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Playing the Field

In a new piece in The Scientitst, George Schaller talks about challenges to field biologists and the evolution of conservation biology.

When I began conducting research on the Tibetan Plateau with Chinese colleagues in 1984, I was entranced by the luminous grandeur of this high, wild, and harsh land. The Chang Tang, or northern plain, with its unique assemblage of wild yaks, Tibetan wild asses, Tibetan gazelles, and especially Tibetan antelope or chiru, intrigued me. Chiru made mysterious migrations to remote calving grounds. Their journey not only crossed but defined the landscape—the whole Chang Tang ecosystem, I soon realized—and it needed protection and management. Over the years and with great foresight, China established several contiguous reserves totaling about 450,000 km2, an area larger than California, in the north- western half of the Tibetan Plateau. But no protected area is ever safe, anywhere, as I have learned firsthand. Chiru were slaughtered en masse for their fine undercoat, which was woven into shahtoosh shawls in India and sold as a high-priced fashion accessory to the world’s wealthy. I write about this and other conservation challenges encountered on the roof of the world in my latest book, Tibet Wild. Examples of such challenges abound. Many Tibetan pastoralists moved from tents into huts, changing both their lifestyles and the habits of Tibetan brown bears, which smashed into homes in search of food. More livestock fences hindered wildlife movement. Illegal gold mines desecrated protected areas. When does a field biologist stop observing and take a stand? More at The Scientist