ABOUT 2,200 endangered Marco Polo sheep have been spotted

in the Pamirs in northwest China, which indicates that the endangered sub-species of argali sheep is increasing in their habitat.

The discovery showed that the number of Marco Polo sheep, Ovis ammon polii, has increased satisfactorily in China compared with their number in the 1980s. Then only about 150 sheep were found in Taxkorgan in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, said George B. Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Marco Polo spotted them in 1273.

Wildlife experts said they were concerned that hunting-tourism companies would begin tours to kill the sheep in the Pamir Mountains in China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. They said the cost would be at least US$25,000 for a chance to kill a beautiful, warm-blooded animal with spectacular spiraling horns.

The increase in population also demonstrated the effectiveness of China's measures to adopt the program to protect the sheep, first written about by Marco Polo.

Schaller and other researchers from the WCS, the Wildlife Protection Association and Forestry Bureau of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region began surveying the sheep the Pamirs in Xinjiang last winter. The investigation was conducted in an area of 865 square kilometers, with an elevation of 3,700 to 4,700 meters, in the Tajik Autonomous County of Taxhorgan in Kashi Prefecture and the Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture of Kizilsu, Xinjiang.

Winter is the best season to observing Marco Polo sheep as bucks and ewes mate. Males and females live separately in other areas during different times of the year.

Marco Polo sheep are timid and cautious and often run away when people are one kilometer away from them.

"It is very hard to count the number of all male and young sheep in a herd," said Schaller.

The sheep mainly roam in the juncture areas on the Pamirs with an elevation of 3,000 to 5,000 meters inAfghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. The large sheep have long horns, with the longest so far recorded reaching 1.9 meters in length and weighing 60 pounds.

They are a major trophy for poachers. The number of Marco Polo sheep worldwide is about 40,000.

Environmentalists seek an international zone to protect them. They are protected in Pakistan and in part of China, but more needs to be done.