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Question and Answer with George B. Schaller
Author of Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World
Q: What is your history working on the Tibetan Plateau of China?
A: I have devoted a considerable portion of my professional life to the high altitudes of Central Asia, including the Himalaya of Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bhutan, especially in the early 1970s, and then, starting in 1980, on the Tibetan Plateau, where I first worked on giant pandas with my Chinese coworkers for nearly four years. Since then, I have made annual trips to the high plateau to study the unique high-altitude large mammal community, including Tibetan antelope, wild yak, snow leopard, and others. The Tibetan Plateau is about 1.2 million square miles, about the size of the US west of the Mississippi, and over half that area lies above 14,500 feet. Most of it is sparsely inhabited or supports no people, giving a lot of space for a naturalist to explore and study. I have also done work on Marco Polo sheep and other species in the neighboring Pamirs of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China. My previous books and Tibet Wild provide detailed information.
Q: What are the chief threats to the Plateau?
A: Being large and high and considered ‘The Third Pole,’ the Tibetan Plateau is greatly affected by rapid climate change. Some 95% of the glaciers are retreating, permafrost is melting, wetlands are drying, and so forth, all of which will have an impact on the rangelands upon which the livelihood of pastoralists depends. In addition, rangelands have been so heavily grazed by sheep, yaks, and other livestock that one-third is officially classified as ‘severely degraded.’ Gold and other mining destroys habitat and poisons rivers. More and more roads open up new areas to motorized wildlife poachers, who sell yak meat, Tibetan antelope wool, and other products. The human population is increasing, penetrating new areas, and crowding into settled ones, putting ever greater pressure on rangelands with their livestock. Fencing of pastures is hindering movement of wildlife.
Q: How will developments on the Tibetan Plateau impact people living in other parts of the world?
A: The vast and high Tibetan Plateau has a huge impact on world climate. The snow that covers the area reflects heat back into the atmosphere, resulting in a drop of global temperature. The Himalaya deflect the monsoon and thereby shape wind and precipitation patterns. Most major rivers of China and South Asia—the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween, Ganges, Indus, and others—originate on the Plateau. As glaciers rapidly melt, first there will be floods, then ultimately each river will end in a trickle. Some 3 billion people in the lowlands of India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, and China will be severely affected, unable to irrigate their rice, wheat, and other crops. On the Plateau itself, rangeland will deteriorate as the permafrost melts and moisture drains away in the sandy and silty soil.
Q: What lessons have you taken away from your 30 years studying wildlife and the communities on the Plateau?
A: The lesson I have learned more emphatically than ever is that conservation must ultimately be based on the interest, insight, knowledge, and participation of the communities. Government all too often makes policies that ultimately harm habitat, wildlife, and communities, something that could be avoided with less top-down management and more local participation. On the Plateau, too, where Buddhism is strong, the monasteries, working with government and communities, can be a strong voice for conservation. Another lesson is that if money can be made illegally from wildlife, such as the Tibetan antelope, it is difficult to control. (The illegal wildlife trade rates third in the world in value after weapons and drugs). Education is a limited deterrence: conservation needs a dedicated guard force and an efficient law system focused particularly on traders and dealers to protect valuable species. A third lesson is that countries must train their own citizens to be in the field to study wildlife and work on behalf of its conservation. I try to help but unless others carry on, the effort is short-term.
Q: How do you feel about prospects for conservation on the Tibetan Plateau of China and around the world?
A: China is fully aware of the importance of conservation and has made a major effort to protect wildlife and habitats on the Tibetan Plateau, something for which it has received little international attention. For example, about one-third of the Tibet Autonomous Region has officially been designated as reserves. The whole northern Chang Tang of Tibet, three contiguous areas in Xinjiang, and one in Qinghai are all reserves, covering about 175,000 square miles, an area larger than California or Montana. Pastoralists live in parts of several of these reserves, but mostly they are uninhabited. Concerned about the sources of its great rivers, whose water is so critical for the survival of people in the lowlands, China and its communities are taking steps to protect the upland habitat and create an “ecological civilization,” as it is called. Teams of scientists are studying glaciers, rangelands, temperature, and precipitation patterns, among others, and there is a program to raise environmental awareness in communities. I assist local researchers with wildlife studies. All in all, I am much impressed with the efforts by China, but as is true everywhere, more needs to be done to manage rangelands, halt illegal mining, and combat other issues.
Q: Why are you so passionate about the Plateau?
A: I like mountains and wide-open spaces. The Plateau harbors intriguing and beautiful species such as the Tibetan antelope, wild yak, Tibetan wild ass, and snow leopard, about which little was known (and is still known) and I wanted to study this wildlife community. A good number of animals of each species survived and most areas had few people, making a conservation effort worthwhile and potentially lasting. Officials at all level of government supported my work and were receptive to suggestions. And I like and appreciate the local culture. The combination of these factors draws me back again and again.
Q: What is your favorite memory from your expeditions to the area?
A: There is no one memory, but I treasure the fact that once a team of Tibetans, Han Chinese, and I drove cross-country across the northern part of the Plateau, and for a thousand miles did not see a human being, but did see a considerable amount of wildlife. Where else in the world can one still do that? A memory also recurs of streams of Tibetan antelope with a backdrop of a turquoise lake and a snow range without a sign of human presence—an iconic vision of the Chang Tang wilderness and one that must be preserved.
Q: How has your work in other parts of the world been informed by your time on the Plateau and vice versa?
A: With the human population increasing rapidly and consumption even more so, it is imperative to protect as much natural habitat as possible now. This will not only reduce CO2 and methane in the atmosphere and slow climate change, about which the world is still in denial or at least is unwilling to address seriously, but will also save biodiversity and functional ecosystems, upon which a healthy environment, and with it a sustainable human population, depends. More and more habitat has been reduced to fragments in which many species that need space cannot survive. Such species need at least corridors between safe havens, all the more so with the increasing disruption of habitats by climate change. Better yet, a whole landscape needs management with strictly protected reserves, corridors connecting them, and areas set aside for development and other human use. The Tibetan antelope defines a landscape with its migrations, and this was one factor in helping to protect its ecosystem. As a result of the environmental destruction during the past fifty years that is ever accelerating, I find less and less time to study a species at leisure, and spend most time dealing with communities and officials promoting conservation.
Q: What inspired you to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?
A: I wrote the book mainly to leave a historical record of a time and place that will never be quite the same again. Even in three decades, the lifestyle of the pastoralists changed with better economic conditions and wildlife had its ups and downs. I also wanted to convey my enjoyment in these vast uplands and make people aware that they exist. Though remote, the Plateau has an effect on everyone’s life through its climate, and faraway people have an impact on the wildlife, by, for example, buying illegal shawls made of antelope wool. The book describes a place with which even most Chinese are unfamiliar, and I hope it will also raise national awareness of this natural treasure.
Q: Are you still traveling to the Tibetan Plateau of China? In what direction is your current research focused?
A: I write this just before leaving to the Tibetan Plateau yet again, working as usual with colleagues from Peking University. This time we will concentrate on rangeland studies hoping to achieve better management on behalf of both livestock and wildlife. I spent three months this past spring continuing the research on snow leopard and Tibet brown bear described in the last two chapters of the book. I also have short-term projects with colleagues on tigers in India and jaguars in Brazil. In the US, I remain involved in the decades-long battle to keep the BP and Shell oil companies from destroying the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which I first visited in 1956.
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. 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.
Q&A © 2012 by George B. Schaller. Printed with permission from Island Press.
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