Chasing the Spirit of Conservation on the Himalayan Rim

On the breathtaking slopes of the Tibetan Plateau, local communities are merging science and tradition to protect the fragile environment.

Kyle Obermann is an environmental explorer and photographer currently working in southwestern China’s Hengduan Mountains .

Gengga sipped nonchalantly at his glass of sparkling grape juice on a cool summer afternoon on the Tibetan Plateau, 3,800 meters above sea level. “Do not kill anything unless you must,” he said, colorful prayer flags beating behind us in the breeze. “But when you must, do it in the gentlest way possible. Do not smile.” A contented ripping noise sounded nearby, followed by the casual shuffle of hooves — another stray yak had snuck into the yard to treat itself to the fresh, sunlit grass.

Three days later, however, as the unceasing rain lashed against the walls of my tent, my stomach growled in discontent: For two days straight, I had eaten nothing but tsamba, small cakes of roasted barley flour. The alpine monsoon outside had chased me for the last eight hours, as I trekked more than 12 miles up and down three 4,600-meter passes. My tent tarp snapping in the wind, I began to reminisce about a particularly delectable steak I once had in a warm Shangri-La home. My thoughts turned to the beasts lumbering unaware on the slope outside. Then Gengga’s admonition came back to me.

Gengga is a Tibetan Buddhist lama. He is also a conservationist with the Nyanpo Yurtse Environment Protection Association, working to save some of the rarest and most valuable ecosystems in southwestern China. His office lies in a Buddhist village so small that some maps of northwestern China’s Qinghai province don’t even bother to include it. But the lands that his office borders are some of the most geographically, ecologically, and culturally significant in all of Tibet. Nyanpo Yurtse is a holy place to all six sects of Tibetan Buddhism and the wettest spot at the eastern end of the Tibetan Plateau.

Enclosed in my small rectangle of shelter from the storm, I abandoned all thoughts of a good square meal. The rainfall here frequently bathes the knife-sharp peaks in a blanket of mist, swelling the rivers and swamping the wide, sweeping glacial valleys in thick black mud — the kind that gurgles as you drag your knees through it.

These seasonal wetlands harbor 16 summer breeding grounds for the black-necked crane. The only alpine species of crane in the world, it is listed as “vulnerable” and “decreasing” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. You can begrudge the rain, but this place can’t go without it. Relief rain, caused when air is cooled by the wind as it blows up mountain slopes, is the source of all biodiversity on the massif. Among the flora and fauna that call the region home are more than 700 species of plants, nearly 200 species of birds, over 250 kinds of fungi, and a host of different mammals including foxes, mountain goats, otters, and around 40 of the elusive king of the Tibetan Plateau: the snow leopard.

Years ago, Gengga left the nearby Longgar Monastery to help protect the environment in Nyanpo Yurtse. He believes that every Buddhist should respect the earth when practicing their faith. Though the black-necked crane is listed as a first-class national protected species in China, Gengga tells me that Tibetans don’t make such distinctions: To them, all life needs to be protected and conserved.

The other lama sitting next to me that day, Tashi Sangpo, was wearing only a simple red T-shirt in the mounting afternoon heat. “Look,” he said, “do you know how we throw away hot water?” I shook my head.

“We care about all life, even the insects on the ground — and there are a lot of them. If you pour out your glass directly onto the ground, the hot water will kill them, so we do this.” He vigorously tossed the steaming water in his glass over his shoulder, beyond the confines of the tarp providing shade above us. The water arced into the air, splitting into thousands of glittering sunlit sparkles, before finally raining down across the grassy earth. “If you throw your water high into the air, it cools by the time it hits the ground and doesn’t hurt anything it touches.”

Days later, huddled in the tent, I smiled to myself. The rain had slowed to a steady patter against the darkening walls of night. My departure for the mountains had been hurried; I was eating tsamba with frigid river water, my stove and fuel canister left far behind in the village. “For the bugs,” I joked to myself.

Ten years ago, Tashi Sangpo founded the Nyanpo Yurtse Environment Protection Association. The organization has since drawn over 100 members from the local Tibetan population who volunteer their time to attend training and help conduct biodiversity surveys in the region. On my first day with the alliance, I was invited to witness a training session for local Tibetan women around Nyanpo Yurtse. “Why women?” I asked Tashi Sangpo.

“Because women in this area are mostly uneducated, so we can help give them education and opportunities,” Tashi Sangpo replied. “Also, women and men are different. Women have kinder hearts and are more compassionate toward animals.”

The class was on protecting the black-necked crane: how to identify them, count them, and locate their preferred habitats in the area. Of the seven provinces and autonomous regions in China where the black-necked crane can be found, five cover parts of the Tibetan Plateau. “It’s because they believe Tibetans will protect them,” Tashi Sangpo suggested jokingly. Gengga laughed in agreement.

The black-necked crane is one of three sacred birds in Tibet. Its importance — and its connection to women — stems from both Tibetan Buddhist faith and local folklore. Children living around the summer pastures where cranes breed hope to one day be as elegant and well-traveled as the cranes. Herders tie up their fearsome Tibetan mastiff dogs to keep them from harming the cranes — a practice that has no doubt saved many passing hikers as well.

“But where have the cranes gone?” I wondered, as the rain’s rhythmic beating on the outside of my tent quickened once more. Over the previous 48 hours, I had passed multiple wetlands and lakes — some of the largest in the area — without glimpsing a trace of a black-necked crane. Usually, they would be arriving by now, settling down in preparation for the summer breeding season.

There were certainly more hikers than wildlife in Nyanpo Yurtse, whose northern area is open to visitors on a two- to three-day hiking circuit. Perhaps it was the weather that had driven the mythic birds elsewhere, or perhaps it was the trash that hikers and tourists had left strewn about the mountain paths, souring the beauty of the peaks and running counter to local principles of conservation.

For Tashi Sangpo, Gengga, and the other members of the Nyanpo Yurtse Environment Protection Association, conservation means maintaining a reverence both for life and for the holiness of the surrounding environment. After finishing the sparkling grape juice, we gathered our glasses and headed back indoors. There, Tashi Sangpo and Gengga settled onto the red sofa and huddled over the book they were writing.

Eight years in the making, their work is one of the most comprehensive compilations of local culture, religion, biodiversity, and geography in Tibet. The Tibetan-language version is slated for publication this fall, with Mandarin and English versions to follow. Gradually, this one-road village will grow on the map, and the conservation alliance will work to ensure that the local environment is preserved for generations to come.

Up on the mountain, the noise outside the tent died down. The gurgle of the nearby stream filled the crisp midnight air. The rain petered out. I left at the crack of dawn. In the days that followed, I almost stepped on one of the plateau’s rarest flowers and watched as a beautiful indigenous bird species — perhaps the Tibetan bunting — swooped overhead. I never spotted any cranes, but I wasn’t worried. This was only the edge of the mountains.

Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Gengga, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, carries his camera on a pass overlooking the Nyanpo Yurtse massif in Qinghai province, July 1, 2017. Kyle Obermann for Sixth Tone)

Originally published at www.sixthtone.com.