The Qiang­tang Wilder­ness: A Con­certo of Life

China Scenic - - Front Page - By Zuo Lin­gren Pho­to­graphs by Ge Qing­min Trans­la­tion by Trevor Pad­gett (CAN)

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.

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