Christmas Eve at Baixiongping

My Toyota land cruiser crawled along,enveloped by thick flakes of snow and powerful blasts of wind along the valley. Four days journey took me to the foot of Motian Mountain to the Baixiongping Observation Station of a the Reserve. This reserve lies between Sichuan and Gansu province and is the second giant panda research base in China,the first being Wolong, and was a collaborative project between China and WWE.
In the stations dining hall were colored lights, candles, canned Foods,fruits and wine, and in the kitchen the cooks were very busy preparing dinner.Dr.Hu and Dr. Schaller both well-known conservationists, and other staff members were in the field looking for a giant panda called Xue Xue.The interpreter, Qu Mingjiang, said that they could easily be found following their footprint in the snow ,so we put on hiking shoes and headed out into the billowing flakes.

After crossing a strum, we~ found Dr. Hu and Dr. Schiller in a stretch of dense forest. Each held an anesthesia gun and were planning in muted voices haw best to anesthetize Xue,Xue. Dr. Schaller stated that Xue Xue was one of beauties of the giant panda kingdom, and that her radio collar needed to be changed. Almost all of the workers at the station had come out to help, as placing a new radio collar on a panda would be memorable experience, akin to a Christmas gift for them.

To prevent Xue Xue from discovering our approach, we moved quietly uphill, and Dr. Schaller at 1.83m tall, often had to bend hi.s body while walking. We found Xue Xue sleeping and lying on her side with one other front paws around her head. Her body,heaved rhythmically as she inhaled and exhaled.

Dr.Schaller motioned to Dr. Hu, who bid in the opposite stretch of trees, to retreat. We were all confused, after all that time the cold planning and searching, why should we go back?

When we were downhill from the panda, Dr. Schaller said, “I do want to change the collar for Xue Xue, as a Christmas gift. But-she if sleeping on a rock overlooking deep ravines. An injection won’t immediately make her unconscious. If she is scared and runs in panic, she will probably fall off the cliff, The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

When we came back to Baixiongping, we decorated the dining hall, light dozens of candles, hung colored ribbons sent by an American correspondent from Hong Kong from the ceiling,, and arranged New Year card from WWF headquarters in Switzerland and from the Sichuan Forestry Department in the center of the table. Around the cards we put the huge Christmas cake and the cooks spread out beautiful, tantalizing and varied Sichuan dishes. In the four years Dr. Schaller had been in Sichuan, he had grown to love Spicy food, including the famous Mapo Tofu. Yet Mr. and Mrs. Schaller were nowhere to be found.

The door open. A colorful Christmas tree appeared in the doorway and people in the wild with joy The Christmas tree carried in by the Schallers was a spruce of one meter or so, from whose needles hung many trinkets: flannel pandas from China, African style Carved wooden lions, Santa Claus and circus clowns from the United States, paper or cloth birds, deer, gorillas, tigers, and much more from the thirteen countries where Dr. Schaller had worked, such as Rwanda,Tam a, India and Australia. Some of the ornaments were store bought while others were hand-made. They had saved them as mementos and treasured gifts to display for many Christmases spent in the wilderness of foreign countries.

We lit Some candles around the Christmas tree and Dr. Schaller repeatedly proposed toasts in Chinese. Quietly and off to the side, Deng Qitao, head of the Tangjia River Forestry Administration Office, whispered to me that Schaller had completed his project in Sichuan and was going to Xinjiang to study snow leopards, and this was his farewell dinner party Dr.Schaller presented gifts, such as a multi-purpose knife or a hiking pack, to all his Chinese friends. Dr. Hu proposed many toasts to Dr. Schaller as tokens of his appreciation for his efforts in 1984. In that year Dr. Schaller had traveled to panda habitats in the mountains of Min, Qonglai,Xiangling, Daliang and XiaoliangJ to help save the giant pandas who were suffering from food shortage due to bamboo flowering. Also he initiated the second giant panda research base-Tangjia River Base. He was especially moved by the Chinese children who hind raised on the streets for the starving giant pandas and by the veterinary hospital in the nature reserve that took care of the sick pandas.

The next day Christmas, Dr. Schaller began to dig with a pickaxe in the hard tundra in front of the station. The digging lasted several days until a pit the size of a small round table was created. He planted the Christmas tree into the pit with his wife, Kay The next early springy Dr. Schaller departed
Baixiongping, saying: ‘I’ve planted myself in China.”

Schaller’s Messages from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

Thirty years had passed since we first met when he was delivering a speech sponsored by Shan
Shui Conservation Center in Chengdu. The evening of March 27, 2015 marked our second meeting as I listened to him repeat what he said thirty years ago.”The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with the most beautiful animals in the world, has eternal charm to me”.

The altitude and vast expanses of unpopulated zones were ecological characteristics that transformed the plateau into ideal habitat for wild yaks , Tibetan wild donkeys, Tibetan antelopes, at
wild sheep, snow leopards red brown bears.In 1903,the British explorer C.G. Rawling wrote in his journals that there were thousands of female Tibetan antelopes with their aloes and endless herds visible from where he stood, all the way to the distant horizon. He estimated their population at approximately 15,000 to 20,000 as they slowly meandered in his direction. The vibrant scene of these animals was comparable to that of the Serengeti in Africa today.

Since then, the Tibetan antelope population has decreased dramatically. It was not until 1988 when Dr. Schaller went to the small town of Gerze that the real reason for their rapid decline was discovered. One day he saw that many herdsmen were picking dorm hair from some antelope pelts to sell to local merchants. In the courtyard of one merchant, several large sacks were packed, ready to be smuggled to west Nepal,then to Srinagar in Kashmir where they were made into shahtoosh shawls.

The word shahtoosh had its Origin in the Persian language, meaning “king of the wools”.It refers specifically to Tibetan antelopes’ down hair, which measuring 9-12 microns in diameter (one fifth of human hair), is finer than goat’s down hair of 14-17 microns and is the softest and warmest wool on the earth. Tibetan antelope hair is considered a significant luxury item.

A single shahtoosh shawl for a woman typically consumes 300-400g of the Tibetan antelope hair. Each shawl costs the lives of at least three antelopes since one Tibetan antelope produces at most 150g of hair. In the 1980s, poachers Hocked to Hoh Xil when they realized how much money could be made from black market Tibetan antelope fur. Since then thousands of antelopes have been poached and a robust illegal market was bore. The price for one shawl was pushed up to thousands of dollars.

Human greed had turned the beautiful habitat of Tibetan antelopes into a hellish landscape of skinned carcasses littered across the ground by poachers, left to vultures to devour after being stripped of their downy coats.

Dr. Schaller was the first person to expose this horrific and profit-driven industry chain to the world. He appealed to WWF various international media outlets and to the Chinese government, to take actions to prevent this species from going extinct.

In response to his appeals, the Chinese government listed the Tibetan antelope as one of the National First Level Protected Animals in the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife” issued in 1988.Additionally nature reserves in the Altun Mountains of Xinjiang the Qiangtang of Tibet,and in Hob XiI of Qnghai were established to conserve Tibetan antelopes and other wildlife.

Statistics revealed that from 1990 to 1999, over one hundred cases of illegal poaching were exposed by the Chinese police. They seized over 20,000 antelope pelts, more than 1,100kg of the hair, 300 guns, 170,000 cartridges, 171 different vehicles, and over 3,000 culprits. As a result, the State Forestry Administration of China issued the Tibetan Antelope Conservation Status Quo statute in 1998 to address the growing poaching problem.The forestry police in Qnghai- Tibet and Xinjiang engaged in a joint operation-No. One Hob Xii Operation to crack down on Tibetan antelope poachers in April and May of 1999.

The director of the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve once recounted to me the monstrosity of the antelope poachers, who were armed with highly sensitive radios, sub-machine guns, and powerful land cruisers. 7hose heartless men fastened long logs to the font of their vehicles, drove at top speeds at terrified herds, and swept many of them to the ground. Another tactic was to encircle the animals, tarn on their car’s headlights rendering the Tibetan antelopes temporardy blind, and fire their guns. One of the most heart-wrenching sights was seeing calves that had lived through the massacre to suckle from the breasts of their dead mothers. Without protection, those left alive were at the mercy of vultures and other predators.

Dr. Schaller’s research for his first ten Years on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, 1985-1995, was accumulated and published into the book,Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe’ in 1998. In this research book Dr. Schaller analyzed the reasons for the sharp decline of the antelope population from 1 million in the early 20th century to between 65,000-72,500 at the end of the 20th century due to the increased human population on the steppe, road construction, a surge in grazing stock, and the largest factor] poaching for the down hair to make shahtoosh.

Dr. Schaller’s research received international acclaim and attention. One year after its publication, an international symposium of Tibetan antelope conservation and trade control was held in Xining, China, on October 12-14, 1999. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) seaetariat, government representatives of countries concerned, deputies of non-governmental organizations and zoologists gathered to cooperate and protect this endangered species. The Xining Declaration was pronounced after the symposium On October 21,WWF launched a campaign to the public to discourage the purchase of Tibetan antelope down hair. Prohibiting the buying or sexing of shatoosh stopped the poaching.

On April 13, 1999, a shahtoosh dealer named Assomull was caught with 140 shawls and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment (suspended) with a fine of 40,000USD. That same year a company which sold shahtoshes to over 100 upper-class lades was investigated] while the ladies were summoned to the law court to account for where they had gotten their shawl. The cases, and the Chinese government’s tough measures drew international media attention. Under strong public pressure, the illegal profit-driven industry and the poaching of Tibetan antelopes came to a hall
According to Liu Yanlin of the Shan Shui Conservation Center based in Beijing, in 1993 the local government of Tibet Autonomous Region took Dr. Schaller’s suggestion and set up the Qinling Nature Reserve wild vast expanse of 247, 120kmzin northern Tibet. The nature reserve boundaries stopped at the Kunlun Mountains and Hoh Xil in the north, and the Gangdise Mountains and Nyenchen TanWa Mountains in the south. Its purpose was to preserve the unique plateau ecosystem and a variety of large ungulates, including the Tibetan antelope.

Dr. Schaller crossed Qiangtang to conduct held research in 2003, then two years later he went to the west Kunlun Mountains in Xinjiang by way of northern Tibet. There he traveled for a month and discovered a birthing site of a subspecies of Tibetan antelopes. After they had birdied, the mothers trekked more than 300km with their calves to their habitat.

From October 25 until December 18,2006, Dr. Schaller led his expedition across northern Qangtang, covering 1,700km in frigid temperatures as low as 30cC below zero. They encountered not a single person outside their group on the major part of their journey that extended 1,500km but spotted a lone wolf wandering on the snow. When Dr. Schaller approached it and took pictures, it was not startled, which surprised him. Dr. Schaller was glad to share his joy with Chinese scientists.

On May 5, 2014, in the lecture hall of the Institute of Zoology Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr. Schaller pointed to a picture saying, “We encountered an enormous herd of about 2,000 Tibetan antelopes, and watched them hooding down a hill, crossing the blue water of Camel Lake, and surging up the snow-covered ridges. 7bey were all mothers and one month-old calves.” The mothers had given birth in the tundra of northern Tibet in late June and were migrating southward with their calves. “On our long journey in north Qiangtang, we saw about 91000 Tibetan antelopes, 2,000 Tibetan wild donkeys and 1,000 yaks. The population of antelopes has increased considerably .This indicates that the Chinese government has taken effective measures.”A storm of applause broke out.

George Schaller is also the spokesperson for plateau pikas. Pikas have been regarded as the curse of prairies, especially responsible for grassland degradation and ecological deterioration in the Source of Three Rivers. In the battle against pikas in nature reserve in the past few years, a strategy of”blanketing with pika poison” has been adopted to wipe out d1is kind of rabbit-like animal.

When pikas are elinzbzated out of the food chain,the chain is then broken as their main predators, foxes, turn to other sources like swans to be thei prey and h1rther ecological imbalance ensues. Dr Schaller believed that it was conducive to the ecological balance for pikas to be kept within a certain population. To eliminate prejudice against this species, he wrote a book of entitled “Good Pika’, which has been popular with children throughout the world.”Good Pika’ has earned him the nickname of Grandpa Schaller.

George Schaller, an efficient and bud working held researcher and biologist, has shown his dedication to all animals both large and small over the course of his lifetime. His ongoing efforts to preserve local species for fixture generations is an inspiration to us all.

Other Stories

Thirty years had flown by since he left Sichuan in 1985. When I met George Schaller again, many stories associated with him while he was working in Wuyipeng came back to my mind.

One day when one of the cooks found a squirrel eating lice in the kitchen, he chased it with a poker. Dr. Schaller happened to see this and became furious.He scolded the cook to stop tormenting the animal. A famous photographer came to visit the station. He caught a bamboo rat and took a lot of pictures until the rat was shocked and fainted. Seeing this, Dr. Schller took off his overcoat and held the rat with it. He did not speak for half a day.

The Sichuan Forestry Department sent Mr. Li to drive for Dr. Schaller. He was a very fast driver who boasted of many years of driving experience and expertise. But Dr. Schaller did not like bis fast driving. Before he stepped hard on the gas pedal, Dr. Schaller would say in Chines‘‘Slowly slowly!” Several times Dr. SchaⅡer demanded for the car to be stopped and he would go ahead on foot, leaving the driver highly embarrassed. Dr.Schaller also complained to officials of the Forestry

Department that the driver overtook other cars recklessly, Eventually Li was replaced. A couple of months lately Li his land cruiser into a river causing himself and his passenger Director Yu of the Forestry Department, to be seriously injured. When I went to see Director Yu in the hospital, he said grump‘Dr. Schaller did have reasons for losing his temper. IFI had taken his complaints seriously I would not have had this terrible accident.”

The young scientists at Wuyipeng who were responsible for tracking the research pandas by their radio collars were especilly impressed by his dedication to standards. If Dr Schaller thought that the positioning was not exact, he would,with displeasure take up the receiver and aerial and re-position it himself those responsible for collecting samples were also taught to maintain these strict standards. IfDr. Schaller found feces and other samples undesirable, the researchers had to return to the bamboo groves to collect better specimens. One of his most infamous quotes was,“I’d rather have no samples than substandard ones Dr. Scheller’s strict discipline and attention to all details transformed the young people who had held practice at Wuyipeng into end.lent experts on giant pandas.

In those busy days, Mr.s. Schaller was honored as the ” Feces Lady”, as she would place the giant pandas’ Feces and plant species around a burner. Over many hours she would dry them carefully her covered with some. As a rule the dried-up samples were divided into three portions, one of which went to Dr. Schaller.

One sunny day the Schallers hiked downhill to the hotel of the Wolong Forestry Administration Headquarters to take a break. They placed the droop specimens beside the smoldering brazier in their room before they went to take a bad.t. When they returned they were surprised to find heavy smoke issuing from the specimens t had burned a hole in the floor! Months of effort had been wasted!

Dr. Schaller was so upset that he could not hall asleep flint night.They returned to Wuyipeng, quite depressed. Suddenly Mr.Hu approached, all smiles, saying ~I heard that your specimens were burned. Don’t worry! We’ve decided to Iet you have one of the other two portions.” Overwhelmed with the news, they laughed and jumped.

Thirty years later, Qu Xiaoqiu, Deng Qtao and I heard Dr.Schallcr’s hearty laughter again. In the mind of Qu Xiaoqiu, Dr Schaller was a dependable friend. During the 1980s, when Qu Xiaoqiu went to Wolong as an artist to sketch giant landscapes, he made friends with the Schallers. In 2008 he was invited by the Unite Nations University Office to hold an exhibition of his work in the Asian Cultural Center in Manhattan, New York He invited Dr. Schaller to intend the opening ceremony though he was not sure Dr. Schaller would come. To his great surprise and joy Dr.Schaller in his home early in the morning, drove hundreds of miles and entente the exhibition as the list guest.

It had been 35 years since he first arrival to China in 1980. He decided to work and Ieave his footprints in the most hostile and desolate environments in almost every corner of the world. After
giving his “Schaller’s Evening” lecture in Chengdu, someone asked,”The I now stake their own grasslands with barbed wire on Qinghai-Tibet Plataea, which has made new wildlife.

“What can we do about it?” Dr. Sclzaller answered methodically problems shall be solved, step by step.” 35 years have enable Dr. Schaller to gain a better understanding of China.When he first came to Chengdu, he went to the Chengdu Railway Station just to look at the locomotives that had disappeared in America. Now high speed trains traverse across the landscape.

35 years ago, Dr. was upset with the logging industry on the Min River, one of the major tributaries in the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Now this region is protected from Felling trees, and as a result, the land is abundant with vegetation.

When he first arrived, Few Chinese people knew anything about him or his work, but when Conservation Center invited Dr. Schaller to given lecture in Chengdu more than 150 people crowded into the lecture hall, which hold only 80 seats.

George Schaller is not inhibited by his age. Though in his eighties,he is still fascinated with snow leopards on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.As soon as they arrived at the plateau, I1e insisted that they go to their camp site immediately. When they arrived at the camping site, he repeated the question at he had asked as a young man,’At what time shall we go up the mountain tomorrow?”

Dr. Schaller will continue to create miracles.