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Famed biologist to lead Chinese team in Africa

China has always held a special place in the heart of legendary field biologist George Schaller who has studied pandas, Tibetan antelope and snow leopards. He talks to Hu Min about working with Chinese conservationists.

At age 81, renowned field biologist and conservationist George Schaller remains passionate about field work and late this month he will accompany Chinese biologists to Kenya.

The aim is to learn from successful African practices in grassland management, wildlife conservation and community conservancies, and to apply them to China’s program on the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau.

In June he will visit the Tibetan Plateau, primarily Qinghai Province, to see the program for himself. It aims to achieve harmony between habitat, wildlife and livelihood of local people and to balance development and environmental protection.

In both cases, Schaller will work with staff and graduate students from the Center for Nature and Society at Peking University.

Between those trips, the legendary American mammalogist and author will head to Colombia to conduct a wildlife inventory in a remote jungle with Colombian biologists.

“I have never thought of giving up, and the work has to continue with purpose, persistence and passion,” Schaller told Shanghai Daily in an email interview.

From lions in the Serengheti to antelope and snow leopards in Tibet, Schaller has studied wildlife around the world and is widely considered the preeminent field biologist, working throughout Africa, Asia, North and South America.

He has carried out research in 23 countries, but every year since 1980 he has cooperated with China in conservation involving giant pandas, snow leopards and famously the Tibetan antelope because its migrations define upland ecosystems. He has traveled in Sichuan and Gansu Provinces, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In the past few years he has concentrated on conservation in the Sanjiangyuan nature reserve in Qinghai, a region known as China’s “water tower” because it’s the source of major rivers.

Schaller and his wife Kay have lived in extreme conditions in isolated areas in China. They have encountered temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius, as well as summer rains that turned the ground to mud into which vehicles sank again and again. They worked in elevations of 5,000 meters and hoped their vehicles didn’t break down, which they often did.

Schaller’s dream is to establish a huge international peace park or trans-frontier protected area in the Pamir Mountains including parts of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. It would protect species such as the Marco Polo sheep and snow leopard that wander across international borders, and it would improve the livelihood of nomads in the region. He started promoting the project in the 1970s, but it still has not come to fruition, primarily because of obstacles in Tajikistan, he said.

The main conservation problem in China, as elsewhere, is the conflict between development and preservation, he said.

“However, awareness of the need to protect the environment has increased greatly since I first visited China in 1980, and there is concern at all levels of government and increasingly the general public.”

In the past century, China has lost the Eurasian saiga antelope, Pere David’s deer (milu) and Przewalski’s horse in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, he said. The Yangtze River dolphin, Chinese alligator and South China tiger —just to mention a few species — are virtually gone, he added. Efforts are underway to raise the species in captivity and reintroduce them to the wild.

“The problem is that so much of their habitat has disappeared and human population and livestock pressure is so great that usually no large tracts of suitable habitat remain,” Schaller observed.

While noting that China has made great efforts to establish national, provincial and local protected areas, many remain “paper parks” outlined on paper. They have human inhabitants and there is general lack of proper management, monitoring and funds for maintenance and conservation, he said.

From 1980 to 1985, Schaller and his wife joined a Chinese team studying giant pandas in Sichuan Province. They also visited the Chang Tang region in Tibet and were the first Westerners permitted to visit that remote wilderness. It became a huge nature reserve in 1993 and included adjacent areas in Qinghai and Xinjiang.

“It gave us the opportunity to assess the marvellous populations of wildlife for the first time over the huge area and make suggestions for their conservation,” he said.

But a large and active guard force was needed to keep poachers from killing Tibetan antelope, or chiru, as well as pandas in lower elevations. During the 1990s around 300,000 antelope were illegally killed and their fine wool smuggled to Kashmir in India for manufacture of shahtoosh shawls. The population plummeted.

Eventually as protection improved, the antelope population rebounded.

Schaller said China has been farsighted in establishing the Sanjiangyuan Reserve on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau to conserve water resources and prevent overgrazing by domestic sheep and yaks.

“Conservation programs in general are not top-down, with government simply mandating policies as is so often the case,” he said.

“They are bottom-up and every community is involved in habitat management and monitoring.”

Until recently, Chinese biologists did a lot of collecting for museums but little detailed ecological work, Schaller said, adding that every university should have a major department devoted to ecology and natural resources.

Schaller has had occasional close encounters with lions, tigers, bears, gorillas and other animals but said the fault was his own; he had been careless.

“Animals don’t usually attack except in self-defense and I’ve been lucky. The animals sensed that our encounter was accidental, that I was not aggressive, and we parted amiably.”

With people it’s more complicated, especially now that poachers are often heavily armed, he said.

In Afghanistan he once encountered several opium traffickers and in the Congo he was confronted by rebel soldiers.

“All one can do is to behave calmly, be friendly but submissive and hope for the best.”

He often greets a flower or animal, stopping to admire it and trying to remember its name.

“Say hello to a flower, nod to a sparrow in fellowship. They are our companions in this universe,” Schaller said.

He started out simply observing, recording and counting animals but then decided that more was needed. He calls conservation “a moral issue of beauty, ethics and spiritual values. One cannot just accept nature’s wounds.”

“My profession is not a job, but a mission.”

Part of that mission is inspiring young people in each country he visits. They accompany him and he trains them in field biology and tries to instil a lasting love of nature.

Today a field biologist does not just study animals, he said, but must also be a lobbyist, politician and fund raiser and make other efforts in conservation, especially involving communities.

As for his proposed Pamir nature reserve, Schaller said, “It’s not easy to get four countries to agree on anything and progress is slow, the main holdout being Tajikistan. So I dream and continue to promote the idea that ultimately this mountain world becomes a peace park.” 


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