Tag: kiang

Expedition to Northern Tibet, Part 2: Where the Wild Yak Roams

Kiang live up here.

We’re in the highest, most desolate section of Tibetan Plateau; a place no one lives and very few visit. And yet even here we’re accompanied by oddly domestic shapes. Kiang, or Tibetan wild ass (Equus kiang), are a strikingly coloured relative of the donkey; their red-brown backs contrasting sharply with white flanks, belly, legs, neck and muzzle.

They can survive more arid conditions than any other large mammal on the plateau, and like their less-wild cousins, are masters at finding food where there appears to be none. Their equine shape and canter are familiar even to someone who has spent very little time with horses.

As we struggle with our bike and trailers, slouching exhausted every couple of hundred meters, the domestication of equines seems like one of our species smartest achievements.

A big part of the Chinese government’s motivation for creating these nature preserves (Kekexili and Aerjinshan) was protection for the endangered Tibetan antelope or chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni). With slender arched horns the colour of ebony, chiru are an attractive antelope. But it is their pelts that are the cause of their decline. To deal with extreme cold, chiru have an extraordinarily fine and soft undercoat, known as Shahtoosh. Considered among the most luxurious and prized of all animal fibres, a shawl made of Shahtoosh can supposedly be passed through a wedding ring.

Poaching of these antelope – dramatized in the haunting film Kekexili Mountain Patrol – has pushed the small remaining population to the highest and most remote parts of the Tibetan Plateau.

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Review: Two from Tibet

Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World. By George B. Schaller. Island Press, 2012. 372 pages. 

“I am less a modern field biologist devoted to technology and statistics than a nineteenth century naturalist who with paper and pencil describes nature in detail,” writes George Schaller in his latest book, Tibet Wild.

And, indeed, no one can accuse Schaller of being a lab- or desk-bound scientist: Few have spent more time among the large, wild beasts. He’s studied Serengeti’s lions, India’s tigers and Brazil’s jaguars. He’s lived with gorillas and tracked snow leopards in the Himalayas. He led one of the first comprehensive studies of giant panda habitat and conservation.

But perhaps his most important work has been his three decades of research in the Tibetan Plateau, a remote region little known to most outsiders (including many wildlife enthusiasts). He first began exploring the region seeking the migration route of the chiru, a little-known antelope species that embarks on one of the great seasonal mammal movements in the world.

Schaller’s search for chiru reads like adventure from an earlier time—with horrible weather, impassable routes and dead ends galore. He and his teammates persevere and map the migration through one of Asia’s wildest regions.

However, he has never been content to merely record biological detail; he has been a fierce advocate for conservation throughout his career. As a biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera, he uses the information gathered to inform plans for protected areas and community-based conservation projects.

Over the decades, Schaller has witnessed alarming changes in Tibet. For millennia, nomadic herders and huge herds of grazing wildlife thrived together on the grasslands. But that deep relationship has been changing, fast. In part, that can be traced to the end of nomadic traditions. Herders have been encouraged (or forced) to settle, which means their livestock is fenced to one patch of land, leading to overgrazing, wildlife conflicts and economic hardship.

Schaller details a distressing list of problems facing plateau wildlife: fences, poaching, the slaugher of antelopes for fashion, corrupt trophy hunting programs, the poisoning of pikas, mining, roads and more.

He remains optimistic, though, that by involving local people in conservation programs that benefit them, the great herds, large predators and productive grasslands can once again thrive.

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.

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