John Vincent Bellezza
Those regular readers of my newsletter will know that this issue is one month late. I have a fairly good excuse in that I was away in the wilds of Upper Tibet with little or no internet connectivity. Now that I am back in Lhasa regaling my readership with the latest adventures is a top priority. Actually, the Wild Yak Lands Expedition (WYLE) was a rather subdued affair. Without major logistical problems along the way, my 50 days in the field went about as smooth as one could hope for.
Geographically speaking, the most ambitious aspect of WYLE was reaching the far northern Changthang at Yang Tsho, near the Xinjiang border. This was the first time that I was able to venture well above the 35th parallel. Located in Nyima County, Yang Tsho (dByang-mtsho: 35° 22΄ lat. / 84° 35΄ long.) is an alkaline body of water situated in a harsh, dusty basin covered in soda deposits. The lack of animal dung shows that even wild ungulates are scarce in this windswept region. However, surprises were lurking nearby for us!
In the hills south of Yang Tsho is an astounding number of wild yaks and antelopes. This area of ridges crisscrossing in all directions is interspersed with high valleys and dales. There is running water here and there and a fair amount of grass. In some locales there was nearly as much dung as one would see in a pastoral camp. My companions and I spotted wild yaks (drong) in herds of up to 40 grazing on the turf-covered slopes. We also spied lone male wild yaks, austere and aloof, in the distance. Male wild yaks are supposed to attain a length of as much as 11 feet and tower 7 feet at the withers, the size of a Landcruiser! I have never gotten close enough to a bull yak to know for certain but don’t think I have seen such a giant yet. Most of the wild yaks we viewed were either black or dark brown in color, but we also noted a tawny colored male. It is reported that in southwestern Tibet, in the Transhimalayan region of Yakra (Yag-ra), there is a golden hued variant. Wild yaks are now very rare in southwestern Tibet but hopefully with the better conservation efforts being mounted they will survive. Deep concern is nevertheless warranted because two roads traversing the Transhimalaya in the Yakra region have been recently constructed. While road building improves communications without proper vigilance it can also encourage poaching.
No discussion about wild ungulates in the Changthang would be complete without mention of the onager or wild ass. Known as the kyang (rkyang/ku-hrang) in Tibetan, they range in fairly larger numbers in both the southern and northern quarters of this vast region. In the 1980s, kyang had been driven to near extinction in many parts of the southern Changthang but since then they have made a stunning coming back. Part of this resurgence can be explained by the fact that their meat is shunned by Tibetans, and their hides have limited usage (they are sometimes used in the manufacture of rear saddle straps). So confident that they will not be hurt by humans, kyang now customarily race motor vehicles that happen to come their way. I started noticing this unusual behavior in the late 1990s and it has become increasingly common in the ensuing years. Typically, a group of three to 20 or even as many 70 wild asses will begin to run parallel to the direction of travel of a vehicle. Once they gain some ground they will pick up speed and converge on the wheeled competitor. Running at a full gallop they then cross the road in front of cars and trucks. For them this signals that they have won the race and in victory they gallop off in a different direction. Moving at more than 60 kms per hour it is very hard to best the kyang on the rough roads of the Changthang. The grace, power and speed of these equids are extraordinary to behold: their variegated coats glisten brilliantly in the sunshine as muscles ripple with each thrust of their legs. The kyang throw up a large amount of dust as they pass by and the earth thunders with the sound of their hooves. The kyang are truly the kings of the open plains.
Sound the Alarm
As one might expect all is not roses when it comes to the health and well-being of wildlife in Upper Tibet. In Gerste County, speaking to knowledgeable people, I learned that antelope hides are still being traded for 500 yuan each. These of course are the source of charteuse, the very finest of animal fibers used in weaving. The trade has gone underground and compared to years gone by is reduced in volume, but it continues all the same. I have no way of knowing how extensive illegal hunting and trading still are in the region. It is imperative that action is taking now to stop it once and for all!
In the Gertse of the 1980s, antelope hides were openly traded on the roadside. The thriving trade required the employment of groups of people to pick the fine undercoat from the coarser hair. Fortunately, those terrible days of wholesale slaughter are gone (hopefully forever). With the founding of the Changthang Nature Reserve (an area of more than 300,000 km²) and better enforcement policies, antelopes and wild yaks have been brought back from the brink of extinction. This is, however, no time to be complacent. On our way up to Yang Tsho, near the shores of an unnamed lake (34° 35΄), we came across a hunters’ camp. Flesh still clung to several dozen antelope carcasses lying on the site. In the vicinity there were also a number of headless wild yak carcasses. From the tracks, it appears that hunters now use motorcycles to overtake their prey. At the hunter’s camp there was a late model truck that still had fuel in the tanks. The owners had taken the battery and steering wheel to prevent its theft; obviously they are planning to come back.
Wild yaks are slaughtered for their head and horns. These will fetch around 1000 yuan (US $135) in the towns and cities of Tibet. Wild yak heads are highly prized by Tibetans as talismans. They are customarily hung over the threshold of a house in order to protect the occupants. It is traditionally believed that deities come in the form of wild yaks (both male and female), and that the heads of the animal can be used as mystic vessels to enshrine various personal and household spirits. These kinds of beliefs are recorded in the Dunhuang documents, Tibet’s oldest body of literature. I have also been told by reliable sources that argali sheep heads fetch up to 10,000 yuan for the same purposes. The argali, the largest species of sheep in the world, has been eradicated from most parts of the Changthang. From what I can gather speaking to nomads throughout the region, their numbers are still in decline even in the few high mountain strongholds where they have sought refuge.
Like Man’s Best Friend
Not too far from the poachers camp we also set up a base camp for our exploration of the far north. One evening, I happened to notice a shadowy figure lurking near my tent. It was a lone wolf! Perhaps attracted by the scent of food this big wolf seemed to have lost its fear of human beings. It was stalking my tent, which was located much farther out than the rest of the camp. I figured I better have a better look, not particularly wanting a wolf prowling around my living space. As I approached the wolf moved away warily watching my every move. I proceeded to my tent and sat down. The wolf inched closer. I thought to myself, ‘well, she doesn’t seem all that afraid of me, maybe I should offer her some food and see if we can become friends’. I took some strips of dried yak meat from my provisions bag and very gradually moved in the direction of the wolf. At first she kept her distance but soon she moved closer and closer, lured by the scent of one of her favorite foods.
Some moments later the wolf and I had approached within 3 m of each other. I dropped to my knees and stretched the hand holding the meat as far out as I could. Soon the wolf came even closer and I released the meat. She took it into her mouth, backed off some distance and carefully smelled her take, finally deciding that it was well worth eating. I repeated the food giving ritual several times with the wolf. She was a fine specimen: young and healthy, and approximately 45 kgs in weight. Much of her gray and rust-colored winter coat was still in place. I may have been able to have her take the dried meat directly from my hand but that went beyond my tolerance for risk. At dusk the wolf loped off across the vast plains only to reappear the next afternoon.