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Playing the Field

The role of field biologists is changing as conservation biology evolves and ecological challenges mount.

By | December 1, 2012

ISLAND PRESS, OCTOBER 2012

When I began conducting research on the Tibetan Plateau with Chinese colleagues in 1984, I was entranced by the luminous grandeur of this high, wild, and harsh land. The Chang Tang, or northern plain, with its unique assemblage of wild yaks, Tibetan wild asses, Tibetan gazelles, and especially Tibetan antelope or chiru, intrigued me. Chiru made mysterious migrations to remote calving grounds. Their journey not only crossed but defined the landscape—the whole Chang Tang ecosystem, I soon realized—and it needed protection and management. Over the years and with great foresight, China established several contiguous reserves totaling about 450,000 km2, an area larger than California, in the north- western half of the Tibetan Plateau.

But no protected area is ever safe, anywhere, as I have learned firsthand. Chiru were slaughtered en masse for their fine undercoat, which was woven into shahtoosh shawls in India and sold as a high-priced fashion accessory to the world’s wealthy.

I write about this and other conservation challenges encountered on the roof of the world in my latest book, Tibet Wild. Examples of such challenges abound. Many Tibetan pastoralists moved from tents into huts, changing both their lifestyles and the habits of Tibetan brown bears, which smashed into homes in search of food. More livestock fences hindered wildlife movement. Illegal gold mines desecrated protected areas. When does a field biologist stop observing and take a stand?

Field biologists were once free to focus narrowly on the habits of plants and animals. Over the years, I have greatly enjoyed observing mountain gorillas, lions, and other species just to learn about their lives. When I began my career in the 1950s, conservation tended to be peripheral to basic research, but the discipline of conservation biology grew as humans swamped the planet and plundered its resources. The fragmenting of habitats accelerated extinction rates of some species and severely limited the ranges of widely roaming species. Even the protected areas were too small to sustain a full complement of species. Now, our goal is to conserve whole landscapes or ecosystems, comprising well-protected core areas connected by corridors of habitat to enable dispersal, while also carefully managing the remaining landscape for human use.

Natural history remains, of course, the cornerstone upon which conservation must be based, but in my work I have had to deal more and more with economic, social, and local cultural matters to protect my study species and their habitats. I soon learned that no matter what a country’s laws, conservation ultimately depends on the goodwill, insights, participation, and moral values of communities. How should field biologists adapt in response to such changes and demands? What should a project’s legacy be?

A university education did not prepare me to deal with human livelihood issues. How do you compensate a family whose sheep have been killed by an endangered snow leopard? Human communities living in and around protected areas naturally resent constraints on using resources such as fuel wood. Even where there is tourism, most local people derive little direct financial benefit from conservation.  One somehow needs to repay a community for protecting a watershed or
a tiger population.

Conservation is an issue of beauty, ethics, and spiritual values: we don’t save the giant panda solely because it represents biodiversity. Conservation is also intensely political. Through my work on the Tibetan Plateau, I have come to realize that government departments, communities, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and scientific organizations have to work together in order to achieve environmental harmony.

Conservation is a never-ending task, made even more complex by rapid climate change. As our small planet approaches its biological limit through greed, waste, and indifference, everyone must somehow become involved. In the words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “You have to be the change you want to see in the world.”

And, yes, I still snatch time just to observe wildlife.

George B. Schaller is affiliated with Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Read an excerpt from
Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World.

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