George Schaller, exploring the beauty of nature on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau
George Schaller walks by a lake in Baiyu Township of Jiuzhi County in Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, May 24, 2019. Photo by Zhang Hongxiang
By Xia Xiao, Jiang Shiqiang, Li Linhai
American scientist George Schaller is no stranger to the cold and wildness of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Wearing a down jacket and always holding a notebook, the 86-year-old returned to his research on the plateau last month.
Schaller, a senior biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), has come to China more than 60 times since the 1980s. This year, Schaller and his team carried out a month-long research project in northwest China's Qinghai Province.
When his car couldn't move forward in areas 4,000 meters above sea level, the octogenarian braved the cold to walk around 10 km to reach his destination.
He believes that early western travelers' description of the remote plateau aroused his curiosity, and it was destiny that brought him to China to continue his pursuit of finding beauty in nature.
George Schaller stands near a lake in Baiyu Township of Jiuzhi County in Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, May 24, 2019. Photo by Zhang Hongxiang
BORN TO LOVE ANIMALS
Schaller was born in 1933 in Berlin and moved to the United States in his teens. He loves birds, pikas and other animals. When he entered university in the U.S. in the 1950s, he was determined to turn his hobby into a career.
In the following 50 years, Schaller created a legendary life of wildlife conservation. He headed to the wild, studying and protecting lions on the African prairie, tigers in central India, leopards in Brazil, giant pandas, Tibetan antelopes and snow leopards in China.
A ladybug sits on George Schaller's pants in Baiyu Township of Jiuzhi County in Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, May 24, 2019. Photo by Zhang Hongxiang
"I have traveled to 32 countries across the world. I took my wife and two sons far away from the cities to the wild. Sometimes we lived in tents and my children were often accompanied by animals we had rescued, such as a lion cub."
He used to select a local animal as his totem wherever he did his research. The gorilla, panda and Tibetan antelope were all former totems.
George Schaller (1st L) talks with local kids in Baiyu Township of Jiuzhi County in Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, May 23, 2019. Photo by Zhang Hongxiang
"ROOTED" IN CHINA
In 1980, Schaller was the first western scientist invited by the Chinese government to study giant pandas in southwest China's Sichuan Province. He spent five years studying this precious creature and wrote the book "The Last Panda" about his experiences and those of his Chinese colleagues.
"Natural vicissitudes and human activity dramatically reduced giant panda's habitats, as well as their staple food: bamboo," Schaller recalled the situation when he was in Sichuan nearly four decades ago.
He said the crackdown on poaching was the priority at the time and the destruction of forests must be stopped.
"Fortunately, people are becoming aware of the problem." He praised the Chinese government for their protection efforts in the past, including rehabilitating panda habitats, establishing patrol teams and building monitoring stations.
"China has been stepping up efforts to create a worry-free future for pandas, which must act as a permanent symbol of ecological conservation, a shining miracle of natural evolution and continue to thrive in the newly created Giant Panda National Park."
In 1984, Schaller was asked to carry out wildlife research on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau by Chinese authorities.
The plateau, known as the "third pole of the Earth" and also home to the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang rivers, attracted him.
"In my eyes, the snow mountains and glaciers on the plateau are the most beautiful places in the world. However, wildlife was not adequately protected."
In the late 1980s, he found that Tibetan antelopes were being killed, with their fine wool smuggled to India to make a high-end cashmere product called Shahtoosh, which was being sold in Europe, America and Arab countries. Each Shahtoosh shawl was sold for several thousand U.S. dollars, which would result in the deaths of three to five Tibetan antelopes.
Photo taken on May 19, 2015 shows a Tibetan antelope in Hoh Xil, northwest China's Qinghai Province. Photo by Wu Gang
"It was the Chinese government's tough measures against poaching in the 1990s that the lives of the Tibetan antelopes had been saved," said Schaller, who was the first person to call for a halt of the trade of Shahtoosh shawls in the international community.
Thanks to greater efforts from the international society, the Shahtoosh shawl is currently a banned item with possession and sale being illegal in most countries.
"China was fortunate that, as a developing country, the Chinese government has recognized the importance of environmental protection and is willing to make efforts for it."
"Environmental protection is not only a rational move but also a behavior of love and emotion from the heart. I feel like I'm a lawyer, defending innocent wild animals," said Schaller.
George Schaller (C) poses for a photo with local herdsmen after an interview in Wasai Township of Jiuzhi County in Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, May 22, 2019. Photo by Zhang Hongxiang
HARMONY BETWEEN MAN AND NATURE
On June 2, Schaller returned to Xining, capital of Qinghai. He was offered white Hadas (a traditional ceremonial scarf in Tibetan Buddhism) by the local residents, in honor of his dedication to nature.
Apart from exchanging ideas with the local officials of ecology and environment, Schaller said he also spent much time seeing the changes in the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve by himself and talking with local herders to gather their wisdom concerning nature protection.
"I was surprised by Qinghai Province's wonderful conservation efforts. But there have also been dramatic changes. Small towns have become big cities. There are more roads. Many herder families lived in the yak tents in the past, but they have houses now, with televisions, electric lights and other equipment. There are also major changes in lifestyles," said Schaller, adding that he saw some herders had given up herding and others had joined community cooperatives.
"Local communities and residents have been playing an important role in wildlife protection over the past half-century," Schaller said.
He mentioned that local herders picked up worms scattered on the road in Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yushu and set them free on the grassland.
"Only when the awareness of ecological improvement and environmental protection are integrated with local traditions and customs can the relationship between nature and humans become closer and more harmonious," he said.
George Schaller (R) and his colleague Gao Yufang talk with local herdsmen in Baiyu Township of Jiuzhi County in Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, May 23, 2019. Photo by Zhang Hongxiang
But sometimes there are differences of opinions.
Jamyang Tongyon is a Tulku or living Buddha of a monastery in Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Golog. His monastery registered as a wildlife conservation association in 2013. More than 200 monks participate in wildlife protection in their spare time.
Jamyang and the monks feed blue sheep on the mountains in winter, but Schaller doesn't agree, believing that it is best not to interfere with nature unless necessary.
"Science is rational, but Buddhism teaches people to have a merciful heart. We appreciate that Schaller sowed the seeds of conserving the wilderness in the hearts of local people," said Jamyang.
"I've worked in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Qinghai. They are such beautiful and diverse regions," said Schaller. "I'm thrilled that the government has been implementing conservation programs. This keeps bringing me back because I like to help in any way possible. I hope I can return each year for the next forty years."
For the 86-year-old, environmental protection and wildlife conservation are long journeys.
"Destroy your environment, and you destroy yourself. If you want a healthy future for your children and your children's children, you have to protect your environment. It needs everybody," the biologist said. (XINING 2019-06-12 17:18:05)
Editor: Miao Hong