From the Field

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

April 9, 2013

Kiang, or Tibetan wild ass, are one of the many cool critters that still roam the Tibetan Plateau. Eddie Game/TNC

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.

Chiru undertake one of the longest mammal migrations in Asia. Eddie Game/TNC
Chiru undertake one of the longest mammal migrations in Asia. Eddie Game/TNC

Living life above 16,000 feet (4,900m) doesn’t seem to slow chiru in the slightest. Thanks to an increased breathing capacity (big noses, seriously), even in this thin air they are fast and with seemingly boundless energy.

Small herds of chiru were common sights on our expedition but despite being on bicycles we were never able to get close. Perhaps because of hunting, perhaps a healthy natural fear of predators, they were seriously skittish.

Other animals were not so wary.

The mountain bikers had numerous close encounters with wolves, especially around camp. Eddie Game/TNC
The mountain bikers had numerous close encounters with wolves, especially around camp. Eddie Game/TNC

Wolves would materialize seemingly out of nowhere. With no sign of the alarm we triggered in the chiru, wolves would keep a safe distance of 50 feet or so but rarely retreat further. Being slight creatures compared with their North American cousins, they neither looked nor acted intimidating. They would often stare at us with their head’s cocked sideways in an almost inquisitive fashion.

After a few run-ins with bears the presence of wolves around our camps seemed strangely comforting.

If riding on sand, being battered by blizzards, and dragging 20 days’ worth of gear across glacial boulder fields wasn’t tough enough, nearly all the raised ground (the only stuff that doesn’t turn to mud in summer) was riddled with the burrows of plateau pika. I suspect that this diminutive, hardy lagomorph makes up the vast bulk of living biomass on this part of the plateau. Their potholing of vast areas might be critical for this high altitude ecosystem, but it was also the source of agony for our backsides.

At one point on the expedition we found ourselves caught between cliffs and a river. Trying to cross the river at this point – where it resembled a racecourse for TV sized blocks of ice – seemed suicidal. So we used our climbing gear to help haul our bikes and trailers onto a ledge at the top of the cliffs; a little bicycle mountaineering we captured on video.

Upon reaching the top, exhausted but with the energy of accomplishment, we were immediately faced with another unexpected problem; we were sharing our small ledge with 2000lbs of less than thrilled wild yak (Bos mutus). Neither we or the yak seemed very sure of what the respective parties should do, so Hamish and I locked arms and stood tall. Retreat was not really an option for us, and fatigue had imbibed a careless bravery.

What do you do when you encounter 2000 pounds of wild yak on a mountain bike? Eddie Game/TNC
What do you do when you encounter 2000 pounds of wild yak on a mountain bike? Eddie Game/TNC

After a brief stand-off the yak disappeared down the side of the ravine we had just come from, largely defying my mediocre understanding of physics. Before we had time to reach the edge and check how this impossibility happened, the yak had also scaled the opposite side of the ravine. I have not been and perhaps never will be as envious of an animal as I was at that moment.

Yaks are comic. With their massive black coats nearly touch the ground they appear to float over the landscape. Their legs, when you see them, look dangerously skinny for such enormous beasts, and are complimented, clown-like, by hugely widely hooves. The best bit however, is their tail which resembles a cheer-leader’s pompom, waived artistically at us whenever we got too close.

Their horns, on the other hand, are deadly serious. We found a number of yak skeletons and just lifting a pair of horns off the ground required serious effort.

Although domestic yaks are a common site throughout much of Central Asia, wild yaks number less than 10,000 and are almost entirely restricted to the northern Tibetan plateau. We were privileged to see a few large herds (200+) of these beasts, especially around the base of Bukadaban Feng (6860m) where a series of hot springs allows relatively rich looking pasture to exist in this otherwise frozen and barren land. The lakes around Bukadaban must be some of the most stunning scenery Central Asia has to offer. My video diary from this part of the expedition does it no justice.

Unfortunately, the bears did not improve in temperament following our initial frightening encounter as recounted in my first expedition blog. All up we saw nine Tibetan blue bears. Half of these immediately ran at us but were thankfully turned by our air horns. The remaining ones, perhaps with eye sight too poor to make a confident decision, simply ambled towards us.

We also discovered the answer to what the bears were eating up here – surely chiru and kiang were too fast and yaks too well armoured? Seeing the back of a bear just above a sand ridge in the distance, we gained some height and were able to watch it rear up on its back legs and pounce forward landing heavily, front paws together, the way you see polar bears breaking the ice for seals. It was hunting pika. Smashing through the top of the burrow complex and then digging furiously to excavate a snack sized morsel. It looked like hard work and was difficult to believe it was successful. But there were a great deal of pika and the bears were big and well fed.

The author's friend Hamish Reid pedals across the Tibetan Plateau. Eddie Game/TNC
The author’s friend Hamish Reid pedals across the Tibetan Plateau. Eddie Game/TNC

This expedition was sponsored by the outdoor gear company Sea to Summit.

Eddie Game

Eddie Game is the lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, Asia Pacific Region. He is responsible for ensuring that the Conservancy remains a world leader in making science based conservation decisions, can robustly report on our impact, and that we get the greatest return for our conservation investments. Eddie has worked on conservation projects in over 15 countries, helping to apply innovative methods and analyses to projects as diverse as community protected areas in the Solomon Islands, grazing management in northern Kenya, and catchment restoration in Colombia. More from Eddie

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  1. Hi there Eddie,
    I’m researching for a new natural history TV series and we re very keen on filming on the Tibetan plateau – wold it be possible to have a brief chat to you about the are and your expedition?
    Many thanks fr your time.
    Best regards,