Wild Man: George Schaller recounts his adventures on the Tibetan Plateau

The renowned field biologist tells of his quest to study the ghost-like snow leopard and the mysterious chiru in his new book.

Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the WorldIsland Press, 384 pages, $29.95

Place-names sometimes carry a resonance that touches us in the way a song or a poem can. The words Cathay, Baffin Island, Mount Everest, or Machu Picchu have stirred a longing in men and women, locked in humdrum lives, to go to those places in search of a romantic ideal—a quest that often ends in disaster or disillusion. For George Schaller, such a freighted name is Chang Tang. There he found a wealth of adventure and scientific illumination that he has now passed on to us.

“Chang Tang,” Schaller exults as he describes that high plain covering 300,000 square miles on the Tibetan Plateau. “The name enchants. It conjures a vision of totemic loneliness, of space, silence, and desolation, a place nowhere intimate—yet that is part of its beauty. Even years before my visit, I had long wanted to explore its secrets and, intrigued by the accounts of early Western travelers, I traced and retraced their journeys with a finger on a map.”

Schaller is arguably the greatest living field biologist, the master biographer of our planet’s most charismatic large mammals. Beginning in 1959 he made intensive studies of the lives and ecological backgrounds of the mountain gorilla, Indian tiger, Serengeti lion, giant panda, jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal, and snow leopards in China. His popular books on those adventurous studies brought him international fame.

Much of that earlier work took place in national parks. Other biologists began to carry on the work with gorillas, lions, and the like, while Schaller wondered about the plight of the little-known (and thus underprotected) animals of the Chang Tang and adjoining regions in Asia. Might they disappear before anyone had a chance to study their natural history? For the past three decades his studies have been largely confined to mysterious animals most people have never heard of. A summing up in his 80th year appears now, with helpful maps and 32 color photographs, in Tibet Wild.

“A naturalist basically wonders and observes,” Schaller explains. In the field he is totally focused, absolutely absorbed in the distribution and behavior of wild animals of all kinds. Nothing escapes his eyes or ears. On the border of Laos and Vietnam, a family of tribal people invites him and his research team to dinner in their hut. The main course is a warty pig. Someone mentions that the pig’s long snout easily distinguishes it from a similar pig in the region.

“Two kinds of wild pig?” Schaller asks himself. “I knew of only one, the common black one. After I had pried bits of boiled meat from the pig cranium for my dinner, I was fortunately able to save that part of the skull and also a small sample of fresh meat.”

DNA analysis of those remnants of Schaller’s meal later showed it to be neither the wild nor the domestic black pig of Laos. A French priest had collected two unidentified pigs in Vietnam in 1892, and their identities matched the one from the hut in Laos. “The species then vanished until I ate it for dinner a century later,” Schaller notes. “The Indochinese warty pig had now been rediscovered.”

The Chang Tang is a barren land of violent extremities. Its roughly 15,000-foot elevation, “with the cold, guarantees memorable misery.” Yet when the snow thaws, the land melts into mush and torrential streams, bogging down travelers. There, hidden from much of the world, Schaller discovered a major wildlife disaster that he compares to the massacre of buffalo in North America during the late 1800s.

The chiru, or Tibetan antelope, once numbered perhaps a million individuals. But a “deadly fashion” industry took off around 1990, centered in India’s Kashmir, where expert weavers produced an elegant shawl called a shahtoosh (from a Persian word meaning “king of wool”). Wealthy shoppers paid thousands of dollars for one of these shawls. A leading U.S. department store, unwittingly or not, claimed the fine wool was shed by an ibex and later picked up by local people in the mountains.

Schaller and fellow conservationists discovered otherwise. Gangs of hunters, armed with guns and traps, roamed the Chang Tang and nearby areas, slaughtering more than a quarter-million chiru a year during the 1990s. They scraped the precious wool from the hides of these “protected” animals and smuggled it into Kashmir. By the mid-1990s the chiru population had plummeted to about 75,000 animals, and the species’ extinction seemed inevitable. Several of Schaller’s most fascinating chapters describe his field research on the chiru and the conservation initiatives that may have saved it.

The Tibetan Plateau is home to 150 or so mammal species, including wild yak and the ghostlike snow leopard—interesting in their own right. But indiscriminate hunting for sport or subsistence, or to supply parts for various markets, threatened some of these species. In parts of the Chang Tang, wildlife became so scarce that Schaller rejoiced if he discovered scats of any of them to analyze.

What kind of a man possesses the will and endurance to venture for months at a time into a trackless wilderness? Schaller himself traces his traits to his early life. In a chapter beguilingly entitled “Feral Naturalist,” he recounts his childhood in war-ravaged Nazi Germany. His father was a German diplomat married to an American woman. The boy’s schoolmates distrusted him, fearing perhaps that his mother was a spy. When she brought him and his younger brother to America after the war, again he was shunned because of his nationality. “Being forever itinerant, and burdened with the melancholy of an outsider, I became perhaps an internal exile with a detached and reticent character,” he writes. “Fieldwork demands stoicism, a tolerance for pounding winds and lashing snows as well as balky porters and vehicles.”

The study of animals has defined him, Schaller says, even superseded him as a person. He sees himself less as a practicing scientist confined to a laboratory and more as a man who likes “to ramble over wild typography or sit quietly to watch an animal in its universe so different from mine.”