Reserve on the Roof of the World

Article excerpt

Only the African plains rival the Tibetan plateau for its abundance of wildlife. French explorer, Michel Peissel, who has been visiting Tibet for some forty years reports on how ten centuries of Tibetan Buddhism has preserved many archaic and unique species

In my 40 years travelling throughout Tibet, I've encountered wild yaks only twice. The first time was in 1968. I was camping at the bottom of a remote mountain pass, when, without warning, a herd of marauding mountain yak over-ran my isolated campsite. Wild yaks being so rare, I just assumed that this was a domesticated herd. My Tibetan porters bolstered this misconception by declaring that these beasts belonged to the king.

It wasn't until the next day that it dawned on me that all Tibetan wild animals are the property of the king. And it wasn't until the day after that that I realised I'd risked life and limb posing next to the biggest yak of all, oblivious to the fact that it could charge at me at any time.

That was 30 years ago. The wild yak is so rare that I had to wait three decades before I saw another one. It eventually happened on a trip to Tibet in the autumn of 1998. For days, my companion and I had crossed paths with hundreds of antelopes and gazelles, but the only evidence of wild yak had been fragments of skeletons left behind by poachers. As we trekked farther into the Great Northern Plateau, it seemed the yak would elude me again. Finally we spotted a herd in the snowfields of an unnamed mountain range, near the remote Am Lake. Panting behind my Tibetan trackers, I managed to get a good, albeit distant, view. All the animals in the 30-strong herd were jet black apart from one which was golden brown. The huge beasts were clambering like goats up a rocky, snow-covered pass 6,000 metres above sea level. And that wasn't the last of it. We were to experience a much closer encounter. Unexpectedly a solitary bull crossed our path. He was close enough for us to give chase until he turned on us so menacingly that we decided to give up. But it didn't dampen my enthusiasm for Tibetan wildlife.

Covering an area the size of western Europe, ethnic Tibet can be divided into three geographical regions, each home to an unique wildlife. The sparsely populated Great Northern Plateau is where I spotted the yaks. The only human inhabitants of this harsh lakeland region, known as the Jangtang, are nomads collecting salt from the lakes. Here strong dry winds blow every day, keeping temperatures bitterly cold throughout the year. Plant growth is severely limited and so, in turn, is animal life. Barely a dozen foreigners have penetrated many parts of Jangtang. I consider myself lucky to have been one of them.

Jangtang remains a vast unspoilt ecological zone on a par with the South Pole. The Chinese have declared it the largest game reserve in the world. As such it's near impossible to police. Already two senior Tibetan officials, nominated to organise the protection of wildlife here, have been assassinated. The finger of blame is pointing at gangs of Chinese poachers.

The second geographical region is sometimes called the Outer Plateau. This more hospitable arc stretches from Kashmir in the west to Xining in the east. Its valleys are the most urbanised parts of Tibet. The third region -- River Gorge Country -- stretches southwards towards India and is Tibet's most fertile area. The summer monsoon extends this far north, bringing with it the moisture needed for plant life to flourish. Rhododendron, azalea, laurel, bamboo, magnolia and oak all grow here. In this southeastern part of Tibet, dense forests harbour lynx, jackal, leopard, bear, wild goat, langur, wild dog and spotted cat.

The preservation of such a range of rare animals is thanks to 10 centuries of Tibetan Buddhism. Its taboo on the taking of life has ensured the survival of some unique wildlife. Equally, one of the worst climates on earth and an unforgiving geography have done little to lessen this diversity. …