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Review: Two from Tibet

One of the world's most elusive and cryptic beasts, the snow leopard. John Vetterli/Flickr photo

Reviews by Matt Miller, senior science writer

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.

The chiru undertake one of the longest hoofed mammal migrations in Asia. George Schaller photo
The chiru undertake one of the longest hoofed mammal migrations in Asia. George Schaller photo

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.

The Snow Leopard’s Tale. By Thomas McIntyre. Bangtail Press, 2012. 130 pages

I once thought that any book with “snow leopard” in its title would inevitably be compared, unfavorably, to Peter Matthiessen’s travel writing masterpiece, The Snow Leopard (a book in which Schaller plays a major role, coincidentally).

I was wrong. Thomas McIntyre has crafted a surreal, taut parable of wildness and civilization, an utterly original work that I can’t compare to anything I’ve read.

The novel presents an other-worldly chance encounter between a snow leopard and a Central Asian herder. That meeting results in the snow leopard seeing the world through the man’s eyes—or is it the other way around? The man-beast journeys to the city, an environment utterly nonsensical and barbaric by snow leopard standards.

I’ve read McIntyre’s work for thirty years. As a boy, yearning for outdoor adventure in far-off lands, his essays and stories transported me to places I desperately wanted to go. His prose still has that same power; I can think of few writers who so evocatively capture place.

I frequently found myself lingering on passages, enjoying the author’s mastery of language and keen observations of both the human and the animal.

But beyond the words, the book left me with an urge: to flee my desk, lope into the mountains and chase large beasts. Admittedly, I don’t need much provocation for such thoughts. If you’re the same, if you love and live for wildness, buy this book. You won’t be disappointed.

Photos: Chiru by George Schaller; snow leopard by John Vetterli/Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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