There are some places where the approach to coexistence with wildlife already has an aspect that is difficult to achieve in many other countries. This is a matter of culture. Whatever our religious, philosophical or cultural orientation, it is certainly true that we are fortunate to be able to draw on other cultures to find sources of good ideas for building solid messages.
The air is pungent and clear, dense with the juniper smoke that smoulders in the incense burners, with the crackling of the coloured flags in the wind and the woody squeak of prayer wheels, mixing with the murmur of the oratory of the monks who arrive in little wisps from the nearby monastery. This is the sound of the Tibetan plateau, in its magnificent expression of Chinese Qinghai, or in the Nepalese one on its northernmost margin, this is its perfume. It is the sound of Buddhism that peacefully regulates the existence of communities and has long established the rules for their interaction with the nature that surrounds them.
Over 3000 m above sea level the yaks are the undisputed lords of the Chinese grasslands of Qinghai, as well as of community life, providing milk, yogurt, cheese and, more rarely, meat. The yak is the cornerstone of family sustenance and once, before the houses, people lived in large tents made of its soft braided fur. “It does not let snow or rain pass,” say the village boys. Wherever you are on the plateau, tea always has a strong herbal scent and is cloudy with milk if not of the thick, pungent yak butter. On the borderline between wild and domestic, these massive animals play a special role in the life of communities, which have the greatest respect for them. Losing a yak is a serious if not dramatic event. “Only this month the Snow Leopard took away 4 yak calves and an adult while the wolves took 6 sheep” says Aanek, one of the few herdsmen here who also has sheep. The Snow Leopard is a well known phantasm in these valleys. “Are you afraid of the Snow Leopard?” I ask a girl who must be no more than 7 years old. “No, not even a bit” she replies, smiling. It is she, together with her older sister, who brings the animals to graze. I get the same answer from her mother and brother. “And not even the wolf?” Always a silent and voracious protagonist of Quinghai nights, “We’ve never heard of attacks on people” they answer. In Nepal the answers will be the same, for both leopard and wolf, a species that is timidly returning there. Attacks on animals? Those yes, many, with a frequency that varies between weekly and monthly. It depends on the season – in summer there are more – on the level of protection and on the numbers of Blue Sheep (the natural prey of the Snow Leopard) present in the area. A certain level of predation is inevitable, but beyond this … you have to deal with the high price of fencing, the lack of shepherds and dogs. You do what you can. There is nothing new here, it is a panorama common to many parts of the world. But one thing distinguishes the people of the Tibetan plateau both in the remote lands of Quinghai and those on its northern edge: attitude.
‘Tibetan Buddhists are different’ says Dr. Lingyun Xiao who, together with the team from the Centre for Nature and Society, Peking University & Shanshui Conservation Centre, has been working in rural areas of the plateau for many years. ‘It is not that the predation that takes place here does not anger people and perhaps more rightly than in other areas of the world where, as a result of compensation, the economic loss is not so significant. Here, in fact, a serious predation event can damage income for the whole year”. The difference that Dr. Lingyun speaks of lies in the approach that the inhabitants of these lands have towards the environment and its dynamics and which originates in the religion that historically dominates these mountains. Buddhism regulates each detail of everyday life and defines a precise framework when looking at the world. ‘We don’t need to work on acceptance.’ continues Lingyun, ‘That already works well as a result of the ancient culture of these mountains. According to the Buddhist tradition, in fact, we are guests and the mountain is the host. The people of the communities here believe that the wolves that kill their livestock are like neighbours who sometimes behave badly, and within certain limits this is something that can be tolerated.’ Beyond that limit, even here, when the conflict exceeds a certain threshold, the reaction arrives. But what makes it interesting and different, here, are the substance of which that threshold is established and the thought processes that lie beyond that limit. Philosophy, in fact, underlies a holistic school of thought, in which the game of existence makes sense if all the players are present. In this systemic perspective, then, beyond the laws and rules, the level of tolerance and the management of the balance between prey, predators, shepherds and the local economy feeds on the awareness that everyone’s contribution is necessary, including that of predators, to the long-term well-being of the human and animal communities. Lingyun and the team are working to provide more effective coexistence protection and management measures to avoid ever reaching that limit.
The blue evening light glides along the first snow that has fallen on the Quinghai Mountains. A magnificent pack of 4 large wolves crosses on the snow just above the limit of the last houses of the village. They’re going hunting. ‘What if your animals are the prey?’ I ask one of the shepherds from the village of Angsai ‘They also live in this area and they’re also hungry. It’s in their nature to hunt.’ he replies, smiling. The answer leaves me amazed and suspicious: I am used to quite varied tones when it comes to potential losses. Yet, confirming his response, the answers of the local clergy, stock rearers, hotel owners, young and old, men and women arrive. What strikes me is the feeling that here it is the active recognition of roles, rights and relationships that govern the relationship with nature rather than a passive acceptance, a recognition which has as its core the interconnection and compassion that, to simplify things, can be interpreted as a synthesis between empathy and understanding. This is a vision firmly rooted in every member of the community, of any age. Here one is born and grows in a context in which the Buddhist doctrine permeates every aspect of daily life, regulating thoughts and actions accordingly through its lens. ‘No organism exists alone, or can survive on its own’, a monk, Kossu, tells me, on a sunny afternoon sitting on the steps of the Yushu monastery, ‘We are all part of a single system where there is no individual existence that is more important than another, whether it be humans or animals.’ Ahimsa, at the basis of everything: do no harm, which should be the norm as the basis for everyone.
These are all concepts which, as a result of their particular affinity with the environmental protection standards developed by us through scientific means and which possess their own interdependence and balance at their foundations, are not by chance the basis of important philosophies that see human society intimately linked to natural systems such as Deep Ecology. No wonder then that the history of conservation here has ancient roots. Even before the advent of Buddhism, according to the ancient Bon tradition, rivers, lakes and mountains were considered sacred places for Tibetans, home to divinities, spirits or spiritual leaders. These are places that have enjoyed the protection of the local population for generations as a result of their spiritual value and the spiritual growth promoted by these sites, has a fundamental importance for these cultures. In fact, sacred sites represent the oldest form of protected areas in human history.
The scent of juniper, air and wood make up the smell of winter at high altitude. The monumental tranquility of the mountains, the perennial perception of a vast and lively wilderness and the awareness of the complex continuity between the world of human beings and that of animals lends these landscapes such beauty as to escape simple translation. I wonder if this composite aesthetic of senses has a role in this respectful philosophy. “Inner beauty is the only important one” Kossu replies. But looking back on the beauty of their traditional clothes, the stone houses in the villages, the stupas, the handmade wooden furnishings, the women’s jewellery and their facial expressions, I suspect that despite the words of the monk, the charm of these places has shaped them powerfully.
“As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so the wise wander in this life”
All beings tremble in the face of danger, all fear death. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause death. All beings are afraid of danger, life is dear to everyone. When a man considers this, he does not kill or provoke killing. (Mascaro, Dhammapada, 54)