We are giving away four copies of Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World by George B. Schaller. Check out this Q&A with the author, and then leave a comment for a chance to win your own copy of this book!
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.