A Natural World Worth Saving

If there is one area in which both education and the media have a special responsibility, it is, I believe, our natural environment. This responsibility has less to do with questions of right or wrong than with the question of survival. The natural world is our home. It is not necessarily sacred or holy. It is simply where we live.

It is therefore in our interest to look after it. This is common sense. But only recently have the size of our population and the power of science and technology grown to the point that they have a direct impact on nature. To put it another way, until now, Mother Earth has been able to tolerate our sloppy house habits. However, the stage has now been reached where she can no longer accept our behaviour in silence. The problems caused by environmental disasters can be seen as her response to our irresponsible behaviour. She is warning us that there are limits even to her tolerance.

Nowhere are the consequences of our failure to exercise discipline in the way we relate to our environment more apparent than in the case of present-day Tibet. It is no exaggeration to say that the Tibet I grew up in was a wildlife paradise. Every traveller who visited Tibet before the middle of the 20th century remarked on this.

Animals were rarely hunted, except in the remotest areas where crops could not be grown. Indeed, it was customary for government officials annually to issue a proclamation protecting wildlife: Nobody, it read, however humble or noble, shall harm or do violence to the creatures of the waters or the wild. The only exceptions to this were rats and wolves.

TRAVELS

As a young man, I recall seeing great numbers of different species whenever I travelled outside Lhasa. My chief memory of the three-month journey across Tibet from my birthplace at Takster in the East to Lhasa, where I was formally proclaimed Dalai Lama as a four-year-old boy, is of the wildlife we encountered along the way.

Immense herds of kiang (wild donkeys) and drong (wild yak) freely roamed the great plains. Occasionally we would catch sight of shimmering herds of gowa, the shy Tibetan gazelle, of wa, the white-lipped deer or of tso, our majestic antelope. I remember, too, my fascination for the little chibi, or pika, which would congregate on grassy areas. They were so friendly. I loved to watch the birds: the dignified gho (the bearded eagle) soaring high above monasteries and perched up in the mountains; the flocks of geese (nangbar); and occasionally, at night, to hear the call of the wookpa (long-eared owl).

Even in Lhasa, one did not feel in any way cut off from the natural world. In my rooms at the top of the Potala, the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas, I spent countless hours as a child studying the behaviour of the red-beaked khyungkar which nested in the crevices of its walls. And behind the Norbulingka, the summer palace, I often saw pairs of trung trung Oapanes blacknecked cranes), birds which for me are the epitome of elegance and grace, that lived in the marshlands there. And all this is not to mention the crowning glory of Tibetan fauna: the bears and mountain foxes, the chanku (wolves), and sazik (the beautiful snow leopard), and thesik (lynx) which struck terror into the hearts of the normal farmer – or the gentle-faced giant panda (thorn tra), which is native to the border area between Tibet and China.

LOSS

Sadly, this profusion of wildlife is no longer to be found. Partly due to hunting but primarily due to loss of habitat, what remains half a century after Tibet was occupied is only a small fraction of what there was. Without exception, every Tibetan I have spoken with who has been back to visit Tibet after 30 to 40 years has reported on a striking absence of wildlife. Whereas before wild animals would often come close to the house, today they are hardly anywhere to be seen.

Equally troubling is the devastation of Tibet’s forests. In the past, the hills were all thickly wooded; today those who have been back report that they are clean-shaven like a monk’s head. The government in Beijing has admitted that the tragic flooding of western China, and further afield, is in part due to this. And yet I hear continuous reports of round-the-clock convoys of trucks carrying logs east out of Tibet. This is especially tragic given the country’s mountainous terrain and harsh climate. It means that replanting requites sustained care and attention. Unfortunately there is little evidence of this.

None of this is to say that, historically, we Tibetans were deliberately conservationist. We were not. The idea of something called pollution simply never occurred to us. There is no denying we were rather spoiled in this respect. A small population inhabited a very large area with clean, dry air and an abundance of pure mountain water. This innocent attitude toward cleanliness meant that when we Tibetans went into exile, we were astonished to discover, for example, the existence of streams whose water is not drinkable.

Like an only child, no matter what we did, Mother Earth tolerated our behaviour. The result was that we had no proper understanding of cleanliness and hygiene. People would spit or blow their nose in the street without giving it a second thought. Indeed, saying this, I recall one elderly Khampa, a former bodyguard who used to come each day to circumambulate my residence in Dharamsala (a popular devotion). Unfortunately, he suffered greatly from bronchitis. This was exacerbated by the incense he carried. At each corner, therefore, he would pause to cough and expectorate so ferociously that I sometimes wondered whether he had come to pray or just to spit!

This is the first of a two-part article.

Filed under: The Dalai Lama

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