This I did, but soon my attention shifted to chiru. The species intrigued me with its wanderings, here today and gone tomorrow. To know about the movements of an animal is a first step in protecting it.
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To learn as much as possible about chiru became a personal quest, almost an indulgence, and it gave direction and coherence to much of my work on the Tibetan Plateau. To save one of the last great migrations of a hoofed animal in Asia, surpassed in number only by the million Mongolian gazelles on the eastern steppes of Mongolia, is important for itself, as well as to China and the world. And no one else at the time had devoted themselves to the task. By happy coincidence the chiru offered me an opportunity to explore terrain which few had ever seen and at the same time to study a little-known species.
I am less a modern field biologist devoted to technology and statistics than a nineteenth-century naturalist who with pencil and paper describes nature in detail, though with little desire to collect specimens, as was then in vogue; instead I strive to observe species and protect them. To become familiar with an area that is still healthy, productive, and diverse, one still unspoiled by humankind, has a special appeal.
Here one could address the conflicting demands of conservation, development, and the livelihood of its pastoral people, and here conservation would not need to be confined to a protected area of modest size but could involve a vast landscape, one larger than many countries.
Changes in the Chang Tang, already under way in the s when I first visited, have been accelerating with more roads, more households, more livestock, and more fences, which, together with new land-use policies, have had a major impact on the land and its wildlife. Groping for a memory, I visualized flamingos on a lake in the Chilean Andes.
But what I was seeing here, we soon discovered, were female chiru with their month-old young, about two thousand animals crowded into a dense herd. It appeared to be the vanguard of a major migration heading south. I knew almost nothing about this western chiru population. I would have to return earlier in the year, I realized, and try then to follow the animals to their calving ground.
North of the Aru basin my map showed a large plain, labeled Antelope Plain, a name given to it by the explorer Henry Deasy in after he encountered great herds of female chiru with small calves there. Was this a calving ground?
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O n first encountering chiru in , I admired their beauty and was eager to learn about their life in these bleak uplands of the Chang Tang. Then, as I grew to know them better, and become aware of the great chiru migrations, I realized that their travels defined the landscape. Protect the chiru, and all other species in the region, the whole ecosystem, would benefit. But by I realized, too, that Tibetan nomads were killing chiru not just for subsistence, something for which I have sympathy, but also for commercial profit by selling hides. What were the hides used for, and where were they sent?
I had no idea. Slowly I discovered that chiru wool was smuggled to Kashmir in India to be woven into expensive shawls, sold under the name of shahtoosh.
A Naturalist's Journeys on the Roof of the World
With the mass slaughter of chiru that began in the late s, with so many guns against them, including those of poachers who lived far from the Chang Tang, I could no longer simply continue my peaceful studies. I n the summer of , I meet Abu as usual on my arrival in Lhasa. He has recently retired as head of the Tibet Forestry Department, a position from which he always greatly helped me. From a nomad family, with a liking for the Chang Tang, he is a person of forceful intuitive and impulsive actions. Recently returned from a horseback trip to the Tian Shui River, he excitedly tells me about the many pregnant chiru females and newborns he has seen there—very near where we had been in mid-July when we observed migrating females and young without realizing that we were so near the calving ground of the Central Chang Tang population.
After the carnage of the shahtoosh trade, the news of many females and young at a calving ground excites me greatly, and I am immediately concerned that poachers might invade this area, as they have others, and that we must find out more about it. P ikas and I have seen much of each other. We are both diurnal and acute observers of behavior, the pika to monitor whether or not I am dangerous and I to delve into its life.
Those who enjoy nature can only marvel at the constant activity in a pika colony. These plains-dwelling relatives of rabbits are extremely abundant at their favored sites. They are a distinct species, the Plateau pikas, called abra by Tibetans and Ochotona curzoniae by scientists. The species name curzoniae was given in honor of Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, who instigated the invasion of Tibet in by the Young-husband expeditionary force. In spite of the unfortunate burden of its name, a pika is utterly charming in appearance, its silky fur light brown with whitish undersides, its ears small and rounded, its eyes shining, and its chunky, tailless body weighs about four to six ounces.
Though small in body, the pika has an outsized influence in maintaining the ecological integrity of the rangelands on the Tibetan Plateau. They had started in India in the town of Leh with thirty-nine mules and ponies and a staff of eleven Ladakhis, determined to be the first expedition to cross the highest and most desolate part of the Tibetan Plateau.
Traveling mostly eastward, they crossed the Lanak La, a pass of around 18, feet, at that time the border between Ladakh and Tibet.
What is it about the huge emptiness of the Tibetan Plateau, a wild and raw terrain where lakes are the color of molten turquoise, that has so ensnared me, that has drawn me back again and again over decades of fieldwork? I am still uncertain. I have been a cloudwalker up among mountains, hiking, dreaming.
This has little to do with being a naturalist.
But neither is it aberrant professionally, because a feeling of unity with a landscape and its creatures can be sought anywhere. My childhood did not predispose me to a special love of mountains or to any other particular terrain, and neither environment nor heredity bear direct responsibility for how I was assembled. He refers to himself, however, as a naturalist. Most users should sign in with their email address.
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Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys On The Roof Of The World
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