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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys to the Roof of the World

"Bears, snow leopards, and I like the jumble of limestone which covers some slopes and ridges, a place of strangeness and beauty.  The gray and faintly pink rocks are worn smooth by the elements into congealed shapes of gargoyles and goblins.  When I walk among these pinnacles, domes, and cliffs, it's like being in a strange and silent city, caves in the rocks like dark windows and doors leading into an alternate world."

Before there was Jane Goodall, and before there was Dian Fossey, there was (and still is) George B. Schaller.  Perhaps the world's most renown field biologist, Schaller has spent decades in the field around the world, providing science with its first, most intimate glimpses into the hidden lives of some of the world's most charismatic mammals.  He has been the friend and patron of many of today's leading field biologists, such as Alan Rabinowitz (and he maintains an active role in Rabinowitz's NGO Panthera).  He has studied the mountain gorillas of the Congo, the lions of the Serengeti, and the giant pandas of Sichuan. He was the first westerner to ever see a live snow leopard in the wild.

The snow leopard is one of the stars of Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys to the Roof of the World, a reminiscence of Schaller's years of involvement in the conservation of wildlife in Central Asia's Tibetan Plateau.  One of the highest, coldest, driest places on earth, the plateau nonetheless supports an amazing variety of wildlife.  Herds of yaks, gazelle, deer, wild sheep, and wild asses are preyed upon by wolves and snow leopards.  Tibetan brown bears forage through the mountains and meadows.  Pikas churn the soil like the prairie dogs of the New World.  An endless variety of birds, from snow buntings to massive vultures, soar across the skies.

It's hard to imagine a more desolate place outside of the polar regions, but there are people here too, and they make up a major part of Schaller's experience.  For generation, the plains have been roamed by nomadic herds, driving their sheep, goats, and yaks across the plateau in search of grazing.  Today, like people all over the world, they find themselves increasingly torn between what life used to be and what they want it to be in the future.  Communities are settling down, building roads, and incorporating more technology into their daily lives.  Immigrants are moving in, attracted by gold mines or by the prospect of hunting (more on that in a moment).  As the human communities change, the wildlife feels the pinch.  Pikas are blamed unjustly for depleted soil conditions caused by overgrazing and are poisoned in mass.  Human-bear conflicts increase, leading to more and more dangerous encounters.  Grazers crash into fences meant to confine once-migratory livestock herds.  In many of the villages that Schaller visits, only the elders remember the presence of some species.

The snow leopard may be the most glamorous of the species Schaller encounters, but the star of the book is perhaps the species least known outside of the Tibet - the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, which graces the cover of the book.  Rivalling the oryx and the rhinoceros as a possible source of the legend of the unicorn, the chiru is the source of some of the finest fleece in the world - Schaller describes how an entire shawl can be pulled through a wedding ring.  Recently, the species has come to the attention of the world's fashion markets, and the resultant slaughter has been dreadful (made worse, in part, by an insistent by incorrect belief that the fleece is shed naturally and that no animals are harmed in the production of the shawls).

Schaller is a naturalist of the old-school... and I mean that he can sometimes come across as a misanthropic crank.  His writing gives the impression of a man who is happiest out in the wild; in fact, he says the happiest his family has ever been was when he, his wife, and their two boys lived out on the Serengeti.  Schaller acknowledges readily that conservation must work for local people to make it work at all - he pens several little fables about pikas to teach Tibetan children in order to broaden community support for the little critters.  Still, he seems irritably dismissive of ecotourism.  For a man who's drawn a paycheck from the Bronx Zoo for years, he has a dim view of captive breeding in most cases.  And he seems to view the current genetics-driven craze of conservation biology with somewhat sardonic amusement. 

Still, no one has done more to open up the world of animals to science than Schaller... even if we get the impression that he'd rather ignore the whole hullabaloo, shoulder a pack, and head over to the next mountain range.

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