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Reports

Tibet: Environment and Development Issues

[Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, INDIA. April 26, 2000.]


CHAPTER 1: BIODIVERSITY

Chapter 1: Pages 1-18

The centre of heaven, The core of the earth,
The heart of the world, Fenced round with snow,
The headland of all rivers, Where the mountains are high
And the land is pure.

Tibetan poem, eighth-ninth century

"The Roof of the World", "Shangri-la", "The Third Pole", "Lost Horizon" and other such terms express the fascination many earlier adventurers and explorers felt for Tibet. These pioneer travelers described the unique aspects of Tibet's culture and traditions with a sense of mystery and discovery. However, no extensive research was then carried out on the country's wildlife.

The word "wildlife", contrary to popular belief, not only refers to wild animals but also includes wild plants as well. Tibet is one of the few regions in the world where limited scientific research has been conducted on the biological aspects of its many species. Some species still have not been properly scientifically studied, and some are even yet to be discovered. Senator Bob Brown of Tasmania, Australia, said at the Endangered Tibet Conference, held in Sydney on 28 September 1996, that the three greatest regions of our planet are the Amazon, Antarctica and Tibet. The first two enjoy a certain degree of global protection, public awareness and growing concern for their preservation. However, Tibet has to date attracted none of these safeguards.

Yet the Tibetan Plateau is the storehouse of innumerable species of unprecedented value to the balance of life worldwide. The plateau's distinctive geological evolution, landscape, climatic variation, hydrological systems, and unique atmospheric circulation patterns, have been scientifically proven to influence the health and wellbeing of the entire planet. The biodiversity of Tibet is only presently beginning to be viewed as an important issue. The World Wide Fund for Nature states:

The conservation of biodiversity in Tibet will have a strong impact on China, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. What takes place in Tibet also affects global biodiversity and the life of people throughout the world.

This chapter provides an overview of the biodiversity of the Tibetan Plateau. Usually images of Tibet portray a barren, forbidding landscape, especially in the wintertime. However, visitors are often astonished to find various regions of Tibet covered with lush forests, teeming with countless species of birds, animals and insects; rolling meadows carpeted with wild flowers, and vast plains swaying with glistening fields of barley, mustard, and emerald alpine grass.

With its huge landmass, it is no wonder that Tibet's varied array of ecological niches possess such diversity making it the last sanctuary for some of the world's rare plant and animal species. This is primarily due to Tibet's long period of isolation and the centuries-old protection provided by its sky-tapering, majestic mountains. The natural protection is further strengthened by the Tibetan Buddhists' ethos of living in harmony with nature. In olden in days Tibet there were no specially-designed nature reserves or parks as the modern world today demands. Formal protection of wildlife was not needed in a land where Buddhist compassion for all living beings reigned supreme.

Captain C. Rawling in his book The Great Plateau published in1905 says, "Almost from my feet away to the north and east, as far as the eye could reach, were thousands upon thousands of doe antelope [Tibetan antelope] with their young...There could not have been less than 15,000-20,000 visible at one time." British plant hunter and explorer, Kingdon Ward, who made several surveys in Tibet, wrote before the First World War, "I have never seen so many varieties of birds in one place, one great zoological garden."

In the forties, American adventurer Leonard Clark reported, "Every few minutes we would spot a bear, a hunting wolf, herds of musk deer, kiang [kyang], gazelles, big horned sheep or foxes. This must be one of the last unspoiled big game paradises."

However, after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1949, the eco-friendly belief system of Tibetans was trampled upon, monks and nuns persecuted and thousands of Tibet's monasteries were destroyed in the process of converting the peaceful land of Tibet into a zone of socialist zeal. Even the wildlife of Tibet didn't escape the Communist madness and was decimated with a vengeance. Today, the danger of extinction looms large for innumerable species as their native habitats fall prey to China's colonialist policies.


An Evolved Environment

Tibet was for centuries distinguished by its isolation. It is that isolation and the harsh natural conditions of the country that forced Tibetans to evolve a way of life which protected their delicate homeland and its resources, at the same time providing sustenance for their survival. Survival meant unflagging attention and strict conservation, which Tibetans integrated into their religious rituals and every aspect of their lives.

All living things, from insects to yaks, were recognised as threads in the web of life and were deemed worthy of respect and protection. Many Tibetans adopted vows of ahimsa, or "non-violence", as a lifelong practice. Consideration for all living creatures is the most visible manifestation of Buddhist faith and one which figures directly in the intimate equation linking

Tibetans to their environment (Apte and Edwards 1998). In fact, in the Tibetan language there is no equivalent to the word "environment" as it is understood in the modern-day world. This indicates that Tibetans did not separate the environment as an external physical resource, but rather treated their surroundings as part and parcel of human society and came to understand ecological principles naturally. They were already sensitised to the fact that exploiting the environment in essence means hurting human beings themselves.

In the Water Horse Year of 1642, His Holiness the Great Fifth Dalai Lama was appointed the spiritual and political mentor of a united Tibet. From this date onward, in the tenth month of every year, a Decree (Tsatsig) for the Protection of Animals and the Environment was issued in the name of the Dalai Lama. Decrees were declared by the Dalai Lama. Different provisions were applied to various areas with the objective of maintaining the tenuous balance of all life.

After spending over a millennium perfecting their ecological code, Tibetans have much to offer to the rest of the world. Unlike the western societies which sought to tame the "wild", Tibetans endeavoured from the earliest times to secure a kind of partnership with their "wilderness". Scientists are only now beginning to understand the necessity of such a relationship with the earth as a whole, which is today being recognised as a living, ever-changing organism, capable of causing harm to those who fail to treat it with respect. Through a viewpoint of the inter-relationship and interdependence of all living and non-living things, the scientific community has begun to make global connections of major importance. The land must continue to provide for its inhabitants, but the developmental relationship must be sustainable ‹ meeting the basic survival needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own basic survival needs.

However, the impetus of industrialisation still prevails worldwide, bringing the global environment frighteningly close to breaking point. This reality has been clearly demonstrated since the 1949 Chinese invasion of Tibet.


WHAT IS BIODIVERSITY?

Biodiversity is a shortform which means biological diversity. In the broad sense, biodiversity encompasses the interrelations and interdependency of all species of plants, animals, micro-organisms, their genetic material and the ecosystems of which they are a part ‹ many of which have developed over millennia of evolutionary history (Dekhang 1997). Biodiversity is usually divided into three fundamental categories; genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity. Within the scope of this chapter, species diversity will be the main focus.


The Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau towers over the central part of the continent of Eurasia. It is bounded by the Himalayan mountain chain in the south and connected with the Altyn Tagh and Gangkar Chogley Namgyal mountains (Ch: Qilian Mts.) in the north. Its western region merges with the Karakoram mountains and its eastern reaches slope downward more gradually with the Minyak Gangkar and Khawakarpo mountain ranges.

The Tibetan Plateau is the highest and largest plateau on the earth, occupying an area of more than 2.5 million sq. km. Its average elevation exceeds 4,000 m (13,000 ft), and many of the peaks reach beyond 8,000 m, Mount Everest at 8,848 m being the world's tallest mountain. In fact, Tibet is home to all 14 of the world's peaks greater than 8,000 m (26,259 ft.) in elevation. The Tibetan Plateau consists of a variety of landscapes ranging from lunar vistas in some parts of Southern Tibet to lush and thick tropical forests in Eastern Tibet. The plateau stretches from 500 m to 5,000 m from its edges to its hinterland; within the two extreme values lies an infinite combination of climatic elements. Factors such as the mean temperature which ranges from -8°C to 20°C, the annual rainfall which spans from 25 mm to 4,000 mm, and total solar radiation which varies from 110 cal/cm2/year to 210 cal/cm2/year are just a few variables that contribute to the myriad possibilities for life on the plateau.


Topography

In the mid-Cretaceous period, around 130 million years ago, the Indian subcontinent broke away from the southern continent of Gondwanaland and drifted northward. It finally collided about 40-50 millions years ago with the Central Asian landmass, forming the highest plateau on the earth ‹ the Tibetan Plateau (Molnar 1989).

Based on natural topography, Tibet can be roughly divided into four parts; valley and drier regions in the south, plateau in the north, high mountains with river valleys in the southwest and wet forest regions in the east. Climatic zones vary north to south from the arid polar alpine ice-snow zone to a humid low montane tropical zone.

When speaking in ecological terms, Tibet can be divided into three broad zones:

1) humid tropical and subtropical southeast where the oriental and paleoarctic floras and faunas meet

2) broad valleys of the Yarlung Tsangpo and Indus which are bordered to the south by the Himalayas and to the north by the Mt. Tesi (Kailash) range and Nyenchen Thangla ranges

3) frigid alpine and desert steppes of the Chang Thang (Northern Plateau), much of which lies above 4,500 metres.

The unique geo-morphological configuration, the complex land conditions, the diversified climate and the unique geological evolution has created the Tibetan Plateau to become a crucial centre for the composition and differentiation of mountain species in the world, especially of high-altitude flora and fauna. The Tibetan Plateau continued to form throughout the quaternary period, when a horizontal distribution pattern of ecosystems became established. These included zones of tropical rainforest, subtropical evergreen broad-leaved forest, sub-alpine evergreen needle-leaved forest, alpine shrub-meadow, high-cold steppe, and high-cold desert. In the mountains of each horizontal zone, ecosystemic vertical zones also developed. This resulted in an extremely complex landscape, containing unique niches found nowhere else on the planet. (see table above).

During the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, explorers and travellers, many of whom were scientists, collected general information on the animals and plants of Tibet. Amazed by the country's biodiversity, they gave accounts of a vast variety of flora and fauna ‹ including golden monkeys, takin and red pandas ‹ roaming the lower forests. At the higher reaches they recorded that blue sheep, snow leopards and wild yaks thrived. Tibet has a variety of bird species ranging from tiny finches to enormous bearded vulture, whose nine-foot wingspan enables it to hover over ice-capped pinnacles like a pterodactyl (Apte and Edwards 1998).

The hydrological net in Tibet is formed by inner and outer river systems. Both systems reflect an abundance of unique and varied biodiversity. The inner river systems usually run in specific seasons and form many lakes and ponds in the basins of the plateau. The Tibetan Plateau is dotted with more than 2,000 lakes with the largest and most important being Tso-Ngonpo (Lake Kokonor), Namtso (Lake Namtso), Yamdrok Tso (Lake Yamdrok), and Mapham Tso (Lake Manasarowar).

The outer river systems mainly rise in the west, south and central Tibet, the area that is the source of Asia's 10 major rivers: Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Sutlej, Indus, Yangtze, Salween, Arun, Mekong, Karnali, Manas, Yellow River, as well as their numerous tributaries. These rivers and their tributaries sustain the lives of 47 per cent of the world's population, or 85 per cent of Asia's total population. (See rivers map).


The Significance of Jet Streams

The jet streams, or high altitude winds in the innermost layer of the atmosphere up to about 15 km in elevation, travel rapidly and move the lower air over the landscape to bring changes in weather patterns. Terrestrial features such as the Tibetan Plateau affect these jet streams both by their bulk and by variations in their temperature. The plateau acts like a huge iceberg to deflect the high altitude winds. In winter, cold air settles on the plateau, whereas in spring and summer it heats up and the warm air gives rise to a high-pressure system to form an eastward-flowing jet stream which brings the June monsoon to the Indian subcontinent. If, however, the Tibetan Plateau is covered with snow, the heat absorption of the plateau is delayed and this, in turn, may delay the monsoon to affect the lives of millions of people in Asia.

The Tibetan Plateau's effect on the southwest monsoon by acting in this heat-island fashion also has great significance for the formation of flora and fauna. As the tropical monsoon climate extends northwards to the southern slopes of the Himalayas, and along the Yarlung Tsangpo River valley, it has moved through almost six latitudinal zones beyond the Tropic of Cancer. As a result, the plateau consists of two biogeographic regions: the pan-arctic and the paleotropical region for plants, and the palaeoarctic realm and the Indo-Malayan region for animals (Li 1995).


The Diverse Display

The distribution of plant and animal species on the plateau is extremely uneven due to differences in topography and climate. For example, the Chang Thang (Northern Plateau) occupies about a quarter of the Tibetan Plateau, but hosts only one-tenth of the total species found on the plateau. However, the Himalayan and Hengduan Mountains (i.e. the regions of Khawakarpo mountains in south and southeastern Tibet) contain less than one-fifth of the Tibetan Plateau, but are home to over 80 per cent of the total species living on the plateau.

The vast land surface of the Tibetan Plateau has wide climatic variations caused by the unique plateau atmospheric circulation system and the great difference in elevation. Such unusual natural conditions give rise to diverse natural habitats for complex species of flora and fauna. The areas of eastern and southeastern Tibet receive monsoon showers during the months July to September and have abundant plant and animal species, many of which are rare and endangered.

The plateau is the differentiation centre for Rhododendron, Primula, Saussurea, and Pedicularis; there are altogether 400 species of Rhododendron alone, which accounts for about 50 per cent of the world's total species. Many endemic plant species such as Circaeaster, Himiphrogma, Chionocharis, Milula, Cyananthus, Leptocodon, Maharanga, Pegia, Chamasium and various others are found on the Tibetan Plateau.

In fact, it is important to remember that some exotic flora now common in the West such as Rhododendron, saxifraga, paeonia, were brought from Tibet by early travellers such as British botanist Kingdon Ward, who made many large-scale explorations early this century in search of exotic plants. The American adventurer, Leonard Clark returned from Tibet in 1948 with valuable botanical samples. He wrote:

Surprisingly, our scientists estimated that among the basic foundation stones of this inherent Mongol power for war is grass, strong grass converted into excellent animal flesh ‹ among the finest in the world. I was taking grass samples and seeds, hoping to transfer its power to the pastures of America and Europe.

According to Wu and Feng (1992) the Tibetan Plateau is host to over 12,000 species of 1,500 genera of vascular plants, accounting for over half of the total genera found in China. There are over 5,000 species of 700 genera of fungi, accounting for 82.4 per cent of China; additionally, 210 species belonging to 29 families of mammals account for 65.90 per cent of the total families found in China.

There are also over 532 species of birds in 57 families on the plateau accounting for approximately 70.37 per cent of the total families found in China and 115 species of fish.

Though the scope of this chapter does not allow for an in-depth discussion of the ecosystemic side of Tibet's biodiversity, it is important to note its vastness. On the Tibetan Plateau, diversified ecosystems and complex, varied boundary surface conditions between them provide a favourable setting for ancient species, differentiation of new species, and exchange of geographic components. Under such conditions, the Tibetan Plateau has produced its own species diversity. Based on Ellenbeg's scheme (1973) for determining world ecosystems, the Tibetan Plateau contains all the large ecosystems for the macro-ecosystem terrestrial-ecosystem: forest, scrub, steppe, desert and aquatic formations. Such a diverse display is usually found only on a continental scale.


FORESTS

Forests on the Tibetan Plateau are largely found in eastern and southeastern regions. The lushest forest cover is found in the Namchakbarwa region, where the Yarlung Tsangpo river turns to flow into India as the Brahmaputra. In eastern and southeastern regions of Tibet receiving the monsoon ‹ forest grows up to an elevation of 4,100-4,500 metres. A mixed coniferous and broad-leaved forest composing mainly of spruce, fir and oak with an understory of Acer, Lindera, Rhododendron, Litsea and other trees predominate. The forest of Eastern Amdo is patchy and mainly consist of junipers (Sabina). Tree species such as Picea crassifolia and P. asperata as well as Betula grow below an elevation of 3,500 metres in the Amnye Machen Range (Schaller 1998).

Most of the rare animal and plant species make their home in the forests of Eastern and Southeast Tibet because of the variety of habitats the forest belts provide and the pleasant climate. Rare animals found in these forest regions are giant panda, white-lipped deer, takin, musk deer, goral and birds such as Himalayan monal, snowcock, satyr tragopan, Tibetan partridge and blood pheasant to name a few.

The forests of Southeast Amdo are known not only for their variety but also for their tremendous timber storage. For example, there are 200-year-old spruce forests in the valleys of Tramo (Ch:Bomi) county. The average diameter of the trees is 92 cm with a height of 57 metres; maximum storage per hectare is 2,000-2,500 cubic metres, and the average growth rate per year is 10-12 cubic metres per hectare. When one huge plum yew tree with a seven metre circumference fell across a road, it took more than a day for a squad of China's People's Liberation Army soldiers to cut it in half (Du 1987).


WILDLIFE

Chinese biological investigations in Amdo found that there are 10 million birds belonging to 200 species, which equals about one-third of the bird population of Europe (Chen and Zhang 1987). Tso-Ngonpo (Lake Kokonor) in Amdo alone boasts 10 out of 15 recorded duck families. It is also rich in fish species; according to Chinese statistics the total fish catch from the lake between 1957 and 1970 added up to some 128,500 tons.

The well-known Bird Island on Tso-Ngonpo is only 67,000 sq. metres in size, but it has four main breeding birds such as bar-headed geese, great black-headed gulls, brown-headed gulls and cormorants. If the number of other birds, such as tern and snipe, are added the total number of birds will exceed 100,000 on the island (Chen 1987).

In the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' alone there are 2,307 species of insects, 64 species of fish, 45 species of amphibians, 55 species of reptiles, 488 species of birds and 142 species of mammals. There are 163 rare, endangered and valuable species, consisting of 74 species of mammals, 79 birds, four reptiles, two amphibians, two fish and two insects.

There are over 5,000 higher plant species and 280 families. Among them woody plants total over 100 families and 300 species. Being rich in wild plants in terms of number of species and population, Metok, Tramo and Kyirong are called the rare natural plant museums.

Chamdo region in East Tibet has steep valleys and rich forest cover which provide good habitats for many wildlife species. This region is called "pheasant realm" with over 10 pheasant species plus golden monkey, sambar and black stork.

The southern Lhoka region has many rare species and has diverse topography including dry valleys and tropical and subtropical vegetation. The Tibetan sub-species of red deer (Cervus elaphus wallichi) thrive in this region. The valleys of Kongpo in southern Tibet are covered by sub-tropical vegetation and are rich in species diversity. Long-tailed leaf monkey and Himalayan tahr are mainly distributed in this region. Nyingtri region of Kongpo, in the east part of the Himalayas, enjoys warm and moist climate, and has tropical and subtropical vegetation and is one of the richest areas for wildlife diversity.


RICH RANGES AND PASTURES

A major portion of the Tibetan Plateau is under pastures and rangelands. The rangelands' ecosystems are important in that they are the headwaters' environment for major rivers in Asia, so what takes place in these watershed areas has far-reaching effects on the downstream regions. Pastures and rangelands are rich in biodiversity, are a storehouse for valuable medicinal resources and also provide habitats for rare and endangered species. In addition rangelands are home to millions of Tibetan nomads with their livestock and wildlife, and are thus fundamental for the survival of their unique way of life.

The principle pasturelands are in Chang Thang in the north and in Amdo and Kham in the east. The Chang Thang rangelands as a whole are in good condition. However, the total plant cover is only 25 per cent consisting mainly of grasses, sedges and a few herbs. Species variation is small with no more than about 20 species in a 20 sq. metre plot and the biomass is also low (Schaller 1997). The challenge now is to keep these grasslands in healthy condition and to prevent the spread of plant diseases, especially exotic ones, in the future.


ENDEMISM ON THE TIBETAN PLATEAU

Since animals have a wider area of activity their endemism is less obvious than that of plants. The endemic distribution of animal species on the plateau is abundant, boasting 40 endemic mammals which constitute 60 per cent of China's total; 28 endemic birds, two endemic reptiles and 10 endemic amphibians. The endemic animal species of the Tibetan Plateau mainly consist of those species of the moist eastern and southern fringes and the Chang Thang. The former includes mammals such as giant panda, red panda, takin, musk deer and various species of birds such as tragopan, Tibetan eared pheasant, Himalayan monal and others.

The Chang Thang region hosts a number of endemic animal genera such as Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle, wild yak, kyang, Himalayan marmot, Himalayan mouse-hair or Pika, Tibetan woolly hare, vole and birds like Tibetan snowcock, Tibetan sand grouse and others.

Ngari region situated in the western part of Tibet, is a major distribution range of endemic wildlife species such as wild yak, Tibetan wild ass, black-necked crane, snow leopard, blue-sheep and others.

There are now 81 endangered animal species on the Tibetan Plateau, which includes 39 mammals, 37 birds, four amphibians and one reptile (DIIR 1998).


PUTTING A VALUE ON BIODIVERSITY

The comprehensive uses of various plants and animal products and by-products on the Tibetan Plateau cannot be outlined and justified in a brief article. However, the following is a general introduction to their scope and utility: The basic needs of the people in Tibet are provided by plants and animal products or their by-products. The main food crops are barley, wheat, maize, mustard, millet, sorghum, buckwheat and rice, with tsampa (roasted barley) forming the staple diet of most Tibetans.

The main vegetables that grow well are cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, radish, turnip, peas, celery, carrot, potato, spinach, chive, kidney bean, tomato, squash, coriander and others. The abundant bright sunshine is good for growing vegetables and it is not unusual for a radish or cabbage to grow to a dozen kilograms, and a potato to half or even one kilogram. These days people grow vegetables in greenhouses to provide fresh nutrition throughout the four seasons, especially in the Lhasa areas.

Orchard trees that grow well in Tibet are apple, chestnut, orange, walnut, apricot, peach, plum, cherry, banana and pear. Strawberries, grapes, rhubarb and mushrooms also grow in abundance.

Tea is cultivated in Metok, Zayul, Tramo, Nyingtri and certain areas of Amdo and Kham. The main species under cultivation are black tea, green tea, reddish-bracted, small-clustered, rape-flowered, large-leaved and small-leaved tea (Dekhang 1997).

Clothing is also provided by animals and plants. Much of the traditional Tibetan wardrobe is derived from animals such as yak, sheep and goat. Indian hemp can be woven into materials to produce first rate clothing.

Trees and bamboo, which are used for building houses of all shapes and sizes, are derived directly from the forests. The forest products are also fashioned into a variety of items for daily use such as furniture, tools and in paper production. China sells Tibetan timber in the international market and uses it domestically in building bridges, ships, boats, railway sleepers, furniture and other commodities.


A Medical Fountainhead

According to Dr. Tenzin Choedak, senior personal physician to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there are over 2,000 medicinal plants in Tibet. These plants have an immense potential to cure various chronic and common ailments such as asthma, hepatitis, diabetes, anaemia, tuberculosis, malaria, cancer and many other deadly diseases. For example, Taxus wallichiana, a tree found in the forests of Tibet, is the source of the allopathic drug taxol ‹ today regarded as one of the most effective remedies for certain kinds of cancer.

Examples of common medicinal plants growing on the Tibetan Plateau which are widely used in allopathic, homeopathic, Tibetan, and Chinese pharmacy includes Gastroda elata, Angelica sinensis, Coptis tectoides, Picrorhiza scrophulariiflora, Rheum officinalis, Magnolia officinalis, Terminalia chebula and Liolyophora phalloides.

The angong-niu-huang pill, a traditional Chinese medicine prescribed to relieve critical cases, is made from the grass stones formed in the gall bladder of yaks. Musk has very high medicinal value ‹ being an essential component of some traditional Chinese drugs, like liushen (six-gold) pills and musk ointment ‹ and is also a fundamental ingredient in perfumery world-wide.

From 1987 to 1992, in the region of Amdo Golok in eastern Tibet alone, China extracted medicinal plants such as Rheum palmatum (chumtsa) to the tune of 1,017.5 tons; Frittilaria sp.(abhika) over 30 tons; Cordyceps sinensis (yartsa gunbu) 9,105 kg; Gentiana robusta (kiche) 36 tons. Over a period of 30 years Chinese have extracted 6,105 tons of chumtsa, 180 tons of abhika, 54.9 tons of yartsa gunbu and 28.5 tons of deer antlers from Amdo Golok alone (Palbar 1994). Various food grains and berries are used in brewing industries such as wines, beer, whisky and others, while the government of China has also produced a new market-oriented Tibetan barley beer in Tibet on a commercial scale.


Spiritual, social and cultural value

Tibetans believe that there is an intricate and primal relationship between the natural world and human beings. This belief in the sanctity of living beings has encouraged them to become effective stewards of their environment. To Tibetans every life is precious and they believe that one should refrain from harming other living beings down to the tiniest creatures. One Tibetan spiritual text, the Pungsang Sutra says, "Taking your body as an example, don't harm other living beings."

Tibetan Buddhist scriptures explain that the earth is the noe (container) and all the things on this earth ‹ biotic and abiotic elements ‹ are the chue (contents). Thus if the container is broken and destroyed it cannot protect the contents. Mother Earth is the container sustaining the existence of countless living creatures including the lives of human beings (Dekhang 1997).

His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes in his poem on the environment in 1993:

In the remoteness of the Himalayas
In the days of yore, the land of Tibet
Observed a ban on hunting, on fishing
And, during designated periods, even construction.
These traditions are noble
For they preserve and cherish
The lives of humble, helpless and defenceless creatures.


The endless verdant grasslands, snow-capped mountains reflected in turquoise lakes, meandering rivers and abundant wildlife in Tibet never fails to impress visitors, filling their minds with inspiration and joy. This soul-soothing environment invests flora and fauna with an immense aesthetic value.


THREATS TO WILDLIFE

Hunting and Poaching

Hunting and poaching of wildlife for commercial gain is one of the principle threats to the survival of various wildlife species in Tibet. Rare animal skins and other parts such as deer antlers, Tibetan gazelle heads, leopard skins and other endangered animal parts and plant are sold in the open market by those with connections and money to pay bribes without the fear of legal penalties. Many Tibetan refugees have been eye witnesses to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) brigades venturing out in hunting parties to machinegun down herds of wild animals across the plateau without any consideration for the sanctity of wildlife. This "sport" was especially popular after the final occupation of Tibet in 1959. The heads and skins of slaughtered animals were either taken to China as trophies or their meat was exported or consumed locally by the Chinese army.

China's PLA soldiers stationed in Tibet often dynamite rivers and lakes to catch fish; this not only kills the fish, but also poisons the whole aquatic ecosystem where dynamite is being detonated.

China's official approach to wildlife can best be illustrated by statements such as, "Wildlife is a renewable natural resource. The final purpose of protecting and rescuing endangered animal species is to protect a natural resource that can be constantly used" (NSP, 1994). "Rich wildlife resources of Qinghai (Amdo) provide important exports for China. Each year, 130,000 marmot skins are exported" (Du 1987). According to Chinese scientist Wu Ning three decades ago herds of hundreds of wild yaks could be found on the rangelands in Ngaba (Ch: Aba) Tibetan Prefecture in Amdo. Due to hunting and degradation of their habitats they have become almost extinct in most of their range (Wu 1997).


Commercial Exploitation

Trophy hunting of wildlife by foreigners on the Tibetan Plateau began in Amdo, Xinjiang, and Gansu during the 1980s. The government of ŚTibet Autonomous Region' is now considering commercial hunting as it is a quick way of making money. Usually trophy hunting benefits the hunters and the government, not the animals and local people (Schaller 1998).

In a country where the per capita income is US$30 it is perhaps hard to resist the temptation of selling rare animal parts for hard cash. A snow leopard coat can fetch US$20,000 on the black market. Agenda 21 for Sustainable Agricultural Development in the ŚTibet Autonomous Region', which the government of China issued in 1996 states, "Hunting is prohibited, but few local governments have not given enough recognition to this issue and their measures for protecting wildlife are ineffective."

George Schaller, the eminent American wildlife scientist who has conducted several wildlife studies on the Chang Thang, writes in the August 1993 issue of National Geographic, Tibet Forest Bureau has tried to curtail the illegal Tibetan antelope wool trade. For example, one truck driver was taken to court for killing 300 antelopes. However, control is extremely difficult, in part because officials, instead of upholding the laws, themselves often hunt. One Tibetan herdsman in the area said that Chinese officials from Gerze [Gyertse] come in winter to Chang Thang to hunt yaks and antelope with modern weapons. He said, "If the officials obey the law and stop hunting we will too."

In his book, Tibet's Hidden Wilderness, Schaller recalls the party secretary of Shuanghu, Suolang Gongbu, who sent trucks to the far north to shoot wild yaks for winter meat, even though the species is fully protected in China. In 1991 he handed several rifles to his staff for a kyang (wild ass) hunt as meat was needed to feed Chinese labourers on a local construction project...Ironically in 1993 Suolang was named National Wildlife Protection Model by the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region government for his Ścontribution' to conservation. Wildlife authorities in China on the whole are poorly trained and wardens and patrol teams are ill-equipped to stamp out illegal hunting (Cai 1997). Many poachers now hunt with automatic weapons due to the lucrative nature of the illegal trade in rare animal parts.

Contrary to the high-sounding rhetoric of the Chinese government over protecting Tibet's wildlife, a state-run company called China National Native Produce and Animal By-products Import and Export Corporation sends its agents into the countryside to trap or kill wild animals of all kinds (Schaller 1994). Since deer antlers, musk, tiger bones, bear gall bladder and leopard bones, and other parts of animals are used in traditional Chinese medicine, there is a huge illegal operation to poach these rare species of wildlife. In many areas musk deer populations have vanished (Wangdu 1998).

There is also widespread commercial hunting of Tibetan wild animals. A permit to hunt an endangered Tibetan antelope is issued for US$35,000, and an argali sheep permit is US$23,000. The plateau's endangered species, such as snow leopard, giant panda, black-necked crane, wild yak, and Tibetan antelope, enjoy protection in word only on Chinese government paper.


Political Pandering

There are now only about 1,000 giant pandas left in the wild, which means that the species is threatened with extinction. However, pandering to international curiosity, China exploits the giant panda to earn hard cash through zoo rental programmes as well as to gain political leverage from influential countries. Beijing presented two giant pandas to Hong Kong on July 1, 1997 to celebrate the change of sovereignty! Earlier China had presented two giant pandas to the then British prime minister, Edward Heath, a pair to the Japanese prime minister in 1972 and a pair to the Washington's National Zoo after then US President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, plus a pair to London Zoo. China sold two giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo on 10 May 1999. Again two giant pandas arrived in the US on 5 November 1999 for a ten year loan to the Atlanta Zoo. The Zoo will pay China US$ 1 million a year for the loan of the cubs (Inside China Today 1999c). These endangered animals should not be used as official souvenirs to be sent overseas at the whim and fancy of China.


The Population Factor

The late Panchen Lama said on 8 March 1987 at the National People's Congress Conference held in Beijing, "The expenditure on a Chinese in Tibet is four times more than that in China. Why should Tibet pay so much to sustain this Chinese population in Tibet? The government of China's policy of sending Chinese into Tibet is harming Tibet. In the beginning a few thousand Chinese migrated, but now several thousand more are pouring into Tibet."

Human population growth obviously increases the pressure on the natural resource base. Tibetan wildlife habitat is falling prey to intruding Chinese settlers and many animals and plants suffer from habitat loss. Rare animals like the giant panda and golden monkey are some animals which are threatened with extinction. The production of furs and pelts in Central Tibet has reached 5,360,000 each year on an average. Most of these furs come from Himalayan marmot, musk deer, blue sheep, Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan antelope, stone marten, foxes, lynx, leopard cat (Felis bengalensis), common otter, oriental small-clawed otter and wild red dog (Cuon alpinus).

A 1988 report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) found that China's export of large cat skins totalled 89,650, which is the highest export number in the world; ironically China is a signatory to CITES. By 1996 China had a total of 213 threatened species, including 75 mammals, 90 birds, 15 reptiles, one amphibian, 28 fishes and four invertebrates (IUCN 1996b).


Deforestation

Since many diverse flora and fauna thrive in the forest regions of Tibet, deforestation leads to the loss of biodiversity. Tibet's total forest cover declined from 25.2 million hectares in 1950 to 13.57 million hectares in 1985 alone, which means 46 per cent destruction. According to Chinese official statistics from 1950 to 1985 Tibetan timber worth US$54 billion was felled and sold in the international timber market by China. (see forestry chapter).

Tibetan forest regions of Nyingtri, Gyalthang, and Drago were ravaged between 1965-1985 and a total of 18 million cubic metres of timber was transported to China. The state of Tibet's forest can best be illustrated by Tenzin, a middle-aged farmer of Markham village in Kham, Eastern Tibet, who told The New York Times correspondent, Nicholas Meysztowics, in April 1990, "In the time it takes to drink one cup of tea, 15 Chinese trucks loaded with Tibetan logs pass by."

The chaotic commune-period (1956-1981) initiated by the government of China caused an unprecedented destruction of Tibet's forest. During this period local villages became production brigades during which mountains in Tibet were stripped of their forests to feed inefficient steel furnaces in the madness to produce enough steel for China to advance rapidly to the ranks of the advanced nations.

According to Tenzin Palbar, who escaped from Tibet into India in 1987, in the Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture from 1955-1991 the Chinese government extracted 50.17 million cubic metres of Tibetan timber, which is worth US$ 3.1 billion in Tibet itself when calculated at the average price of 50 yuan per cubic metre. In the Ngaba region there were 340 million cubic metres of forest in 1950 and in 1992 it reduced to 180 million cubic metres, of which only 34 million cubic metres could be used. Therefore, Ngaba lost 47 per cent of its forest cover between 1950 to 1992 alone (TIN 1999a).

Deforestation in Tibet is still continuing at a fast rate. Tibetan refugees arriving in Dharamsala in 1999 from Gonjo in Kham reported that at least 300 Chinese logging trucks leave Tibet to China loaded with timber every day. The major reason behind the clear-cutting of forest is to Śdevelop' the local economy. But the loss that is incurred by over cutting is more than the gain (Wangdu 1998). One case in point is the Yangtze flood in August 1998 in China, which resulted in an economic loss of US$ 37.5 billion and 3,656 people died (DIIR 1999a). The President of China, Jiang Zemin, admitted that the flood was mainly due to rampant deforestation upstream on the Tibetan Plateau.


Grassland Degradation

Tibet is 70 per cent grassland and the health of these extensive grasslands are fundamental to the survival of about 1 million people consisting mainly of nomads and about 70 million population of domestic animals such as sheep, goat and yak and countless number of wildlife.

The principle pasture lands of Amdo regions of Tibet before 1949 [before Chinese occupation of Tibet] grew to an average height of 20 cm, covering 75 to 90 per cent of the area. Today, the grass grows to a maximum height of only 10 cm. while the percentage coverage of pasture lands has fallen considerably and grass yields are estimated to have fallen by up to approximately 50 per cent (Wang and Bai 1991).

In the Tibetan Plateau the rate of biomass (fuel) consumption is greater than naturally-occurring replacement rates. Unsustainable conversion of grassland into farmland during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution seriously damaged the grassland in some areas. Herd structure and composition are far from optimal. Better herd management techniques and promotion of solar energy may provide opportunities for simultaneous grassland recovery and economic growth (US Embassy 1996b).

In 1991, the State Council established the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) to facilitate cooperation between China and the international community in the fields of environment and development. The Biodiversity Working Group of CCICED concluded in 1995 that China's grassland resources, which cover two thirds of China's land mass, deserve special attention. The reasons are: They support unique ethnic groups meeting their nutritional, clothing, fuel and medicinal needs; and, significantly, their degradation could very adversely affect neighbouring environments that house one-fourth of the world's population.

China's White Paper on Population, Environment and Development of the 21st Century, which the State Council approved on March 1994, delivers a similar message ‹ the grasslands are far more important to China and the world environment than the value of their economic output. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences also reached this conclusion when it appointed its Grassland Review Panel to engage Chinese grassland specialists in developing a broad view of China's pastoral frontier (US Embassy 1996c).


CONSEQUENCES OF BIODIVERSITY LOSS

The various benefits of wildlife such as medicinal, industrial, educational, aesthetic, spiritual and cultural values, will vanish altogether with the extinction of wildlife on the Tibetan Plateau. This will not only be an irredeemable tragedy for Tibet, but for the whole world as well.

With the disappearance of flora and fauna the environment of the plateau would be irreversibly disturbed. Felling trees, for instance, threatens to not only wipe out a number of species but is also shown to upset the complex ecological balances which regulate the amount of rain and heat a given region receives to cause soil erosion, landslides, silting, floods, drought and other perils. Because of its immense geographical extent and height, Tibet considerably influences global weather patterns by affecting the flow of jet streams over its plateau. As a huge land surface, the plateau affects the path of jet streams as an enormous iceberg would dramatically change the navigational routes of ships in oceans.

Loss of forest and grassland cover on the plateau will affect jet stream patterns, which will in turn influence the Pacific typhoons and also cause the El Nino effect. Taken together this controls the weather patterns across Europe, the USA, Mexico, Peru, India, China and other adjoining areas and will affect their ecology and economies.


PRIORITIES FOR FUTURE ACTION

The conservation of biodiversity differs from traditional nature preservation in that it is less of a defensive mechanism than a proactive effort ‹ seeking to meet human needs (not greed) from biological resources and at the same time sustainably managing these resources for future generations.

The phrase "East or West home is the best" holds true for plants and animals. The destruction of their habitat ultimately means the destruction of many species of plants and animals, so wildlife habitats on the Tibetan Plateau need to be protected proactively. Wherever possible the niches of wildlife regions must be restored so that some now-silent habitats will once again teem with wildlife and bird songs.

One way of conserving habitats for species survival is to set up more effective nature parks and reserves for wildlife. Today there are in total 21 "nature reserves" on the plateau on government paper; in actuality they offer no practical protection since there are no adequate wildlife wardens or reserve managers to oversee the species in these "reserves". Therefore there is a pressing need for more sustained and active involvement by the government and local people through financial and human resource mobilisation.

Policy reforms at all levels should consider the basic needs of local inhabitants and provide direct economic incentives towards conserving biodiversity.


Legislation and Effective Enforcement

It is not a case that there are no laws for the conservation of wildlife on the Tibetan Plateau. It is simply that these laws are too weak to stamp out the illegal activities of seasoned poachers and hunters. Wildlife criminals and black-marketeers get away without paying fines or serving jail sentences by invoking the many loopholes in the legal system.

The 1988 National Wildlife Law of China declares that it is a state policy to promote and perpetuate wildlife, and prohibits the killing of endangered and some non-endangered species, but does little to address wildlife habitat loss and fails to set up an infrastructure which can monitor and enforce such laws and regulations (Harris 1995-96).

In January 1995, China's State Councillor, Chen Junsheng, said in a Xinhua report that more effort is needed to protect forests and rare wildlife, including revising the existing forestry laws and drawing up new laws to crack down on illegal logging and hunting.

The indiscriminate hunting and poaching of Tibetan antelope was brought to the attention of international audiences in 1999. Several organisations, including Friends of Nature in China, campaigned to stop the slaughter of these gentle and endangered creatures for their wool -- popularly known as shahtoosh (king of wool) -- which is woven into expensive shawls fine enough to pass through a wedding ring. It is also warm enough to hatch a pigeon's egg, and can fetch up to US$ 75,000 per shawl in the world's fashion capitals (O'Donnell 1999).

Shahtoosh shawls are currently a high fashion item and sell at inflated prices in exclusive boutiques around the world. About three antelopes are killed to make a single shawl. The Tibetan antelope has been decimated from nearly two million in 1900 to barely 75,000 now. Some 20,000 Tibetan antelope on the Tibetan Plateau are killed every year. (The Times of India 1999; Clark 1999) On April 13, 1999, an accused of Indian origin, Bharati Ashok Assomull, was fined US$39,000 and sentenced to a three-month suspended jail term in Hong Kong for selling 130 shahtoosh shawls worth US$65,000 (South China Morning Post 1999a). This punishment sent a clear message to poachers and smugglers that this kind of illegal activity will not be tolerated by the global community.

According to Xinhua's 30 April 1999 issue, a team of Chinese police and wildlife enforcement rangers arrested 42 poachers in the Hol Xil [Kokoxili] Nature Reserve in Amdo after a successful crackdown on the poaching of Tibetan antelope and other rare animals. They also confiscated more than 1,000 Tibetan antelope furs, 300 antelope heads, four wild yak furs, 26 wild donkey hides, a number of bear paws and heads of wild yaks, nine rifles, 8,000 rounds of ammunition and 12 vehicles.

The Chinese government's state departments plan to continue to cooperate with its northwestern provinces to tighten protection of wild animals in this reserve, which is home to more than 20 rare species under state protection including yaks and Tibetan antelopes. Such successful enforcement campaigns are exemplary and need to be replicated elsewhere.


Ecological Ethic

Modern consumerism which acquires, pollutes, and throws away is regarded by the Chinese government and populace ‹ and unfortunately by some Tibetans -- as a sign of prosperity and social status. Ironically, this modern western disease is already shown to be responsible for many of the environmental ills of this century. This consumerist disease should be transformed to a more responsible, compassionate, caring, and universal consciousness as championed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In other words, before we go on to clean the external environment, it is an urgent task to clean the inner environment i.e our mind of its greed and selfishness (Dekhang 1997).

The Chinese character for animal translates as "moving things" and the Chinese consider wild animals as an economic resource to be used for human purposes. This utilitarian view of wildlife is the main cause behind the loss of biodiversity on the Tibetan Plateau as well as in China. Therefore, the Tibetan Buddhist ideology of respecting wild animals as equal partners in an interdependent natural ecosystem should be given prominence and not looked down on as "backward" as most Chinese still tend to do.


Conservation Education

Holistic grassroots conservation education and extension services should be provided to the younger generations. These education and training schemes can easily be built upon the rich resources of Buddhist ecological ethics. Such an education will convey the spiritual and economic benefits of good resource management and may involve monks, nuns, biologists, economists, environmental educators and others.

Conservation education and training should include wildlife management, wildlife research, conservation training, conservation workshops and education, conservation extension work, designing nature parks and reserves. Chinese scientist Li Bosheng, who has done extensive research on the plateau's biodiversity, says that one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the path of conserving biodiversity in Tibet is the shortage of talented personnel and lack of funds and materials. Tibetan and international bodies as well as the government of China can play an active role in such avenues.


Growing Respect for Tradition

The "we know what is good for you" approach of China and some international donor agencies usually doesn't work in other regions -- and so is the case in Tibet. One self-evident fact that must be understood is that Tibetans have successfully lived in harmony with nature for centuries.

Tibetan Buddhists' earth-friendly value system should be at the core of any conservation agenda or programmes initiated either by China or international agencies. Fortunately many Chinese scientists are now beginning to recommend this concept. Professor Zhang Rongzu, a Chinese geographer, noted in 1989: It is worth considering the significance of this tradition (Tibetan). It must be treated as a sound background for any kind of economic development initiatives, rather than simply presuming that it is backward. Many experiences of inner China and its conventional models have a limited relevance here (Tibet).

Another Chinese scientist, Wu Ning (1997) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, admits that Tibetan nomads have accumulated a wealth of experience in the use of rangelands. He finds seasonal migration management systems well adapted to local conditions and suggests that modern and scientific approaches of managing grassland and animals on the Tibetan Plateau should take advantage of the wealth of traditional Tibetan knowledge accumulated through centuries.

George Schaller in his 1997 book, Tibet's Hidden Wilderness, found the general attitude of officials toward traditional grazing practices was dismissive, based on the notion that nomads are inefficient and backward. But they did admit that a combination of the traditional and new scientific systems could perhaps lead to viable range management.


Sensitive Research

More research on the biodiversity of the plateau could shed light on the habits and habitats of the region's rare and rich plants and animals. Here the call is for sensitive research which respects Tibetan culture and traditions to sustainably manage the biological resources. Research on the carrying-capacity of pastures, forests, lakes and other natural resources should be conducted for the longterm environmental management of the plateau.

The domestic and international scientific network on biodiversity should be strengthened to improve communication and information flow among scientists and researchers in developing and developed countries to share experiences or learn lessons from each other. International agencies should support longterm ecological research in Tibet so as to provide a baseline for understanding natural ecosystems and learning how to modify them most effectively, consistent with the development needs of the Tibetan people.


Gene Pools and Seed Banks

The genetic pool of wildlife and domestic animals and plants provides the survival needs for human beings. They are the storehouse of genetic resources to improve livestock, develop new crop varieties, cure diseases and bring numerous other benefits yet undiscovered. The rich biodiversity of the Tibetan Plateau must therefore be preserved. Government -- and internationally funded gene pool centres and local seed banks should be set up in some selected areas to store genetic resources. Seed bases need to be established in pasture areas below 3,000 metres to improve rangelands. New varieties of seeds such as common oats (Avena sativa) were successfully introduced in Zamthang and accepted by herdsmen as a successful means of supplementing fodder for animals (Wu 1997). Scientific research should be conducted to assess the value of these resources. These centres not only become academic in nature, but also share their knowledge with Tibetan farmers, foresters and nomads to improve their living standard and to help in conserving genetic diversity.


Remote Sensing

The data gathered by remote sensing techniques, coupled with the data management capacity of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), offer unprecedented opportunities to assess and monitor ecosystem processes. Training opportunities for Tibetans must be made available through international development assistance.


Check Population Transfer

The single and most serious threat to the plateau's environment, especially to its wildlife, is the transfer of a huge number of Chinese settlers who open up new regions for agriculture, industries and small factories.

According to Xu Chengshi and Zhong Bu some of the 1.2 million Chinese who will be evicted by the massive Three Gorges Dam being built on the Yangtze River may go to Tibet. Sources within Tibet say at least one million Chinese will move to Tibet's southern Kongpo region because of its climatic similarity with the Yangtze region from where they are being displaced.

Moreover, the increased number of Chinese settlers pouring into the lower valleys of Tibet (the winter pastures of nomads) have disrupted the traditional migration pattern of nomad herds, thereby pushing them to marginal areas leading to overgrazing. The conversion of marginal lands for agriculture for Chinese settlers has devastated the vast grasslands in Amdo (DIIR 1996c). There is an urgent need for stricter laws on issuing residential permits to outsiders entering Tibet and effective enforcement to be introduces when checking illegal immigrants.


Curbing Corruption

Guanxi is the Chinese character for a "personal connection" ‹ a social disease that is rampant in China and is fast overtaking Tibet. For example, to log Tibet's forests one only needs a "license" which can be easily obtained if the right "personal connections" are in place. Thus some officials treat the resources of the Tibetan Plateau as their private property and give permission to cut down trees, and mine, kill or hunt animals as they fancy.

Mr. Gonpo, a Standing Committee member of Tibet People's Political Consultative Conference, said during the committee's meeting in Lhasa, 16-22 May 1995: "Citizens of Lhasa and Nyingtri (in Kongpo region) have expressed serious concern over the destruction of forests by timber poachers on the excuse that they have an official license from the various government forest departments to fell trees."


Involving People

Wildlife in China is a state-controlled commodity and due to ineffective enforcement of wildlife laws in many cases becomes a common property resource to be exploited. And the maxim "whoever hunts it, gets to keep it" becomes a reality. The people who live alongside wildlife receive no incentives for wildlife protection beyond the vague sense of helping to preserve some national treasures (Harris 1995-96).

Works in the development field by domestic, international, bilateral and multi-lateral agencies show that "top-down" development projects are no longer the trend. For successful realisation of projects a "bottom-up" strategy is preferred -- that is, giving more decision-making power to locals and involving local people in project appraisal, implementation and evaluation. This trend is obvious because local people have lived, sustained and survived in their native regions for thousands of years. The field biologist George Schaller says any projects in the Chang Thang Wildlife Reserve will have to consider the cooperation and participation of Tibetan nomads to ensure the protection of wildlife (Schaller 1997).

Participatory approaches to development remain virtually non-existent in China. Thus, developing multi-use management plans on the Tibetan Plateau will require more attention to the needs and aspirations of Tibetans; without the adequate understanding, interest and participation of the people, even the best conservation plans have little chance of success.

A Regional Experts' Meeting from November 5-7, 1996 in Kathmandu, Nepal on Rangelands and Pastoral Development in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas, came up with recommendations for the conservation of rangeland biodiversity listed in the table on next page.


GLOBAL ACTIVISM

On 19 July 1993, the government of ŚTibet Autonomous Region' passed the resolution to establish the Chang Thang Nature Reserve. It is the second largest reserve in the world, exceeded only by one in northern Greenland which consists mostly of ice cap. It is almost as large as Germany (Schaller 1998). This reserve was established with the assistance and encouragement from the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York.

In 1980 the Wolong Nature Reserve in Kham, the main habitat of giant panda, was designated an international biosphere conservation area by UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program. Such UNESCO actions should be further extended through international participation, pressure, and activism, to include major regions of rich forest resources on the eastern Tibetan Plateau and the Chang Thang Wildlife Reserve as world heritage sites and international biosphere reserves (Dekhang 1997).


CONCLUSION

In terms of richness the biodiversity of the Tibetan Plateau could be compared to the rainforest of the Amazon basin. To date it has not received the recognition and attention it deserves due to the paucity of information and restrictions imposed on travellers and scientists. The plateau is a storehouse of unique flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world -- especially its extraordinary high-altitude species.

Many rare, endemic and endangered plants and animals continue on the roller coaster towards extinction under the current regime. In the Chang Thang region of Tibet wildlife has been unsustainably hunted so that in the past decades numbers have decreased by as much as 90 per cent (Schaller 1998). The loss of these biological resources will not only lead to the extinction of certain species; drastic changes will occur to the food chains and food webs of the ecosystem network in which they play a vital role in building the web of life and maintaining the delicate balance of fragile ecosystems. It is therefore important to take concrete action, not mere register reaction, to conserve the biodiversity of the Tibetan Plateau. This can be done by focusing on achievable results through working on joint projects with Tibetan and international NGOs, government organisations and -- last but not the least -- the People's Republic of China.

The loss of Tibet's unique flora and fauna has consequences far more profound than more widely-recognised environmental dilemmas. Because the loss is irreversible, the potential impact on the human condition, on the fabric of the plateau's living system, and on the process of evolution is immense. Whatever geographical, political or imaginary lines we may draw on the globe, the fact is that all the inhabitants of this world -- irrespective of race, nationality and sex -- share the same planet. Therefore, the conservation of biodiversity on the Tibetan Plateau is undoubtedly a global responsibility. Conserving the biodiversity of Tibet could be a symbol of global human strength and commitment to saving other plant and animal species in peril elsewhere. This would not only guarantee the long-term survival of rare and endangered wildlife on the plateau, it will ensure the survival of the roof of the world -- one of the most enchanting, mystical and sacred landscapes on earth -- for the enrichment and enjoyment of future generations.


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[Source: Used with permission from Environment and Development Desk. Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, India.]


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