ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY with a radio expeditions interview. I'm Alex Chadwick.
BRAND: I'm Madeleine Brand. The subject is the explorer George Schaller. He's worked around the world studying and protecting many animals; lions, tigers, bears, and more. And now he's focusing on Asia and antelope.
CHADWICK: There is a Tibetan antelope called a chiru. It's widely poached for its very fine wool that's made into expensive shawls. China is trying to stop the poaching. With backing from the Wildlife Conservation Society, where he works, and the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council, George Schaller set off, last fall, on a one thousand mile expedition across a high Tibetan plateau in a region known as the Chang Tang.
Mr. GEORGE SCHALLER (Explorer): Chang Tang means northern plain in Tibetan. And most of it lies in northern Tibet and extends eastward into Qinghai Province and little bit north into Xinjiang Province. It's a huge area. It's over two hundred thousand square miles. Most of it is uninhabited. And most of it has never been surveyed for wildlife. The whole area is about sixteen thousand feet. You have these high rolling hills and plains, interspersed by mountains over twenty thousand feet high. So we decided to do a traverse of the whole area, west to east.
CHADWICK: And there is one record of explorer's having done this before. But it was back in 1896 and a couple of British officers went by horseback. They went in the summer. There's no record of anyone ever having tried to do this in the winter.
Mr. SCHALLER: That's perfectly true. There was Welby and Malcum, two British officers; they rode horses and mules across. It took them, naturally, several months. It took us two months. Think of it this way: here we went 750 miles cross-country, without roads, not a single person living there. Nobody lives there because it's too high for livestock, but wildlife manages to be there. The Tibetan antelope, or chiru, wild yak, wild asses, the big-horned argali sheep, wolves - we saw quite a few wolves. So you have this wildlife treasure hidden away in China, which nobody knows much about, still.
CHADWICK: So you're gathering data, counting the numbers of animals that you see. You have a team of more than a dozen Chinese and Tibetan researchers and conservationists who are with you, and you're all driving all this way.
Mr. SCHALLER: We had what, ten Tibetans - Everything from camp helpers to conservationists. I had a couple of young Chinese researchers. I was the lone foreigner. And yet we had a wonderful, congenial team. That makes a big difference when the climate is harsh and uncomfortable.
CHADWICK: When you're traveling and it's 25 to 40 below zero at night, where are you sleeping?
Mr. SCHALLER: In tents, it's just chilly. It didn't get to forty below. I've been up there when it's forty below. It got to 25 below zero, only. But it's still uncomfortable.
CHADWICK: It sounds uncomfortable. For two months.
Mr. SCHALLER: Well that's what makes it challenging - why it doesn't get done very often.
CHADWICK: So here you are trying to discover what kinds of wildlife could endure on this great, high, very cold plain in, in winter. What do you find?
Mr. SCHALLER: Well, you want to know what is there in the winter. Because we've counted animals in the southern part with the nomads. We've counted them in that region in the summer. But how many stay there? You can't make an estimate of numbers. And some animals like the chiru, which became world famous because of its fine wool, which was being — animals were being shot be the tens of thousands during the 1990s and they're still being hunted for the fine wool -but thanks to the Chinese government there are patrols out to stop the poaching.
CHADWICK: So China must have been interested in having you make this traverse and gather this data. And you find something else when you're up there because in the eastern portion of the trip you do start to encounter some human communities.
Mr. SCHALLER: In the eastern part we come unto nomad communities. And what surprised and delighted me is that these communities, all on their own, have decided well, our range lands are changing, we can't — they don't support as much livestock as it used to, and so we should protect some of it. Besides the Buddhist religion tells people to show passion and reverence toward all living beings. So, suddenly some of these communities have set up new conservation organizations, they have set aside good chunks of land to preserve wild yak, which are getting very rare, to preserve Tibetan antelope; by simply saying OK, no grazing in this area of livestock. Nobody settles in that.
CHADWICK: How is that kind of a conservation ethic grow up in these communities? Because we think of that as something that comes about after a lot of teaching and education, and - and I don't think you have a sense that it grows up in these rural communities spontaneously.
Mr. SCHALLER: They're not that isolated. Number one; is they have their religion, so they're predisposed toward that. Number two; local people are aware of what's happening to their environment and they get worried about their own future. So this is something that I think we need to encourage, promote, sustain. And just thinking about, now, how one can best let the communities do their thing but encourage them to continue doing it.
CHADWICK: So George you've come back, what are you going to do with this data? You've, you've gathered figures on various populations of wildlife along the way. What are you going to do now?
Mr. SCHALLER: I've already given the basic information to the government departments concerned in Tibet and in Qinghai and we've made suggestions. One can pinpoint problems, and research needs to be done in all these areas. The real goal really is to have a certain harmony between the wildlife, the rangelands, the livestock, and the people - and it can be achieved.
CHADWICK: George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society, back from an expedition in western China, the Tibetan plateau, the Chang Tang Reserve. George thank you.
Mr. SCHALLER: Thank you very much too Alex.
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CHADWICK: And there are more radio expeditions to far away places. Pictures and sounds at the website NPR dot org slash radio expeditions. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.