompanying every herd, are more cautious and experienced, the orongos generally are not wary in their habits. In their flight the males follow the herd as though to prevent straggling; whilst with the dzerens and kara-sultas this order is reversed. When In motion, either leisurely or at full speed, the orongo holds its horns erect, which adds greatly to its appearance. When trotting—its usual pace—the legs move so quickly that at a distance they are invisible, and dogs or wolves are soon left behind.
We arrived in Tibet during the breeding season of these animals, which begins late in November and lasts a month. At this time the full-grown males are in a most excited state, taking little food and soon losing the fat which they had gained during summer. The buck soon forms his harem of ten to twenty wives, and these he jealously guards lest any of them should fall into the power of a rival. No sooner does he see an adversary approaching than he, the lawful lord of the herd, rushes to the encounter with head lowered, uttering short deep bleats. The combat is fierce, and the long sharp horns inflict terrible wounds, often causing the death of both antagonists. Should one feel his strength ebbing, he takes to flight pursued by his enemy, then suddenly wheeling round receives the latter on his horns. As a proof of the fury with which they fight, I remember shooting one of the combatants, who to my surprise continued the fight for several minutes after he had received his death-wound, and then suddenly expired. If a doe chance to stray from the herd, the buck immediately gives chase, and, bleating as he goes, tries to drive her back again. While his attention is thus engaged the others give him the slip, and pursuing first one, then another, he often loses his whole harem. At last, deserted by all, he gives vent to his fury and disgust by striking the ground with his hoofs, curving his tail, lowering his horns and bleating defiance at his compeers. From morning until evening these scenes are constantly occurring, and there appears to be no bond of union between the male antelope and his does; to-day they consort with one buck, to-morrow with another.
The rutting season over, the orongos again live peaceably with one another; the males and females often collecting in separate herds. We saw a troop of about 300 does in February in the valley of the Shuga; the young are dropped in July.
The orongo is fearless and will let the hunter openly approach within 300 yards, or even nearer. The report of fire arms or the whistle of a bullet does not alarm it; it only shows surprise by walking quietly away, frequently stopping to look at the hunter. Like other antelope it is extremely tenacious of life and will run a long way although wounded.
They are not difficult to shoot, for besides showing no fear they haunt rocky defiles in the mountains, where they may be easily stalked. I have fired as many as one to two hundred shots at them in the course of the day, my bag of course varying a good deal with my luck in the long shots.
The orongo is held sacred by Mongols and Tangutans, and lamas will not touch the meat, which by the way is excellent, particularly in autumn when the animal is fat. The blood is said to possess medicinal virtues, and the horns are used in charlatanism: Mongols tell fortunes and predict future events by the rings on these, and they also serve to mark out the burial places, or more commonly the circles within which the bodies of deceased lamas are exposed: these horns are carried away in large numbers by pilgrims returning from Tibet, and are sold at high prices. Mongols tell you that a whip-handle made from one will in the hands of the rider prevent his steed from tiring.
Another prevalent superstition is, that the orongo has only one horn growing vertically from the centre of the head. In Kan-su and Koko-nor we were told that unicorns were rare, one or two in a thousand; but the Mongols in Tsaidam, who are perfectly well acquainted with the orongo, deny entirely the existence there of a one-horned antelope, though admitting that it might be found in South-western Tibet. Had we gone farther we should probably have heard that it was only to be found in India, and so on till we arrived at the one-horned rhinoceros!
- In summer its hair is said to be of reddish colour like that of dzeren.
- The young bucks, with small horns, and in colour exactly resembling the does, appear not to take part in this internecine warfare, but hold themselves aloof in separate herds with the does, during the rutting season.
- In all the orongo killed by us, we found under the skin of the posterior a number of the larvae of the gadfly, which we found on no other animal of Northern Tibet.