I imagine England’s green and pleasant land, with a church spire above the gentle landscape. Surely John Constable painted it. Bracing myself against the howling wind and driving snow, thankful for my NGS Antarctic special issue jacket on this mid-summer day, I couldn’t be further from home. Yet, here on the Tibetan plateau of Qinghai Province, China, religion dominates the landscape, just as much as in England. And it’s vitally import for a big cat — the snow leopard.
At nearly 5,000 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level, there’s a pass through the much higher mountains on either side. It’s strewn with prayer flags, red and blue cloths shredded by the wind. At each flap, they send the messages written on them to God.
This is a harsh place. In some harsh winters, many have died in the extreme cold. And a few years back, a massive earthquake destroyed every building in the largest town, Yushu. Everything has been rebuilt, it’s uniform newness chilling in its way. It doesn’t quite hide the landslides on the mountains above the town and the massive towers of monasteries that the quake had upended.
Heading from Yushu, we travel for hours on the excellent roads the Chinese authorities are building. The occasional small towns are government-issue too, with single story, identical homes built on a grid. Lacking indoor toilets — one has to walk to communal ones — they have electricity. And, yes, the authorities insist, every child must go to school.
That’s as radical a change as it was in the USA or Europe in the days when most worked on the land. Then literacy was a distraction — and one not enjoyed by my Norfolk great-grandfather. It’s a radical ecological change, too, concentrating families that once spread widely across this remote landscape into communities with schools. In schools, children are not defending their livestock against predators.
I’m visiting Sangjiangyuan Nature Reserve, in part because as the source of three of the world’s great Rivers — the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong — it’s geographically singular. At 152,000 km2 (60,000 square miles) it’s also one of the largest protected areas in the world. Principally, I’m here because it’s a landscape where herders — in this case of yaks — live among big cats — in this case, the snow leopard. A family’s wealth is its domestic animals. The plateau has all the potential to be the killing ground for big cats that I’ve discussed for lions, leopards, and cheetahs in Africa in other blogs.
“What makes this good snow-leopard habitat?” I ask my guide, Liu Yanlin, as we searched for their scat. “It’s good for their prey — blue sheep” he replies. The first blue sheep of the trip had come down to the river late one afternoon. With rocks and bushes near the only place they could drink, they looked decidedly nervous — as well they might be.
Liu Yanlin works for Shan Shui — “mountain and water” — an NGO headed by my opposite number at Peking University, Professor Lu Zhi. Its devoted to fining ways to protect species across this high, remote landscape, one sparsely populated, but one populated nonetheless.
Religion matters: Tibetan Buddhists and snow leopards select the same habits, I discovered on reading scientific papers written by the professor’s group. They have almost the same geographical range across the highlands and steppe of western China and Mongolia.
Research showed that of 90% of their monasteries were within a few kilometres of snow leopard habitat. I needed to ask about the recent history of their monasteries, for the region now has many, large, impressive and obviously new ones.
“Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping encouraged a resurgence of Buddhist monasteries starting in the early 1980s” Liu Yanlin told me. The research found that each monastery protects an average of roughly 75 square kilometres, for a total of more than 8,300 square kilometres of snow leopard habitat. That’s larger than the 7700 square kilometres protected by the core areas — the best protected ones — within Sangjiangyuan Nature Reserve. These sacred mountains are “much more effective in protecting this area than are reserves because (the protection) is based on people’s morals and principles. Shan Shui is committed to working to combined religion and science to solve the current and coming threats to this region.”
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University, the President of SavingSpecies, www.savingspecies.org and serves on National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.