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1 August 2013 Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys on the Roof of the World
David M. Leslie Jr.
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To conduct field biology requires tenacity, grit, and flexibility; to endeavor to achieve conservation success requires patience, persistence, and passion. The essence of field biology and the hope for conservation success are both reflected admirably in George B. Schaller's most recent book, Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys on the Roof of the World. I can think of no living biologist who embodies these characteristics more than Schaller does. Nearly 80 years old, he still regularly treks in faraway lands, observing and recording the natural history of species that the vast majority of us will never see in the wild. Schaller is a vanguard, and Tibet Wild, like his other books, is a sentinel of urgent conservation need.

In Schaller's words, “this book is part observation and part evocation” (p. 14). It contains 14 chapters, 8 of which are focused on the Chang Tang in “the great northern plain” of the Tibetan Plateau (p. 2) and on his decades-long quest to discover the calving grounds of his beloved chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni)—a small, enigmatic antelope unique to the plateau that once numbered in the millions but was severely overharvested for its exceptionally fine coat. After 26 journeys on the Chang Tang, beginning in 1984 and totaling 41 months, Schaller no doubt has more insight into the area's biology and character than does any other naturalist. Other chapters summarize Schaller's notable travels and observations in the Pamir Mountains (he calls them the plateau's “veranda” to the west) and the “Hidden Land of Pemako,” characterized by the “Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon” (p. 227), which falls quickly off the eastern side of the plateau “from mountain coolness… into a humid heat of wild bananas and leeches, along a narrow cliff trail through a gorge with a river rumbling below” (p. 230).


Schaller's pattern is to publish books in pairs: the scientific results of his research on a species followed by a more popular overview of the species and the landscape it inhabits. He did this for his pioneering work on mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringet; Schaller 1963, 1966), Indian tigers (Panthera tigris; Schaller 1967, Schaller and Selsam 1969), Serengeti lions (Panthera leo; Schaller 1972, 1973), and Himalayan sheep and goats (Schaller 1978, 1982). Tibetan wildlife is his latest subject, beginning with Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe (1998) and now paired with Tibet Wild. I value the specificity of Schaller's scientific observations and the clarity of his presentation. As a far less adventurous nature lover, I admire and am thankful for his clear passion for his subjects, their homes, and their ways.

Tibet Wild differs from Schaller's other books, most notably in two ways: His focus is directed more on his journeys—some treks lasted more than 50 days—which results in the absence of his typically rich descriptions of biology and behavioral nuances of the large mammals that he observed. A more pleasant diversion away from his previous titles is Schaller's choice to pepper this book with glimpses of his personal life-from childhood through raising two sons with his wife and early field companion, Kay, to his ambitions, fears, and hopes for a positive future at the Roof of the World. An insightful subsection in a chapter entitled “A gift to the spirit” articulates the author's perception of his own accomplishments and perceived inadequacies: “My inner voice points to failure. I have not built anything, no conservation organization, no university department” (p. 99). “Feral naturalist” is a chapter focused on his early life as young boy in Europe before and during World War II and his move to the United States as a 14-year-old.

Many personal reflections and philosophies are scattered throughout Tibet Wild, often at the end of a paragraph, almost as if they are afterthoughts and less important than his detailed chronicles, which they are not. He ends a rather clinical description of the birth of a chiru from his field notes with “the scene transcends science and reaches the emotions, touching the heart” (p. 103). Schaller sees his legacy mostly in the young nationals he has trained in Tibet “who will continue to fight to protect nature's beauty” permitting “my legacy… [to] flow onward long after I have ceased to be even a memory” (p. 100). I know that many memories will live on.

Of Schaller's many writings—he has written 16 previous books and numerous scientific and popular papers— Tibet Wild is not the place for the uninitiated to start. It is tedious in parts, perhaps reflecting the author's eagerness to simply document the details of the places he has traveled and the people with whom he has worked. The text also jumps around chronologically, and even geographically, chapter by chapter, which is a bit distracting. As the primer on Schaller's works, I recommend A Naturalist and Other Beasts (Schaller 2007, Leslie 2008).

A life lived as Schaller's is rare. Adventures of spirit and mind abound in all of us, but those who have left so many footsteps in truly wild, often foreboding landscapes are exceptional indeed. Schaller's work in the wilds of the Tibetan Plateau will enlighten future generations, just as the chronicles of early adventurers—Moorcroft, Rockhill, Przewalski, and Hedin, among others—have done for over a century. Schaller defines his perspective of a lifelong pursuit in few words: “Conservation is a long journey, not a destination” (p. 6) and “conservation is my life, and I must believe in success or I have nothing” (p. 309).

After finishing this book, I was left with the uneasy feeling that few such volumes by Schaller are left to come, and a sense that he is starting to close a chapter on his journeys to the deepest and coldest parts of Tibet. I hope I am wrong, but his readers can be thankful that throughout his rich career, Schaller has taken the time to share in words the status of these wild places and their beasts as a permanent benchmark to what they may become. Tibet Wild sings with Schaller's tenacity, patience, and passion, which I can only hope will contribute to his own call for “a century of environmental enlightenment, one that expresses its loyalty to the earth and all its wonder and variety, the only home we shall ever have” (p. 356).

References cited


DM Leslie Jr . 2008. A naturalist and other beasts: Tales from a life in the field, by G. B. Schaller. Journal of Mammalogy 89: 255. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 1963. The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and Behavior. University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 1966. The Year of the Gorilla. University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 1967. The Deer and the Tiger. University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 1972. The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations. University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 1973. Golden Shadows, Flying Hooves. Knopf. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 1978. Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya. University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 1982. Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya. Bantam. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 1998. Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe. University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar


GB Schaller . 2007. A Naturalist and Other Beasts: Tales from a Life in the Field. Sierra Club. Google Scholar


GB Schaller , ME Selsam . 1969. The Tiger: Its Life in the Wild. Harper and Row. Google Scholar
David M. Leslie Jr. "Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys on the Roof of the World," BioScience 63(8), 684-685, (1 August 2013).
Published: 1 August 2013

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