The Qiangtang Wilderness: A Concerto of Life
The Qiangtang Plateau is one of Earth’s last uninhabited wildernesses, a land of harsh extremes and devastatingly inhospitable. It is also devastatingly beautiful. As pleasing to the eye as it might be, however, it is not a land conducive to human survival, and the plateau has at times been regarded as a place on our planet that is “unfit for humans”. While its demanding topography and climate may repel humans, is has become a magnet for wildlife. In fact, this region, China’s largest and most intact wilderness, is a biological refuge. The rocky windswept plateau may at first appear desolate, but looks are deceiving: The Qiangtang Plateau is rich with life, an epicenter of biodiversity comparable to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.A. or the African Serengeti savannah.
The brown bear is an animal rarely seen in the wilderness of China, yet here at Qiangtang, you sometimes find these giant beasts appearing in front of your vehicle. In spite of being one of the endangered animals of China, the brown bear is not welcomed by the local people, especially the herdsmen, because the bear takes livestock for food. For conservationists, finding the balance between protecting wildlife and guaranteeing interests of local people is their first concern.
In the northwestern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, far above the Himalayas and stretching deep into a part of the map that few eyes, let alone feet, dare to venture is an expanse of flat, rocky, and seemingly lifeless land. To the eye this place appears to be nothing more than an endless desert; a flat nothingness of land filled only with rock, besieged with epic winds and frigid cold, some breathtaking 4600 meters above sea level. This is the Qiangtang Plateau.
This apparent wasteland covers more than 600,000 square kilometers, stretching from the northwest to the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau. Its flatness lies in such stark contrast with its surrounding mountainous topography as if it must have been mistakenly dropped from the sky by an uncaring architect. Within the flatness, however, is relief – the plateau is sliced into pieces by large gaping valleys, the results of eons of melt water etching their way through the interminable rocky floor. These valley bottoms have grown wide and formed basins, the larger of which have become dotted with lakes of frigid clear water. These basins have a name – lacustrine plains – and are gorgeous remnants of the countless floods that have graced the plateau, as well as the annual flushes of meltwater from the snow-capped mountains decorating its perimeter. In all directions, this rocky and dusty land appears lifeless; it looks to be a geological wonderland, but a biological wasteland.
This expanse of “nothingness”, the apparent biological wasteland is, in contrast to first impressions, actually a land of plenty – it is the savannah of Asia.
The exact border of the Qiangtang Plateau has never been clear. Forgotten and unexplored, the difficulty in accessing its interior has kept all but a few people from attempting to properly map the region. Even the stoic Tibetans who had persevered in other unfavorable habitats for generation rarely set foot within its borders. It was, for a long time, the last piece of land on the planet that remained truly wild and unknown. It was not until the 20th century that the region finally earned the world’s attention.
April 4, 2000, was the day. Owing to mounting scientific support and public pressure, it finally became unavoidable, both ecologically and politically, that this part of the Tibetan Plateau was in need of formal protection. Its cultural and ecological treasures– despite being lost to history or hidden to the eye – were enough to help establish what is now known as the Qiangtang Nature Reserve. With an area just under 250 000 square kilometers, the Qiangtang Nature Reserve protected more than 40% of the total Qiangtang Plateau ecosystem, and became the world’s highest nature reserve. Classified as an alpine desert grassland ecosystem, it is a truly unique ecosystem and, importantly, a vital sanctuary for many species, particularly large ungulates.
Tibetan Antelopes: Life in the Shadow of Snow-capped Mountains
In May of 2013, I accompanied the Imaging Biodiversity Expedition (IBD) research team to the Qiangtang Plateau. The team was a joint initiative between the South China Institute of Endangered Animals and the local forest departments of Tibet. They problem they were working on was the basic understanding of the plateau ecosystem – it had been more than a decade since the reserve was established, but still so little was known of this apparent alpine oasis. Together, their goal was to dig deep into the reserve to observe and photograph the life that called Qiangtang home.
Many years later I recall this trip with great fondness: the clear and cold lakes; the monstrously large mountains frosted with snow, standing like guards protecting us from the outside world; the laughs and angst shared with the researchers; the long and tiring truck rides with trails of dust following off into the distance; the hours spent digging out the same truck tires when they became stuck in the mud; the smoke calmly rising from the rare goat herders’ homes we passed along the way. It was an adventure, and in my mind the scenes play out in fast forward, as if they were a
montage of childhood memories from a film, all happening in one exciting moment. But when I recall one aspect, the reel slows and the moments stretch out: Antelope. When I think of the antelope, my mind calms and I remember every moment as it was.
The Tibetan antelope lives on relatively dry steppes of the Qinghai-tibet Plateau. Although called “antelope,” DNA analysis shows that it is much closer to lamb and goat. Every year, large herds of Tibetan antelope migrate between their foraging and breeding sites. In the past, they were hunted for fur, and thus driven to the edge of extinction, but now, after poaching was prohibited and is strictly controlled, the population of the Tibetan antelope is recovering. Photo/ Jue Guo
A grand spectacle takes place in May and June of each year, when female Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) emerge from all over the greater plateau and the encircling mountains to migrate en masse to their breeding grounds in the Qiangtang Nature Reserve. This behavior is unique to the Tibetan antelope; near the Mayer Kangri Mountains, tall snowy massifs near the border of the reserve, I once witnessed tens of thousands of female antelope moving together in their migration. Like an orchestrated dance, the throng of ungulates moved in unison as if they had united into one pulsating body – they moved together more as a colonial organism than a herd of individuals. I remember ever detail.
Driving up the edge of the plateau, as our truck approaches this mass migrating antelopes we slow to a crawl. Despite our best efforts, we manage to get close to the herd, but never close enough. As we approach, the antelope scatter, fleeing off in all directions and leaving only a plume of dust in their wake. A few stragglers resist the urge to flee, but when we near they suddenly shift from gentle trot to full sprint, bolting to the side of our truck for a few meters, then turning, flinging up dust and stones, and veering off in the opposite direction. Then it would double back, veering back and forth off into the distance. Our view becomes nothing more than a blur of dust and hooves. We decide to wait. We stop the truck and ready our cameras. Under the beaming afternoon plateau sun, we wait, some hanging out of windows and some laying on the truck roof in anticipation of a lone antelope making its way to us. None volunteer to visit. Perhaps their fear was from a cultural memory of humans hunting them in generations long past, or perhaps it was a natural survival instinct that had
nothing to do with us. No matter what it was, the result was the same: Tibetan antelopes are tough critters to capture on film.
To this day, I remember the feeling of waking up the next morning to the cold and fresh plateau air. My tent is fluttering in the morning gusts of wind, the sound of which proves to be a gentle, and reliable, plateau alarm clock. I am with Li Xiaoyan, a researcher with the South China Institute of Endangered Animals, and her team of researchers. It is an elite group, tasked with photographing an equally elite, and difficult, subject – Tibetan Antelopes. After the failed attempt to take photos from the truck, the second day we choose to go out on foot. Set to the sound of crunching rock, we carry our gear up to the crest of a small hill. The crunching rock soundtrack ends and is quickly replaced by a string of orderly thuds as each of us unshoulders our pack. The walk was long, the packs heavy, and the air is thin. We take a moment to allow ourselves to make a thud of our own as we all find a place to sit and take a well-deserved break.
Though tired, none of us can sit still for too long. Sore muscles and heaving chests will fix themselves, but the antelope only come by once a year. I feel the unspoken sense of urgency as they, and then I, start to unpack our gear. The ground is quickly littered with gear: binoculars, cameras, lenses, tripods, and notebooks. One by one we stand and scan the sun-soaked valley below us. We are shocked by what we see – seemingly countless female Tibetan antelope are scattered throughout the valley, the morning sun casting a rich golden hue on the rocky ground as they move, almost like a dance, across the land. At our distance we hear nothing. Despite the mass of bodies trampling and churning up dust across the plateau, we are left in silence, as if we are watching a nature documentary on mute.
Standing on the hill, camera in hand, I am too excited and surprised to move. While I stand motionlessly in awe, Li Xiaoyan wastes no time getting to work. Ever the professional, she is amazed but not immobilized by the scene – she quickly scribbles numbers on a page, looks again down the valley, takes pictures, counts, scribbles more numbers, and then finally tells me there are, probably, ten thousand. Maybe a few more.
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) researcher Dr. Kang Aili, after examining the pictures and cross-referencing with previous year’s data, suggests that the number might be higher. Flipping between photos and a laptop screen of numbers and graphs, she tells me that this annual data collection is more than just a number. Getting an accurate set of long term data on how many of these female antelope take part in the migration to the breeding ground is imperative in the conservation efforts she is a part of. It takes time to amass a large enough data set from which you can squeeze out patterns to help the conservation cause. And to acquire such a data set requires dedication. And for Li Xiaoyan, dedication means year after year standing on hills and counting antelopes into the thousands. For her it is a labor of love, a challenge
that is undertaken with passion. She smiles, gazes out at the valley now pulsating with life, and waves goodbye as the Tibetan ladies pass by in the distance. Until next year.
Qiangtang: A Unique Wilderness
George Schaller, famous field biologist, has spent many of his days, years actually, if those days were added up, outside. In his unending plight to save wild spaces and the animals within, he is not only an expert biologist, but has taken his work as field biologist to an extreme and has become a renowned for his dedication to conservation. He has worked in the African savannah, where he spent many years contributing his time and expertise to various wildlife conservation initiatives, and has led many other conservation projects that have taken him to places such as Brazil, The Congo, and southern China, to name a few. In the past decade he has become particularly committed to the protection of the Tibetan antelope. After spending some time in the Qiangtang region, he remarked that “there are many unique places; however, the Tibetan Plateau remains in a natural state and, as far as wildlife conservation is concerned, it is one of the best preserved habitats in the world”. He further noted that the adverse climate and rather inadequate resource for human survival is a benefit to its wild state. Other than a few roaming herders, the human footprint on the plateau is remarkably small. It is possibly Earth’s last place left untouched.
And that, perhaps best explains Qiangtang: a piece of land untouched; Schaller’s “best preserved habitat”. It is also, surprisingly to some, wildly biodiverse. Though words such as “desert”, “prairie”, and “alpine” are used to describe the region – words which do not conjure up images of diverse ecosystems– it is in fact one of the most diverse places on Earth. The name “Qiangtang” itself suggests a paucity of life, meaning “bare land in the north” in Tibetan. However, the reality on the ground is in striking opposition to its name. The Qiangtang Plateau is home to rare and unique species – floral and faunal – co-existing in tight-knit ecological networks, and is hotbed of evolutionary change. Conservation biologists have listed this region as one of the most important ecosystems on the planet, but also one in dire need of concentrated conservation effort.
From the first time I visited Qiangtang, I instinctively compared it to a well-known ecosystem: The Serengeti of Africa. Despite the grand disparity in popularity, Qiangtang is in no way inferior in terms of biological diversity and number of rare or endangered species. In the African savannah, life seems to be everywhere, crawling on trees and sneaking through the shoulder-high grass. Here, too, life saturates the land and the huge number of mammals lives out long lives in Schaller’s “last great natural habitats”, together creating a great concerto of life. These are two comparable ecosystems. And though one is in Africa and one in Asia, separated by kilometers and years of evolutionary change, there is much that they share.
In China, you can hardly find packs of wolves wandering in the wild but Qiangtang is perhaps one of the last refugees for these predators. Normally, wolves in Qiangtang feed on small rodents, such as pica, but that does not mean they reject the chance to hunt down much larger prey, like the kiang (or Tibetan wild ass), shown in the photo. For wolves, livestock in villages is easier to catch, hence we can understand why people hate them. But as top predator in the food chain, the wolf is indispensable in a stable ecosystem. Photo/ Xi Zhinong
I often think of the Tibetan antelope, and marvel at their audacious efforts. There are too few adjectives of praise available to properly give them their due justice; pregnant females undergoing an arduous annual trek through a land of hardship, enduring the violent cold and wind as they strike off across a rock and dust filled abyss, thousands of meters up in the sky. Year after year they return. They fight and walk and never stop, all in an effort to keep their species alive. Along the way wolves, bears, foxes, and a host of other predators, large and small, take their turn culling the numbers in their own desperate fight for survival.
Back on the hill, my perch offers me a grand view of the valley and I secretly hope to catch one of these predators in action. Alone, and with only the silent bustling of antelope floating across the plateau, my mind is left to wander. In the chaotic afternoon wind I pull my jacket closed, tuck in my hands and stare off to the place where earth meets sky. I take in the whole scene and I think back to my question: Is it not the same as a wildebeest crossing a crocodile infested river? Is this not the Serengeti of the north? Or, perhaps more fairly, is the Serengeti not just the Tibetan Plateau of the south?
Later, I pose this Serengeti ecosystem paradox to Peking University postdoctoral researcher Wen Cheng. He smiles, and nods in agreement. As he tells me, there are more similarities than I realized. He adds to my wildebeest idea and tells me that, ecologically, the ecosystems are structured quite the same. In the natural ecosystem of the savannah or grasslands, the African equivalent of the Asian steppe and montane
grasslands, buffalo, zebra, and various antelope species co-exist; in the American grasslands there are bison, wild horses, and American pronghorn. Here, on the plateau, the protagonists of the story are the wild yak, Tibetan ass, and, of course, the Tibetan antelope. Africa has crocodiles, America has wolves, just as the plateau has its host of predators. The names are different, but the ecological system and players are remarkably similar.
Why, then, do I feel a strange unease when I made the comparison myself? The Tibetan Plateau competes with the great grassland and savannah ecosystems across Europe, Africa, and North America, but I feel that there is still a difference.
This map shows an important environmental index called the “human footprint,” which was calculated using human density, road density, human use of land, human house numbers, and so on, to reveal how humans have influenced the world. With this map, we can see thatqiangtang is definitely a typical area with little human influence, especially compared to eastern China. Map/ Liu Wei
The reason for my insecurity is that I am trying to compare an incomparable place. The average elevation of the Qiangtang Plateau is over 4600 meters above sea level, bringing it in stark contrast with any other ecosystem our planet has to offer. At this elevation, the region needs nor has any comparable ecosystem – the plateau is unique, an otherworldly place of immense and untouched wilderness, teeming with life. When spring arrives, the sound of hooves pounding the dusty rock is replaced by the gentle trickling of water, melted snow from the mountains above that descends its way to the plateau and gives life to the awakening spring world. Prickly blue poppies (Meconopsis horridula) open their arms and releases their passionate yellow pollen;
falcons dive from cliff edges light bolts of lightning from the heavens; pika’s emerge from their rocky crevices to vociferously announce their territory; plump marmots amble out of their winter den and lazily bask in the spring warmth; our Tibetan antelope slowly browse the fresh spring growth; two-meter tall yaks amble around the endlessly flat land like kids on the playground; bears emerge and ponder their first meal; snow leopards hide in the recesses until dusk to hunt. The story could go on for pages. When your eyes are ready to look, the Qiangtang Plateau proves that it is alive, vivid, and beautiful.
Qiangtang is not “like” anything on the planet: it is a unique and untouched anomaly, an ecological paradise at the top of the world.
Brown Bears: Breaking the Harmony?
Though over the years I have come to love – even crave – this plateau, it was not always this way. My first trip to the Tibetan Plateau was purely impulsive and borne of a need to get away; in 2009 I resigned from my job of six years, giving up my career in one big decision, and began a second life as a wildlife photographer. At the time I had the skill and I had the equipment, and now the time, I just needed a place to go. I began searching and was almost instantly struck by the little known world of the plateau. So, as impulsively as I left my career, I headed towards the plateau. In April and August of 2009 I joined the WCS in Qiangtang as a “human-bear conflict” volunteer, working in the Nima and Double Lake regions of the Qiangtang Nature Reserve. This was my introduction to the wild world of Qiangtang.
Up until the 1970’s, the somewhat magical 33 degree latitude line that cuts through Qiangtang was the start of no- man’s land; outside of a very few herders, hunters, and a scattering of nomadic people, there was no human activity and certainly no fixed habitation north of this line. But people did make it in, illegally, searching out precious and lucrative resources from the land and up until the reserve was established, the “poaching problem”, as it was called, continued to get more and more troubling. After the Qiangtang Nature Reserve was established there was a renewed push to end poaching. After 20 years of anti-poaching efforts, the reserve finally offered tangible tools to bring about real change. And, for the most part, it worked. Gradually, because of this suppressed – though still not absent – poaching, the wild populations of many animals began to rise and tabilize.
Every sword has two edges, however, and as conservation biologists rejoiced in the uptick of natural populations of the species hardest hit by poaching, a second problem emerged. Local herders and pastoralists started pushing further into the reserve’s interior, bringing with them cattle and families. The new problem was the conflict between the wild animals that had regained a footing – or, perhaps more aptly, a hoofing or a pawing – on their natural range and these introduced livestock. Bears, a top predator in the plateau, were the worst offenders and were implicated in many of the herders’ complaints. The conflict elicited not only complaints, but more
importantly the suggestion retaliation of the herders on the bears, as well as wolves and a host of other predators that plagued their livestock. This presented a potential conservation nightmare. In response, in a few of the regions that were most impacted by the bears, the WCS began a “human-bear conflict” project. It was an effort to both protect the herders that claimed ancestral rights to reserve’s land, as well as the natural wildlife, bears particularly, with whom they coexisted. Real wilderness, particularly Earth’s last chunk of it, may be beautiful, but it is certainly not, as I imagined, paradise for everyone.
Enthralled by the opportunity to take part in such a program, I slung my camera over my shoulder, packed my bags, and left home. Despite my audacious jump at the opportunity and hope filled intentions, my first two trips – each more than 40 days long – reaped no photographic rewards: I saw no bears. Not even a hair or pile of bear scat. My luck would, however, soon change.
Scattered lakes and ponds in Qiangtang provide ideal habitats for birds and mammals. During the breeding season from April to May, ruddy shelducks start to build their nests in caves near water and steppe. In the photo, several fledglings, accompanied by their parents, are wandering on the grassland under a snowy mountain. By October, they will master the skill of flying, and then migrate to their wintering site in warmer places. Photo/ Liu Siyuan
My third trip to the Qiangtang Nature Reserve followed much the same pattern as my previous two. My work with the WCS bear project continued, and I was getting a better handle of what it takes to conduct proper wildlife research, but also how to be a better photographer. It also followed the trend of the first two trips, at the beginning at least, in that there were no bears. This changed one afternoon near the end of my trip. We found traces of bear prey – in this case, pika – and searched along their rocky habitat for a good kilometer in hopes of finding bear sign. Suddenly, as if emerging
out of the ether, no more than 100 meters in front of us stood a bear. Poking its head out from behind a medium-sized rock, it stood on its hind legs and stared us down. We were all in shock – us and the bear. Liang Xuchang, a WCS team member walking near me, immediately shouted “brown bear!”. This startled the bear and caused it to run. With my camera held tightly to my eye, through the viewfinder I watched the bear retreat, running at full speed across the plateau, down a small incline and across a river. The snapping of my camera shutter followed it the entire way until, almost 200 meters from us, it stopped and turned to watch us. There it stood, safe and distant, but aware that we were in its home. It was my first bear, remains to be one of the more moving experiences of my life.
I always wanted to meet another plateau bear, perhaps even the same one I met on my previous trip, and often reflect on the fact that my emotion as a photographer is completely opposite to that of the herdsmen. To them the bears are a nuisance or threat, destroying their livestock and even causing fatalities with the herdsmen themselves. A story once relayed to me tells of the fear associated with the bears. It is of a herdsman who was traveling with his family: Awoken one night to the sound of a cracking branch, the herdsman knows it to be a bear and his three daughter lighted firecrackers and tossed them outside. The bear – or whatever intruder it was – left. There were no more cracked branches, no more sounds; the threat was gone, and the family went back to sleep.
It is a simple story, but its simplicity tells of the normality of bear encounters But it has a meaning – fear of the bears is a part of the herdsman culture; it is not just fear, it is understanding that the bears mean death to either their livelihood, or them. And they must fight back to survive. Now, when I return to the reserve and see a herdsman I often notice that they are carrying a shotgun, surely a more effective tool than a lone firecracker. No matter firecracker or gun, the message is clear: to survive on the plateau is a battle against the elements, and against bears.
The conflict between bears and humans is real, but it is more importantly a microcosm of the plight of global conservation efforts. The real problem is the protection of biodiversity, and the herders are the newcomers and need to learn how to live sustainably without destroying the land they are new to. They know this, and they are eager to co-exist. But today the problems are exacerbated by a larger influx of migrants, and increasing human activities along the border are pushing their way into the interior of this once forgotten and unknown hinterland. People bring livestock, grasslands turn to dust, bears get killed, roads get built giving people access and poaching begins to increase once again. Wild animals, the antelope and bears and wolves and foxes, are left to compete with asphalt, shotguns, and hundreds of cattle. Qiangtang is harsh enough, and I wonder if the land and its native inhabitants can survive this newest addition to the land.
In Qiangtang, there are approximately 22,000 to 28,000individualkiangs, and a typical kiang herd consists of100 to 300 individuals. They are an animal of “strong character”: if you drive a vehicle near the kiangs, they feel that they are being challenged and dash at their full speed towards the vehicle to win the “contest.” To avoid hurting them, people usually stop their vehicles far away from the herds. Photo/ Xu Bo
The solution is not to evict humans from the equation. For thousands of years, the Qiangtang ecosystem was able to retain a large host of large mammals, and has continued with its unique ecological and evolutionary processes, not in the absence of humans, but in the presence of humans acting in accordance to the natural laws of the land. Ecologically, there have always been humans somewhere in the region, and the Tibetan Plateau is a place built by the natural interaction, a symbiosis of sorts, of local herders and the wild animals. If the plateau teaches us anything, it is that humans can and should coexist in wild spaces with wild species. But they need to follow the rules; the wave of economic development and practices that bend the ecological pillars, sometimes to the point of breaking, are not following the rules. If the reserve can help attain peace between the land and its animals – human and bear, antelope and fox, pika and vulture – then the thin dotted line that outlines the protected area will do more than just be a place on a map. It will remain Earth’s last wilderness, a wild place where humans are at home.