Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys on the Roof of the Worldby George B. Schaller
As one of the world’s leading field biologists, George Schaller has spent much of his life traversing wild and isolated places in his quest to understand and conserve threatened species—from mountain gorillas in the Virunga to pandas in the Wolong and snow leopards in the Himalaya. Throughout his celebrated career, Schaller has spent more time in Tibet
As one of the world’s leading field biologists, George Schaller has spent much of his life traversing wild and isolated places in his quest to understand and conserve threatened species—from mountain gorillas in the Virunga to pandas in the Wolong and snow leopards in the Himalaya. Throughout his celebrated career, Schaller has spent more time in Tibet than in any other part of the world, devoting more than thirty years to the wildlife, culture, and landscapes that captured his heart and continue to compel him to protect them.
Tibet Wild is Schaller’s account of three decades of exploration in the most remote stretches of Tibet: the wide, sweeping rangelands of the Chang Tang and the hidden canyons and plunging ravines of the southeastern forests. As engaging as he is enlightening, Schaller illustrates the daily struggles of a field biologist trying to traverse the impenetrable Chang Tang, discover the calving grounds of the chiru or Tibetan antelope, and understand the movements of the enigmatic snow leopard.
As changes in the region accelerated over the years, with more roads, homes, and grazing livestock, Schaller watched the clash between wildlife and people become more common—and more destructive. Thus what began as a purely scientific endeavor became a mission: to work with local communities, regional leaders, and national governments to protect the unique ecological richness and culture of the Tibetan Plateau.
Whether tracking brown bears, penning fables about the tiny pika, or promoting a conservation preserve that spans the borders of four nations, Schaller has pursued his goal with a persistence and good humor that will inform and charm readers. Tibet Wild is an intimate journey through the changing wilderness of Tibet, guided by the careful gaze and unwavering passion of a life-long naturalist.
"For the past three decades his studies have been largely confined to mysterious animals most people have never heard of. A summing up in his 80th year appears now, with helpful maps and 32 color photographs, in Tibet Wild."
"His descriptions...are particularly evocative, and give the lie to notions of glamour in field biology....fascinating"
"To protect unspoiled places, Schaller must shed his natural reticence to negotiate with his fellow human beings. In the case of the high steppes, these include families putting out poison for animals wrongly perceived as pests, herders trading horses for motorcycles and, more threatening, gold miners. He’s willing to sit down and educate people, sometimes even to compromise, but he has no sympathy for those who get a charge out of reducing the number of his beloved animals one at a time. Late in Tibet Wild, Schaller briefly shares a camp with a foreign hunter who’s grousing that he had to wait three whole days to get his final shot at a Marco Polo ram, whose massive curved horns are a coveted trophy. Schaller, the man who spent 17 years trying to find the chiru’s calving ground, has little patience for such behavior. “Hunting is not a sport,” he notes. “Animals don’t just lose, they die.”"
“Poignant …Tibet Wild…lays out an open-ended account of the struggle to save wild places and their inhabitants. I can’t recall any book that has made me care as much or think harder about how we might do that.”
"Schaller is a guiding light in global wildlife conservation. In this richly textured chronicle of five decades of world travels, he combines a provocative apologia with unforgettable tales of his encounters with gorillas, tigers, pandas, snow leopards, and jaguars. ... Schaller’s forthright, enlightening book of discovery reseeds our appreciation for the wonders of the planet, perception of the 'heavy human hand on the landscape,' and recognition of the need for a global 'conservation ethic.'"
"Schaller's huge knowledge means a dedicated reader can revel in a deep and intricate portrayal of Tibet's mythically beautiful visual and emotive environments."
"Tibet Wild sings with Schaller's tenacity, patience, and passion"
"Tibet Wild is one of Schaller’s best works, combining wild adventure with insightful recommendations for people and nature. And it demonstrates why “old-fashioned” field biology is still an essential part of conservation, and of science."
"Tibet Wild is a fascinating book of a little known part of the world. It should be read by anyone interested in the Tibetan Plateau. Field biologists, range ecologists, pastoral development specialists, tourists and even Tibetan monks will all find something of interest in Schaller’s evocative writing."
"With winter coming on, I enthusiastically recommend adding Tibet Wild to your reading list."
"This celebrated naturalist, recalling in his senior years how he has often been so uncomfortable in his travels across wild Tibet, does indeed set a high example for spirited conservation for the next century, the next millennium."
"Schaller does a great job of showing how to take conservation beyond research by involving local people, governments, and Buddhist monasteries."
"This book may be his swan song: the last of the classic Western naturalists travels to perhaps the last place on earth inhabited but not controlled by humans....Beautifully written, the book offers breathtaking natural history, and the human side of daily life in zones we only know from war and conflict (Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Tibet-China border)....Readers may find hope in Schaller's example of a life dedicated to saving a planet where chiru, tiny rabbits, snow leopards, and human beings of every race, gender, and nation are all animals working to survive."
"Tibet Wild is a finely crafted memoir detailing George B. Schaller's travels and conservation projects in the rugged Tibetan Plateau."
"He discusses his efforts to use his knowledge of natural history to educate local populations on how to promote effective conservation measures, and also addresses the political and economic realities that complicate doing so. Readers will come away with a firsthand understanding of the rewarding career of a modern conservationist."
"This is a wonderful and moving account of thirty years of scientific exploration and wildlife conservation on the Tibetan Plateau by one of the world's foremost scholars and ecological activists. It is a great read for scholars and laymen alike that lets the reader experience what it is like to study wildlife in the remotest parts of the Roof of the World."
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Read an Excerpt
A Naturalist's Journeys on the Roof of the World
By George B. Schaller
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2012 George B. Schaller
All rights reserved.
A Covenant with Chiru
We're traveling south on the highway from the city of Golmud in Qinghai Province on a bitter October day in 1985 when I see chiru (Tibetan antelope) in the distance, mere specks in the immensity of white, and ask our driver Ma Shusheng to stop the Land Cruiser so I can get out. Snow covers plains and hills to the edge of vision, and a veil of luminous cloud shrouds the sky. One hill floats like an iceberg on a low layer of fog. I plow through the snow adrift in space, the chiru and I the only visible life, bound to each other by the desolation. In front of me a herd of male chiru plods mutely past in single file through knee-deep snow, the animals imposing in their black-and-white nuptial coats and with their long, slender horns rising almost straight up from the head. I am in a dream landscape of unicorns, of Tibetan horsemen with lances, of antelopes from the Serengeti plains transported high into winter. Here is a place to give wings to the imagination.
This, my first meeting with chiru, comes only five days after a blizzard has covered this part of Qinghai with a foot of snow, the heaviest such snowfall in years. We have just completed a snow leopard survey in the north of the province, and we have come to check on the status of wildlife along the highway, not realizing the seriousness of conditions in the storm's wake. The highway from Golmud winds over the Kunlun Mountains and crosses the eastern edge of the Chang Tang before continuing into Tibet. Our leader is Guo Gieting, a pleasant, low-key official from the Forestry Department, in his early fifties. Qiu Mingjiang and Ren Junrang, two biologists in their early twenties, have also joined me, as they did during previous research work.
We are traveling in a Toyota Land Cruiser and a pickup truck across the desert of the Qaidam Basin and up into the hills, climbing steadily past sharp-edged peaks until, after eighty-seven miles, we surmount Kunlun Pass at 15,600 feet and descend into rolling plains beyond. I have seen a pair of ravens, for me a good omen.
In the evening I write into my field journal:
A crystal-clear space so vast needs a place to rest the eye. We scan ahead and to the sides and see black dots scattered in clumps and singly. Under binocs and scope they become wild ass [kiang]. We count, drive on a little and count others. In one sweep of the scope resting on the hood of the Toyota I count 262 asses. Further on are more herds, most standing in the snow half a mile or more from the road, sometimes seen only in silhouette and others with a golden tan in the lowering sun. A few near the road are skittish and trot off when our two cars stop to photograph.
Then I see some chunky tan antelopes: female Tibetan antelopes, the first I've ever seen. For 20 km we are always within sight of animals, so easily visible against the snow that I can spot them at 2 km or more. We casually count about 525 asses and as many as 700 antelope.... A wonderful wildlife afternoon; for once reality lives up to anticipation and hope.
I write these notes in a mud-walled room in Wudaoliang where we stay overnight, a desolate cluster of buildings at 15,000 feet, a truck stop with a few small restaurants, shops, and a military post. The room has hard beds, each with two folded quilts, and a stove we crowd around and constantly stoke with sheep droppings from a bucket.
The Land Cruiser does not start the following morning, even though it is only –5°F, probably because of water in the gasoline, but a pull from the pickup gives it life. Continuing south we encounter little wildlife, only a few herds of chiru and kiang and several forlorn gazelles struggling through the snow. The kiang, powerful and horse-sized, expose grass with such vigorous sweeps of a foreleg that they've abraded the back of each foreleg into a bare, bloody patch. The chiru also paw craters in search of grass tufts. None of the species here have broad hooves like caribou have, adapted for walking on snow. Usually they don't need them, because winter winds tend to expose the ground quickly after a storm, but this time it is unusually calm and cold and the snow deeper than the usual inch or two. Walking through snow and digging again and again to obtain just a few stalks of coarse, dead grass expends the valuable energy an animal needs to conserve for the long, harsh winter months ahead. A Tibetan man sits on a kilometer stone, bicycle beside him, rifle in hand, watching four gazelle drift closer. We halt and chase the gazelle away. In the afternoon we reach Tuotuohe on the banks of the upper Yangtze River, another truck stop. We rent a room in a government barracks where we spend more noisy nights than we anticipated hearing trucks arrive and being started at intervals to keep the engines from freezing.
Tuotuohe with its transitory population of a few hundred reminds me of a small Alaskan community on a winter morning with stovepipes emitting plumes of smoke into an ice fog of glittering crystals. But rather dissimilar are the Tibetan pilgrims crowded in the backs of open trucks headed for the holy sites of Lhasa, swaddled like mummies in thick sheepskin chubas and almost hidden by piles of bedding and sacks of belongings. Truckers heat their diesel tanks with blow torches and build fires with wood splinters beneath the engines to warm them. Flocks of horned larks and rufous-necked snow finches searching for food hop over exposed ground and packed snow tinged with urine and blood from slaughtered animals. A goat eats a cardboard box. We report ourselves to the local community leader, who tells us that livestock are starving and that most of the nomads remain isolated in scattered households and will need outside help. The snow is too deep for us to drive cross-country in our vehicles to survey wildlife, and horses cannot be used because there is no fodder for them.
Mingjiang, Junrang, and I walk away from the settlement to observe chiru. We see many of them stream northeast in ragged lines, some consisting only of males and others only of females and young. I tell my companions that I want to continue alone to photograph. A dip in the terrain provides cover after my careful approach and I kneel there. About 600 chiru are scattered over the plain. A herd of males gathers near me, a veritable forest of horns. When looked at from the side, the horns blend so that the animal appears to have only one horn like a unicorn. The anthropologist Toni Huber has noted that the name chiru may have come from the Tibetan bse ru (pronounced "siru"), meaning "rhinoceros," perhaps because the horns of both species are used for medicine; they certainly are not similar in appearance. Another herd wanders to within 150 feet of me. Two males face each other with lowered heads, rapier horns ready for conflict. Then they clash. I wonder why they waste energy on testing dominance when their survival in this deep snow is at stake. Clouds suddenly engulf us, everything vanishing in a white-out, and I stand there in driving snow as ghost creatures pass, still drawn toward the northeast. Where have they come from and where are they going?
"We know too little of high Tibet to be able to draw maps of the occurrence of big game and its wanderings with the seasons." So wrote the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin in his book Southern Tibet, published in 1922. More than sixty years later, we still don't know. What a challenge for us, especially now, with wildlife drastically reduced and the chiru and several other species listed as threatened with extinction!
Before the snowstorm engulfs me, I look west with longing toward Tibet, over 150 miles away, the direction from which the chiru are coming. Subconsciously I have made a covenant with the species to help it by unraveling its mysterious life—its travels, its numbers, its habits. Whenever I do research in an area, I select a totem animal in which my heart can rest, an animal of beauty and interest and in need of conservation, such as the mountain gorilla, the tiger, or the giant panda. Here in the Chang Tang the chiru will be that totem. When plains and hills emerge again from the clouds, I admire the chiru and look at their tracks scribbled in the snow like a script of their own, and then head back elated.
The drivers Ma Shisheng and Xao Rijie cook mutton soup for breakfast. It is a chilly –13°F, the road is icy, and fog imprisons us until ten o'clock. Again we drive south, our surveys confined to the highway. Many pikas, the tiny relatives of rabbits weighing a mere four ounces or so, sit on the snow, puffed up fur balls with dark eyes. Waiting to feast on unwary pikas are upland buzzards, saker falcons, and ravens perched on mounds and telephone poles. A Tibetan hare, a species unique to this plateau, sits in the snow drawn deeply into itself, then hops off slowly as we approach on foot to take a photograph. As it reaches the highway, a passing truck suddenly stops, the driver leaps from the cab and grabs the hare by the ears in anticipation of a meal. Mingjiang quickly retrieves the weak animal from the driver, and we return it to the plains to die in peace. I regret that we disturbed it. Nearby is the carcass of a kiang female with hind-quarters chopped off for its meat, and beyond her lie three gazelle someone has killed, gutted, and dragged to the road. Farther on, we come across signs of the desperate leaps of animals in the snow, along with splattered blood, shell casings, and the drag marks of five bodies toward the road. A little distance away is a female chiru, dead for at least a day, with snow partly drifted over her. We weigh her—forty-eight pounds—and examine her viscera. There is not a trace of fat; no doubt she starved to death.
As we drive north from Tuotuohe for a day-trip the following morning, I spot a raven hacking at something, a dead female chiru. It has been ten days since the blizzard and more animals are dying from starvation. This female had reclined in the brutal cold, her body melting enough snow to create a bare patch around her, and then she died lying on her side, her legs twitching and scrabbling in the snow. She weighs fifty-five pounds and is lactating. Near her body is another female with two young pawing in the snow. She barely pauses in her digging to look at me as I approach, her long eyelashes glimmering with snow. When she moves away only one of the young follows her; the other drifts away alone. A chiru herd suddenly bolts and bunches up, a mastiff dog at its heels. The dog grabs a lagging calf and shakes it. As we draw near the dog flees, leaving its victim dead and bloody with lacerated throat and neck.
When we return to Tuotuohe that evening, Guo Gieting informs us that the governor of Qinghai, Song Rui Xiang, wants to see us. He is here to look into the snow emergency, and we meet him at the military post. A forceful person, he gives orders and queries those around him about the situation. We suggest that illegal hunting of wildlife along the highway be stopped. He tells us that instead he will have hay put along the highway for the wildlife and send helicopters to kill wolves. I demur, and Guo Gieting later explains that these are political decisions about which we can do nothing. To check on the condition of the nomads and the wildlife, the People's Liberation Army, we are told, will send a truck and tractor-pulled wagon filled with food and fuelwood, and we are invited to go along.
The vehicles are expected imminently. Three days pass. We eat in huts adorned with deep-blue flags out front proclaiming that they are restaurants with names like "Sichuan Flower." Inside each one is a table or two, and on the table is a tin can with wooden chopsticks and perhaps a pot of ground red pepper. On the menu is a sole dish of noodles, rice soup, or meat and vegetable soup, depending on the place. Minjiang, Junrang, and I decide to take more walks to observe wildlife. Driver Ma is surly, wanting to go back to Golmud, just as driver Xao has done with the pickup, and not ferry us around when requested. When I inquire of Mingjiang why a driver can determine our work, he replies: "Ma is on the same level politically as Guo. Therefore, Guo is in no position to give orders." But the waiting, cold, and altitude are affecting us all. Junrang is more withdrawn than usual, Mingjiang wanders off alone without informing us, and my temper has become short.
It is –30°F as we once again head into the whiteness, the crusted snow crunching underfoot. We see chiru just standing, backs hunched, too weary now even to dig through the hardened snow. Ahead are several dark mounds and near them two dogs, very shy as we draw near. Of the four chiru bodies, two have shredded throats and two have starved. We look for more bodies in order to collect such vital statistics as weight, sex, and age based on tooth wear. We crack open a long bone and look at the marrow. If the marrow is a thick, fatty white, the animal still had some body reserves; if it is a bloody jelly it meant all reserves were depleted. By afternoon our body count is ten, seven killed by dogs. When we report this to the community leader, he exclaims, "Leng" ("Wolf"). After we convince him otherwise, he notes that these dogs belong to a nearby road camp. When Guo Gieting adds that driver Ma has a shotgun, the leader suggests that we shoot dogs that are killing wildlife. We stop at the road camp to ask its headman to please tie up the dogs. A lone brown-headed gull flies over as we return to our Spartan room.
Driver Ma agrees to drive us along the road to look for more dead animals to autopsy. Just north of Tuotuohe two large black mastiffs and a half-grown pup sit by four chiru they have killed. Ma shoots the two adults but permits the pup to flee toward some nearby huts. I understand the killing lust of these dogs when prey, usually so fleet and shy, is suddenly defenseless. In general, carnivores will kill far more than they can eat when given an opportunity, as I have observed in the Serengeti with spotted hyenas and lions. Wolves, lynx, and snow leopards enter corrals where they may kill a dozen or more domestic sheep where one would do. And of course there are ample published accounts of trophy hunters mindlessly shooting and shooting when given a chance. I feel dejected—my heart is with the chiru in their struggle for survival. Four more dog-killed chiru and more bodies are in sight, but just then the long-awaited army truck and tractor pass us and we return to Tuotuohe. Yaks are being slaughtered because there is no fodder for them. The air is heavy with the steam of their bodies and the odor of blood.
Our counting of bodies, no matter how seemingly morbid, does produce useful information of a kind not usually obtained. In a sample of twenty-two dead chiru there were nine young, six adult females, two yearling (one-year-old) females, and five yearling males. Of these, thirteen were killed by dogs and nine died of malnutrition. Since our counts of living chiru showed that there are over twice as many females as young; the young were proportionately more vulnerable than the others. No adult males are among the dead. Their large size enables them to dig more easily for forage and to plow through snow with less energy than others. A large male has a lower metabolic rate and lower nutritional requirements per unit weight than a female and especially a calf. In addition, males have stored much fat while lounging around during summer, whereas females enter the winter lean from months of pregnancy and then lactation.
It is now October 31, and we are ready to start our cross-country trip into the white void in an old red tractor with wide treads pulling a wagon and an army truck with worn tires and a large red-and-white sign proclaiming in Chinese characters: "To Contribute to the Rescue Work." We carry eight barrels of diesel fuel, a pile of firewood, and a pile of army coats and boots to hand out. The team members include four soldiers and several Tibetans from Tuotuohe; of the latter two are community doctors and one a mathematics teacher. One of the Tibetans, Zhi Mai, is the leader. He wears a fox-skin hat and carries a .762 rifle. I join the Tibetans in the open wagon so that I can count the wildlife along our route. An hour after leaving, the truck breaks through the ice of a shallow pond hidden beneath the snow. After we laboriously unload the truck, the tractor can finally pull it out and we continue at our modest pace of about four miles per hour. The sun vanishes shortly after six o'clock and winter asserts its grip. We stop in darkness at eight o'clock and erect one tent of heavy green canvas, large enough for us all. With two blowtorches roaring, the Tibetans melt snow and prepare instant noodles and tea. It is –30°F inside the tent at night. I am chilled through and my feet numb, in spite of wearing all my clothes inside the sleeping bag.
Excerpted from Tibet Wild by George B. Schaller. Copyright © 2012 George B. Schaller. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
George Schaller is vice president of Panthera and a senior conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, both organizations based in New York, as well as adjunct professor with the Center of Nature and Society at Peking University in China. He has explored many remote corners of the planet, conducted wildlife research and conservation work in over twenty countries, and is a prolific author. His field work began in 1952 in Alaska and he was part of a 1956 expedition to northeastern Alaska which led to the establishment of America's largest protected area, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Spending most of his time in the field in Asia, Africa, and South America, Schaller has done seminal studies and helped protect some of the planet's most iconic animals. These range from mountain gorillas in the present Democratic Republic of the Congo, tigers in India, lions in Tanzania, and jaguars in Brazil, to giant pandas and wildlife on the Tibetan Plateau in China, and snow leopards and various wild sheep and goats in the Himalaya of Nepal and Pakistan. This work has been the basis for his scientific and popular writings, including 16 books, among them The Year of the Gorilla, The Deer and the Tiger, The Serengeti Lion (a National Book Award winner), The Last Panda, A Naturalist and other Beasts, and Tibet Wild. He has also helped to establish about a dozen protected areas in various countries.
Over the years, he has received a number of international conservation awards, including the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the Indianapolis Prize in the USA, China's Baogang Environmental Prize, Japan's Cosmos Prize, India's Salim Ali Conservation Award, and the gold medal of the World Wildlife Fund.
With his wife Kay a close colleague in the field, they raised their two sons while on projects in various countries.
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