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Wild asses
Tibet was once filled with wild animals and still is to some degree. In the old days many animals had no fear of humans. The Swedish explorer Sven Hedin wrote in the early 20th century, "The wild animals do not sense that man is their enemy. They know only the wolf and are alert against his cunning." The abundance of wildlife today is demonstrated by the large number of stiff, frozen and flattened road kills on the roads.

The mountains and forests of Tibet are home to a vast range of animal life, including 142 species of mammals, 473 species of birds, 49 species of reptiles, 44 species of amphibians, 64 species of fish and more than 2,300 species of insects. Wild animals found in Tibet include Assamese macaque, rhesus monkey, muntjac, chitral, serows, head-haired deer, wild cattle, red-spotted antelopes,leopards, clouded leopards, black bears, wild cats, red pandas, martens, river deer, white-lipped deer, wild yaks, Tibetan antelopes, wild donkeys, argalis, Mongolian gazelles, Tibetan eagles, marmots, Himalayan mouse hares, Himalayan ravens, foxes, wolves, lynxes, brown bears, blue sheep, and snow leopards. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The Tibetan antelope (chiru), argali and wild yak are rare species particular to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. They are under state protection. The white-lipped deer (Thorold’s deer) found only in the eastern Tibetan plateau is of particular rarity. The black-necked crane and the Tibetan pheasant are under first-grade state protection. Other rare and threatened animals found in Tibet include the snow leopard, Tibetan takin, Himalayan black bear, blue sheep, musk deer, golden monkey, wild ass (kyang in Tibetan), Tibetan gazelle and Himalayan mouse hare.

There are many wolves in Tibet. They are strong enough to bring down a yak but are elusive and rarely seen. Sometimes they kill livestock. Marmots (known as chiwa or piya) are the most commonly seen animals in Tibet. Resembling giant golden woodchucks, they are rodents that live in burrows, behave somewhat like prairie dogs and make strange bird-like chirping noise when they are agitated. Marmots are called in Himalayan snow pigs in Tibet, Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai. To catch them hunters simply wait around in the morning for them to emerge from their burrows so you can see where they live. Later the hunters return to the burrows light a fire and direct the smoke into the burrow. When the marmot escapes it is caught in a net. Himalayan mouse hares (also known as pika or chipi) are also often seen. They have been observed on high slopes of Mt. Everest. According to the Guinness Book of Records, they are the highest living animal. A pika has been observed at an elevation of 20,106 feet.

Some scientists think that Tibet is the source of Ice Age mammals. Stephanie Pappas wrote in LiveScience: “High on the Tibetan Plateau, paleontologists have uncovered the skull of a previously unknown species of ancient rhino, a woolly furred animal that came equipped with a built-in snow shovel on its face. This curiosity, a flat, paddle-like horn that would have allowed it to brush away snow and find vegetation beneath, suggests the woolly rhinoceros was well-adapted for a cold, icy life in the Himalayas about 1 million years before the Ice Age. Those adaptations may have left the rhino perfectly poised to spread across Asia when global temperatures plummeted, ushering in the Ice Age. "We think that the Tibetan Plateau may be a cradle for the origins of some of the Ice Age giants," said study author Xiaoming Wang, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Such large, furry mammals ruled the world during Earth's cold snap from 2.6 million to about 12,000 years ago. "It just happens to have the right environment to basically let animals acclimate themselves and be ready for the Ice Age cold." [Source: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience, September 2, 2011; See Woolly Rhino Originated From Tibet? Under WOOLLY RHINOS AND CAVE BEARS factsanddetails.com ; Oldest Big Cat Fossil Found in Tibet See PREHISTORIC MAMMALS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com

Good Websites and Sources: China.org article on Tibetan animals china.org.cn ;Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/china

Animals in Different Parts of Tibet

Tibet's complex topography and widely varying climates result in an abundance of ecological niches for different groups of animals. The eastern and southern parts of the region are (were) largely covered with old growth forests, home to rare plants and animals. In the highlands are marmots, wolves, chiru (a kind of antelope) and a few wild yak. Dense forests mostly in eastern and southeastern Tibetan areas provide shelter for many precious animals such as sunbird, vulture, giant panda, golden-haired monkey, black leaf monkey, bear and ermine. The forests also produce precious medicines such as bear's gallbladder, musk, pilose antler, caterpillar fungus, snow lotus and glossy ganoderma. “Agkistrodon himalayanus” is a snake that lives as high 4,900 meters (16,000 feet) in the Himalayas

Himalayan rivers are often milky and full of sediment and have a source somewhere in Tibet. Sometimes the lower reaches are full of tropical vegetation. In the old days, tigers and rhinoceros roamed here. At an elevation of around 1,000 meters there are stubby trees and rhododendron. Sun birds and langur monkeys are often seen here. There are also tragopans, a turkey-size pheasant with red feathers decorated with white spots. The rhododendrons get progressively short as one climbs in elevation: 15-foot trees shrink to ground level bushes.

By 2,500 meters the rhododendrons have largely been replaced by conifers: mostly Himalayan fir and Bhutan pine. These trees have needles that are designed to shed snow and withstand cold temperatures. Sometimes you can see red pandas there. Above tree line is tundra-like vegetation, rissocky plants and occasional buckhorn bushes and junipers. Here you can find marmots and pikas that feed on grass and cushion plants and they in turn provide food for griffon vultures that soar in the thermals.

Above 3,500 meters much of the vegetation gives out except for harsh grasses that few animals other than yaks can feed on. In the winter there is usually snow. Throughout the year high winds blow at this elevation. With moisture alpine meadows can flourish up to an elevation of 6000 meters.

Biodiversity Hotspot: Himalayas

The Himalaya Hotspot is home to the world’s highest mountains, including Mt. Everest. The mountains rise abruptly, resulting in a diversity of ecosystems that range from alluvial grasslands and subtropical broadleaf forests to alpine meadows above the tree line. Vascular plants have even been recorded at more than 6,000 meters. The hotspot is home to important populations of numerous large birds and mammals, including vultures, tigers, elephants, rhinos and wild water buffalo.

VITAL SIGNS: 1) Hotspot Original Extent (km²) 741,706; 2) Hotspot Vegetation Remaining (km²) 185,427; 3) Endemic Plant Species 3,160; 4) Endemic Threatened Birds 8; 5) Endemic Threatened Mammals 4; 6) Endemic Threatened Amphibians 4; 7) Extinct Species? 0; 8) Human Population Density (people/km²) 123; 9) Area Protected (km²) 112,578; 10) Area Protected (km²) in Categories I-IV* 77,739. “Recorded extinctions since 1500. *Categories I-IV afford higher levels of protection.

Stretching in an arc over 3,000 kilometers of northern Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the northwestern and northeastern states of India, the Himalaya hotspot includes all of the world’s mountain peaks higher than 8,000 meters. This includes the world’s highest mountain, Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) as well as several of the world’s deepest river gorges.

This immense mountain range, which covers nearly 750,000 km², has been divided into two regions: the Eastern Himalaya, which covers parts of Nepal, Bhutan, the northeast Indian states of West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh, southeast Tibet (China), and northern Myanmar; and the Western Himalaya, covering the Kumaon-Garhwal, northwest Kashmir, and northern Pakistan. While these divisions are largely artificial, the deep defile carved by the antecedent Kali Gandaki River between the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains has been an effective dispersal barrier to many species.

The abrupt rise of the Himalayan Mountains from less than 500 meters to more than 8,000 meters results in a diversity of ecosystems that range, in only a couple of hundred kilometers, from alluvial grasslands (among the tallest in the world) and subtropical broadleaf forests along the foothills to temperate broadleaf forests in the mid hills, mixed conifer and conifer forests in the higher hills, and alpine meadows above the treeline.

Plants in Tibet

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snow lilly

Over 6,400 species of plants have been identified in Tibet. Many of them are rare and endemic. These plants include about 2,000 varieties of medical herbs used in the traditional medicinal systems of Tibet, China and India. Rhododendron, saffron, bottle-brush tree, high mountain rhubarb, Himalayan alpine serratula, falconer tree and hellebonne are among the many plants found in Tibet. About 400 species of rhododendron are found in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, about half of the world's rhododendron total species. Gyirong and Yadong counties and Chentang Town in western Tibet, and Medog and Zayu counties and the Lhoyu region in southeast Tibet are particularly rich in rare plant life and species . Even harsh northern Tibet contains more than 100 kinds of plants.

Flowering plants (“Ermania himalayenis”) have been found at an elevation of 21,000 feet in the Himalayas. “Saussurea”, a Himalayan plant, is covered with a massive dome of white fur. It has a small hole where pollinating insects that can reach the flowers. The flowers and leaves are barely visible. Juniper trees and willows are common in central Tibet. Wild flowers include pansies, oleanders and “tsi-tog”, an indigenous high-altitude pink flower. In the lower altitude border areas, you can find forests of pines, spruce and fir. In parts of eastern Tibet which receive a fair amount of rainfall you can see oaks, elms, birches and subtropical plants such as rhododendrons and azaleas. In the Everest area there are rhododendron trees over 60 feet tall. Lichens grow up to 18,000 feet in the Himalayas and are one of the few living things that grow in the Antarctic and the islands in the Arctic.

Tibet is also one of China's largest forest areas, preserving intact primeval forests. Most of the plants in Tibet are distributed in southeast Tibet, like Medog, Chayu, Luoyu and Menyu. Almost all the main plant species from the tropical to the frigid zones of the northern hemisphere are found here. Forestry reserves exceed 2.08 billion cubic meters and the forest coverage rate is 9.84 percent. Common species include Himalayan pine, alpine larch, Pinus yunnanensis, Pinus armandis, Himalayan spruce, Himalayan fir, hard-stemmed long bract fir, hemlock, Monterey Larix potaniniis, Tibetan larch, Tibetan cypress and Chinese juniper. Spruce, fir, and hemlock are distributed most widely, accounting for 48 percent of Tibet's forests by area and 61 percent by stock. They are found mainly in the humid sub-alpine zones of the Himalayas, Nyainqentanglha, and Hengduan ranges. There are about 926,000 hectares of pine forest in Tibet. Two species, the Tibetan longleaf pine and the Tibetan lacebark pine, are included in the State's tree protection list. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China; Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

Many plants in Tibet have medicinal value. There are more than 1,000 wild plants used for medicine, 400 of which are medicinal herbs most often used. There are more than 1,000 kinds of wild plants used for medicine, including 400 commonly used ones. Particularly well-known medicinal plants include Chinese caterpillar fungus, Fritillaria Thunbergii, Rhizoma Picrorhizae, rhubarb, Rhizoma Gastrodiae, pseudo-ginseng, Codonopsis Pilosula, Radix Gentiane Macrophyllae, Radix Salviae Miltiorrhizae, glossy ganoderma, and Caulis Spatholobi. In addition, there are over 200 known species of fungi, including the famous edible Pine mushroom, hedgehog hydnum, zhangzi fungus, mushrooms, black fungi, tremellas, and yellow fungi. There are also fungi with medical use such as tuckahoes, songganlan (Cryptoporus Volvatus (Peck) Schear), and stone-like omphalias.

One of the best place to see the various plants of Tibet is Nyingchi, east Tibet. There is a famous forest known as Lunang Forest which is located at 3,700 meters above sea level, alongside the Sichuan Tibet Highway. The Lunang Forest is made up of bushes, dragon spruces, maple trees and pines. The landscape here is particularly beautiful. There are snow mountains, glaciers, old-growth forests, villages and rivers nearby. Due to Nyingchi's relatively lower altitude, some tourists travelling to Tibet first fly to Nyingchi and then travel to Lhasa.

Particularly well known medicine plants include Chinese caterpillar fungus, Fritillaria Thunbergii, Rhizoma Picrorhizae, rhubarb, Rhizoma Gastrodiae, pseudo-ginseng, Codonopsis Pilosula, Radix Gentiane Macrophyllae, Radix Salviae Miltiorrhizae, glossy ganoderma, and Caulis Spatholobi. In addition, there are over 200 known species of fungi, including famous edible fungi songrong, hedgehog hydnum, zhangzi fungus, mush rooms, black fungi, tremellas and yellow fungi. Fungi for medical use include tuckahoes, songganlan, stone-like omphalias.

Endangered Species in Tibet

Among the endangered species found in Tibet are the snow leopard, ibex, musk deer, Tibetan antelope (chiru), Tibetan wild ass, , black necked crane and wild yak. The bharal, (blue sheep) of the Himalayas is very closely related to both goats and sheep. They are tan, white and gray. Their color camouflages them well on a rocky mountain landscape.

Kiangs are they largest Asian wild asses. They live at elevations above 13,000 feet and have black manes and tan-and-white bodies. Their numbers were greatly reduced in the 1960s when Chinese soldiers shot them for sport and for food. They and Tibetan gazelles are increasingly having to share their habitats with livestock. The number wild asses has grown to 200,000 in recent years and this is viewed as a modest conservation success story. Some complain the wild ass are also becoming a pest because they compete with the livestock for what is left of the grasslands. [Source: Jonathan Watt, The Guardian, June 15, 2010]

Living in some parts of Tibet are rare white lipped deer, and macaques (a kind of monkey) that survive in the winter by eating insects and vegetation under the snow. Himalayan brown bears — virtually the same as North American grizzly bears and Russian brown bears — are very rare, only a few dozen remain. Also nown as Tibetan brown bears, they stand two meters tall and are found only in the forests of southern Tibet and the Chantang plateau.

Large herds of wild yak, Tibetan antelope, wild donkeys and deer that were seen on the Tibetan plateau during a source-to-sea expedition along the Yangtze River in 1989, have largely been slaughtered by poachers for the animal's meat and hides. Items from endangered animals for sale in Western China include wolf and snow leopard pelts, fox furs, bearskins, and carcasses of Imperial eagles.

Tibetan Blue Bear

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Black neck crane
The Tibetan bear or Tibetan blue bear is a subspecies of the brown bear found in the eastern Tibetan plateau. It is also known as the Himalayan blue bear, Himalayan snow bear, Tibetan brown bear, or the horse bear. In Tibetan it is known as Dom gyamuk. One of the rarest subspecies of bear in the world, the blue bear is rarely sighted in the wild. The blue bear is known in the west only through a small number of fur and bone samples. It was first classified in 1854. [Source: Wikipedia]

The blue bear is notable for having been suggested as one possible inspiration for sightings associated with the legend of the yeti. A 1960 expedition to search for evidence of the yeti, led by Sir Edmund Hillary, returned with two scraps of fur that had been identified by locals as 'yeti fur' that were later scientifically identified as being portions of the pelt of a blue bear. While it is unlikely that the blue bear generally occupies the high mountain peaks and snow fields where the yeti is sometimes sighted, it is possible that the occasional specimen might be observed traveling through these regions during times of reduced food supply, or in search of a mate. However, the limited information available about the habits and range of the blue bear makes such speculation difficult to confirm.

Tibetan blue bears often have a yellow-brown or whitish cape forming a saddle-shaped marking across the shoulders. They are much feared in regions where they are found. According to some Chinese sources, 1,500 people are killed a year by these bears, a figure that seems to be too large to be true, but some say is credible and caused by the clearing of new farm land in the bear’s habitat. Becasue few local people have guns the bears often have te upper hand in confrontations. [Source: the book “Bears of the World”by Terry Domico]

The exact conservation status of the blue bear is unknown, due to limited information. However, in the United States trade in blue bear specimens or products is restricted by the Endangered Species Act. It is also listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as a protected species. It is threatened by the use of bear bile in traditional Chinese medicine and habitat encroachment. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Gobi brown bear is sometimes classified as being of the same subspecies as the Tibetan blue bear; this is based on morphological similarities, and the belief that the desert-dwelling Gobi bear represents a relict population of the blue bear. However, the Gobi bear is sometimes classified as its own subspecies, and closely resembles other Asian brown bears.

In the northern mountains of India and other parts of the Himalayas there lives a grizzly-like bear with whitish- and reddish-colored fur and is known as the red bear by locals. About the size of a grizzly (1.7 to 2.5 meters in lenth), it lives above tree tree line and feeds on grasses, roots and occasionally mountain sheep killed in avalanches. Herders sometimes kill th emothers and capture the cubs which are sold to itinerate entertainers for use as dancing bears. Other Asian brown bear subspecies include the little-known Manchurian bear of northeast China.[Source: the book “Bears of the World”by Terry Domico]

Tibetan Horses

In 1993, French anthropologist Michel Peissel discovered a breed of domesticated horse in the remote Nangchen region of Tibet which is believed to be new to science. Free of the Arabian, Mongolian and Turkish horse blood, which is found in nearly every other horse in the world today, the Tibetan horse was raised by nomad horsemen in valleys that were so remote the horses were prevented from mixing with other types of horses for thousands of years.

"Unlike the Mongolian horse, which is free range," Peissel told the New York Times, "the Nangchen only survives due to constant human intervention and selection. Free range horses that breed on their own don't achieve the degree of physical perfection and stamina found in horses selectively raised by man." As an adaptation to the high altitudes the Tibetan horse has an enormous heart and massive lungs. The animals are used for herding livestock and competing in horse races at important three-week festivals.

In 1995, Peissel discovered a new breed of wild horse in the Riwoqe region of northeastern Tibet after his expedition was forced to change its route because of a snowstorm and pass through an isolated valley with unmapped forests. Similar to horses depicted in Stone Age paintings in European caves, the Riwoqe horse is short and squat and looks more like a donkey than a horse. It stands about 3.5 feet tall and has tiny ears, small nostrils, a dark bristly main, a brown coat and black lines on its back and lower legs.

Riwoqe horses live in a valley hemmed in by 16,000 foot passes. Scientists suggest that they may be members of a "relic population" isolated from other horses and able to keep its unique characteristics. "They looked completely archaic," Peissel told the New York Times, "like horses in prehistoric cave paintings. We thought it was just a freak then we saw they were all alike." Describing the expedition in which the horse was discovered (his 24th in the Himalayas) Peissel said, "It was very bleak. We had to cope with hailstorms and trek along precarious trails with very steep drops. I think it was the most difficult journey I ever made."

Tibetan Deer

A herd of Tibet red deer, a species thought to have been extinct and not seen in the wild for 50 years, was rediscovered in a remote valley in southeastern Tibet near where China, Bhutan and India meet by the eminent natural George B. Schaller. The search for the deer began in 1987 when several captive deer were seen in Lhasa. "From past records, I knew the approximate range of the Tibet Red deer, or shou, as it is sometimes called, so we made a special effort to look at those areas to see if any deer survived," Schaller said.

A relative of the North American elk, the Tibetan red deer stand about four feet at the shoulder and has distinctive five-point antlers and a white patch on its rump. Mature males weigh about 250 pounds. The animals live in alpine meadows above 13,000 feet, Many of the deer disappeared in the 1960s and 70s as a result of hunting.

Later some Tibet red deer were rediscovered 75 miles east of Lhasa in a remote in valley. There are plans to set up reserves and establish conservation teams for the deer, which are valued for their meat and antlers, which are used in oriental medicine.

The McNeill's deer of the Tibetan plateau is one of the world's most endangered animals.

The white-lipped deer is found mainly in Qinghai Province and Tibet.

Plateau Pika and Ecological Importance

Simon Denyer wrote in Washington Post: “The plateau pika is what environmentalists call a keystone species, playing a crucial role in the ecosystem that sustains life. And their burrows, it is now believed, play an important role in absorbing the heavy rains that fall during the summer monsoon, allowing water to percolate slowly through the earth rather than cause dangerous downstream flooding and erosion. “The pika is very important for the food chain and for the grassland ecosystem,” said Hashi Tashi Dorjee, founder of the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association and one of the Tibetan region’s most respected environmentalists. “Poisoning them sets off a very bad cycle.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, July 22, 2016]

“A smaller relative of the rabbit, the plateau pika occupies an almost identical ecological niche to the United States’ prairie dog. “A pika warren can stretch underground for up to 20 yards and have several small openings, from which the nervous animals poke their heads, scanning the grasslands for predators and emitting a faint, high-pitched alarm call on any sign of trouble.

“Here, on the Alpine meadows that carpet most of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, almost all the major carnivores depend on pikas for food. That includes brown bears, Tibetan foxes, steppe polecats and Pallas’s cats.Upland buzzards and saker falcons feed primarily on pikas, too; one way to spot a pika colony on the grasslands is to look for a buzzard flying overhead or perched on a power pylon.

Efforts to Get Rid of the Plateau Pika — Its Consequences

Simon Denyer wrote in Washington Post: “For decades, across hundreds of thousands of square miles of the Qingai-Tibet plateau, a relentless extermination campaign has been undertaken to wipe out the plateau pika, with thousands of people fanning out as spring arrives to poison their burrows. Across vast swaths of grassland, the pika has been virtually eliminated.

Starting in 1962, the government sowed pika burrows, first with sodium fluoroacetate and then zinc phosphide, across nearly 140,000 square miles of grassland. In 2006, it stepped up the campaign across huge parts of the vast, newly created Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, now using botulinum toxin. The Qinghai government boasts of exterminating “rats,” although pikas are not actually rodents. It says yields of grass have improved in areas where pikas have been wiped out.

“The parallels with the prairie dog and the European rabbit are striking. Prairie dogs have been widely blamed for eating grass upon which livestock depend, and building burrows that cause cows and horses to break their legs. A mass extermination campaign brought them to the brink of extinction across much of the United States. But scientists say that, just like the pika, they supported prairie falcons, eagles, badgers and bobcats, while their presence helps increase the richness and diversity of plant species on the grasslands. Their extermination brought the black-footed ferret to the brink of extinction, with only 18 left in 1986. The extermination of the rabbit from its native habitat in Spain and Portugal has made the Iberian lynx, which depends on European rabbits, the most endangered cat on the planet.

“As pikas have disappeared from broad stretches of this grassland, so have many of these unique animals, said Andrew Smith, an Arizona State University expert who has been studying the ecology of the Tibetan plateau since 1984. “For brown bears, what we call grizzly bears in the United States, 60 to 80 percent of their food is pikas,” he said. “Where the pikas have been poisoned, the bears go on the move to search for food, and they have been breaking into Tibetan houses.”

“On the largely treeless grasslands, birds such as snow finches and Tibetan ground-tits nest in pika burrows. But, where pikas have been poisoned, the burrows collapse within a couple of years and these birds disappear or become scarcer, Smith said.

Unfairly Blaming the Plateau Pika for Grassland Degradation

Reporting from Yushu County on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, Simon Denyer wrote in Washington Post: “As he gazes out across the rolling grasslands of the Tibetan plateau, where hundreds of his yaks are grazing, 70-year-old Awang Chumpey is less than happy. The land he shares with his neighbors is dotted with thousands of tiny burrows, home to a colony of plateau pika that he blames for eating his animals’ grass. “Over the years the grass has become very bad,” Awang said. “They dig holes and eat the grass. I hope the government can kill them.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, July 22, 2016]

“Indeed, the plateau pika is the scapegoat for much deeper, man-made problems, a symptom, some Western scientists say, of decades of environmental mismanagement by China’s Communist Party, which threw out the natural balance that had endured on these grasslands for thousands of years. Justifying the government’s extermination campaign, some Chinese scientists have blamed the pika for grassland degradation and erosion.

“But a growing body of Western conservationists say they have it all wrong. Far from causing grassland degradation, pikas tend to colonize areas where the grassland is already damaged by overgrazing or has dried out as a result of climate change. Not surprisingly, they prefer areas where the grass is short, so they can spot predators from farther away. “Villagers see the pika, and they see the grassland getting degraded, and they connect the two problems,” Tashi Dorjee said. “They see the surface problem, but they don’t see the root of the problem.”

“Rather than causing soil erosion, pika burrows dramatically improve drainage on the plateau, according to a 2014 study by Smith and Maxwell Wilson in the journal Ambio, published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Without them, water runoff creates more erosion and heightens the potential of dangerous floods downstream. Most of Asia’s great rivers originate on the Tibetan plateau, and 20 percent of the world’s population lives in their downstream watersheds. “The chances of downstream flooding, the chances of loss of life and property, are much greater as a result of this animal having been poisoned upstream,” Smith said.

“In fact, Western conservationists say, the overgrazing and degradation of the grasslands should be blamed not on the pika but more on the government’s own social and environmental policies, stretching back to the imposition of communal animal husbandry in the 1960s, and later moves to erect fences throughout the grasslands and resettle nomads into permanent houses.

“It is clear that the antagonism of government and ranchers towards prairie dogs was in part based on purposeful ignorance, even when accurate knowledge was available, and on vested interests in continuing a well-funded killing program no matter how outdated and harmful,” leading conservationist George Schaller wrote in his book “Tibet Wild.” “The story of the pika has been remarkably similar.”

Tibetan Snow Frog

The snow frog, also known as the Chinese forest frog, lives in the mountain, forests and swamps of Tibet. It is born in the spring and fall and hibernates in the winter. It is a very valuable frog to Tibetans not only because its meat is as delicate as chicken, also because it is rich in protein and calcium and has little fat. As the meat of the frog is sweet, cool, intoxicating and rich in moisture, it is regarded as an exotic dish in Tibet. [Source: Explore Tibet]

The snow frog has been used in Tibetan medicine for hundreds of years as a treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis and impotence. In addition, it has the functions of clearing heat, improving vision and nutrition. The snow frog is a cold blooded creature whose temperature is never much higher than its environment. It also frog has the ability to change its colors according to the habitat they occupy. Like others of their kind, frogs are recognized as being exceptional jumpers. Female snow frogs are usually larger than males.

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Bearded vulture

Birds in Tibet

In Tibet, there are over 532 different species of birds in 57 families, which is about 70 percent of the total families found in China. They include: storks, wild swans, Blyth's kingfisher, geese, ducks, shorebirds, raptors, brown-chested jungle flycatchers, redstarts, finches, grey-sided thrushes, Przewalski's parrotbills, wagtails, chickadees, large-billed bush warblers, bearded vultures, woodpeckers and nuthatches. The most famous being the black-necked crane called trung trung kaynak in Tibetan. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Tibet lies along major migration routes for birds. More than 480 species have been sighted in Tibet. Of the these only 30 or so live in Tibet full time. Among the birds seen in Tibet are lammergeyers, partridges, pheasants, grebes and snow cocks. Large flocks of vultures sometimes circle monasteries, waiting for sky burials. Good birdwatching spots include the lakes of Yamdrok-tso and Nam-tso.

The rare black-necked crane inhabits remote regions as high as 16,000 feet. It was is the last of the crane species to be discovered and is revered as a spiritual being by Tibetans. Black-necked cranes breed in the marshy Maquan Valley near Paryang and in Qinghai. They have also spotted on the Lhasa River near Lhasa. See Animals Under Nature

Bar-headed geese summer in the high plateaus of Tibet. During their southward migration they reach heights of 25,000 as they cross the Himalayas, to winter in India.

Vultures in Tibet

Himalayan vultures (Gyps himalayensis) are large-sized bird of prey that are 1.2 meters long and weigh six to seven kilograms. Their wing wingspan can reach three meters. Their preferred habitats are plateaus, deserts and mountain areas. Also known as Himalayan griffon vulture, they feed mostly on carrion and dead animals of all kinds and use their strong bills to tear meat off the bones. They can be found on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and regions nearby. They are regarded as threatened not endangered species.

Himalayan vultures gather in groups. They spend much of their time in the air using thermals to keep them aloft. They swoop down when they smell carrion or discover the corpses of dead animals. When a yak or an ox dies in the open, dozens of Himalayan vultures gather and can eat the entire corpse in a day. Himalayan vultures builds their nests in steep cliffs of high mountains and nest their eggs once a year. They have special resistance to diseases. Yhey often eat the dead bodies of animals that died of diseases but never get sick themselves. In Tibet, the Himalayan vultures that eat the dead corpses of human are regarded as holy birds. It is strictly prohibited to kill such birds in Tibet.

The bearded vulture, Eurasia's biggest raptor, also live in Tibet. They too have traditionally been regarded as a sacred bird in Tibet because it usually does not prey upon living animals, but feeds on dead animals or body. In a Tibetan sky burial, the corpse is offered to these vultures. It is believed that the vultures are Dakinis, the Tibetan equivalent of angels. In Tibetan, Dakini means "sky dancer". It is said Dakinis take the soul into the heavens, which is understood to be a windy place where souls await reincarnation into their next lives. The donation of human flesh to the vultures is considered virtuous because it saves the lives of small animals that the vultures might otherwise capture for food. Sakyamuni, one of the Buddhas, demonstrated this virtue. To save a pigeon, he once fed a hawk with his own flesh. Drigung-til Monastery in Lhasa is famous for its sky burial site and vultures. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org , June 3, 2014 ]

Tibetan Bunting, One of the World's Rarest Birds

Phil McKenna wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The Tibetan bunting (Emberiza koslowi) is one of the least-known birds on the planet. It has a black and white head and chestnut-colored back and is only slightly larger than a chickadee. In 1900, Russian explorers were the first to document the bird and collect specimens. One hundred years later, British ornithologists published only the third scientific study of the bunting, based on fewer than four hours of observations. [Source: Phil McKenna, Smithsonian magazine, October 2011]

The bird’s obscurity is due in large part to the remoteness of its habitat. In A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the bunting’s home range appears as a tiny splotch on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. The bird lives in a region of rugged peaks and isolated valleys where four of Asia’s largest rivers — the Yellow, the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween — tumble down snowcapped mountains before spreading across the continent.

Tibetans call it the “dzi bead bird”because the stripes on its head resemble the agate amulets locals wear to ward off evil spirits. Tashi and his friends have tracked the birds closely for the past eight years. They now know that buntings descend 2,000 feet downslope into warmer, more protected valleys in November and stay there until May. They know how the birds’ diet changes throughout the year: In winter buntings forage on oats and other grains; in summer they eat butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles and other insects. The monks have found that the birds lay an average of 3.6 eggs per nest, and that their main predators are falcons, owls, fox and weasels, in addition to badgers. “When we started in 2003, we started looking in trees for the nests,”Tashi says of the ground-nesting buntings. “We didn’t know anything.?

20080301-chang tang snow lillies.jpg
Chang Tang snow lillies

Fur Burning, Conservation and the Dalai Lama

Animals in Tibet are threatened by mining, climate change, tourism and road building. Conservation efforts have included creating the Three River Source Area a nature reserve in 2000, confiscating many hunters' guns (for which there is no doubt also a political motive) and tightened penalties against poaching. Chinese conservation experts told The Guardian that reserves in Tibetan areas have more devoted staff than anywhere else in China because locals worship nature.

The illegal trade in musk, bear's paw and gall bladder, deer antlers and other animal parts is a problem, On the streets of Chinese cities, Tibetan traders can sometimes be seen selling animal parts for Chinese medicines from animals killed in Tibet.

Jonathan Watt wrote in The Guardian, “While the government has moved herdsmen and their cattle off the land, it is also trying to encourage predators to move in. Among the strangest sights in the mountains are man-made eyries designed to attract eagles and falcons. They look out of place, but are surely healthier than the huge quantities of poisons and contraceptive pills dumped by the authorities to quell a plague of rodents - rats, mice, pika, hamsters and zokor - that are chewing up the soil.” [Source: Jonathan Watt, The Guardian, June 15, 2010]

The Dalai Lama stepped into the conservation fray in 2006, when he made a public statement stressing the importance of wildlife. In Tibetan communities, this led to bonfires of clothes and bags that were trimmed with animal hides. Monks responded by burning their fur lined robes. See Fur, Clothes

PBS’s Frontline reported: ““While visiting the center, the Rinpoche, who lives in Sichuan Province, told us about a controversial event he had organized the previous month. He had summoned people from his hometown to burn thousands of rare and endangered animal furs. The Dalai Lama had already ordered Buddhists to stop buying furs, but he hadn’t ordered the furs to be destroyed. [Source: Frontline, pbs.org, April 18, 2006 ^^^]

“The Rinpoche took his directive one stage further bringing nearly 30,000 Buddhists together to burn tiger and leopard skins, mink stoles, and other rarities. The massive bonfire literally burned green as thousands of furs went up in flames. Furious over his actions, the Chinese government sent officials to threaten him with imprisonment. “Go ahead,” the Rinpoche replied, and the government thought twice about throwing a descendant of the Dalai Lama in jail.

One Tibetan in Qinghai told The Guardian burned most of his cheaper animal-skin clothes but kept the most expensive items — such as 10,000 yuan boots trimmed with otter fur locked away. “I used to wear a fox-skin hat, but I never do that now,”he said. “If you wear a fox skin in public, people will beat you. It happened recently to a woman who was set on by a crowd of monks.”

Tashi Zangpo, Tibetan Monk Conservationist

Tashi has since crisscrossed the Tibetan plateau, drawing 400 bird species. He is currently compiling a field guide that evokes the work of John James Audubon or Roger Tory Peterson. He wears prayer beads on one wrist and a digital watch with altimeter and compass on the other. “As Buddhists, this is something we have to do — we have to help protect the birds and animals that don’t have any other protection...Friends of mine joke with me saying, “That person is a reincarnation of a lama, that person is a reincarnation of a rinpoche [a great teacher] and you, you are a reincarnation of a sparrow,” he says.

Tashi has been improving his field biology skills with help from Wang Fang, a conservation biology graduate student at Peking University in Beijing. Rather than wandering alone across a mountainside to count birds in a given area, the monk now walks defined paths flanked at 110-yard intervals by other observers. He uses GPS equipment to map the bird’s distribution and is compiling his findings for publication in an academic journal. Based on sightings and the amount of suitable habitat, Tashi believes the bird’s range is even smaller than what is shown in existing field guides.

When it comes to protecting the species, Wang says that Tashi is already accomplishing more on his own than Wang could ever hope to. “If you are a scientist, you can’t go to Tashi’s village and say Buddha doesn’t like you to do this or that. But he can, and they will listen to him.”

“He is a good scientist who at the same time is doing conservation and environmental education,”says George Schaller, one of the world’s pre-eminent conservation biologists. Tashi recently started assisting Schaller, of Panthera, a big cat conservation organization, by monitoring snow leopards and blue sheep in the mountains around Baiyu. Schaller says the monk’s greatest contribution to conservation, however, may be his field guide of the region’s birds in the local language. “He is an exceptional artist, like the talented, old-fashioned naturalists of Britain and North America, who brings to his work a deep Buddhist reverence for all life. It’s a wonderful combination.”Tashi’s field guide “will be a tremendous benefit to the Tibetan culture,” Schaller says.

Four years ago, Tashi and Druk Kyab, another monk in the monastery in Baiyu, formed the Nyanpo Yutse Environmental Protection Association, named after a nearby mountain considered sacred by local Tibetans. The group, consisting of five full-time staff members and about 60 volunteers, has taken it upon itself to preserve the region’s plants, animals, lakes and streams. Most of the work has focused on the Tibetan bunting, but the group has also compiled detailed notes on dozens of other species, as well as the rate at which nearby glaciers are receding.

Efforts by Tibetan Monk to Save the Tibetan Bunting

Phil McKenna wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Rrrrrr, Badgers!”Tashi Zangpo says, cradling the remains of a bird nest in his hands on a mountain slope nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. For weeks, Tashi, a Tibetan Buddhist monk and self-taught conservation biologist, has scoured these mountains in China’s Qinghai province for nests of the Tibetan bunting. Now that he’s found one, he’s discovered that a badger has beaten him to it and devoured the young. [Source: Phil McKenna, Smithsonian magazine, October 2011]

Tashi saw his first Tibetan bunting as a young monk in Baiyu, a village in Qinghai province not far from where he and I now stand. One of eight children, he came to the monastery at age 13 when his parents could no longer afford to take care of him. He was homesick and often hiked up a mountain above the village to surround himself with songbirds he knew from home. Using a sharp rock, he etched images of the birds on fieldstones. An older lama at the monastery noticed his interest and taught him how to make paper so he could draw the birds.

Tashi has noticed dramatic changes in the environment, including shrinking glaciers, increasing human development and declining bird populations. Based on his own observations and on ancient Tibetan scripts about wild plants and animals, Tashi says the buntings, never high in number, are among the most vulnerable of all Tibetan birds. Yak herding increases every year, and the animals trample the buntings nests. Climate change is causing nearby glaciers to disappear and meadows to go dry, forcing birds and livestock to share an ever-shrinking area.

By explaining his findings to local herders, Tashi was able to get critical bunting habitat protected for the July through September nesting season. “We’ve told the herders these months are for the Tibetan buntings to use,”he says. “Once the birds fledge, then the yaks can eat here.”In one valley where grazing is now restricted, bunting numbers increased from about 5 in 2005 to 29 in 2009.

One of the remaining mysteries Tashi is trying to solve is why the buntings have such poor breeding success. Even in areas where summer grazing has ceased, fewer than 30 percent of chicks survive. Predators and flooding are the top causes of mortality, but it’s not clear why these problems afflict Tibetan buntings more than other bird species that nest on the ground.

On the mountain slope, Tashi discovers there may still be hope for at least one of this year’s young. A short distance from where he found the ravaged nest, he spies a chick, still too young to fly, hopping through the grass. The bird somehow escaped the badger attack and is likely the sole survivor from this year’s brood. The bird’s parents have seen it as well. As Tashi and Druk watch, the adults feed it grasshoppers and other delicacies. It won’t be able to fly for a few more days and predators are still a risk. “Tonight we’ll say a prayer for this chick that it can grow up to be big and strong, and go to college,”Tashi says with a smile.

Image Sources: Cosmic Harmony, Purdue University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2022

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