Payul, Tibetan Plateau

Holy Activism

October 11th, 2016

In the grasslands and mountains of Tibet, a Buddhist monk named Drukyab has embraced modern technology in his mission to protect the region’s wildlife.

In the monastery town of Payul, we meet Drukyab - a Buddhist monk, photographer, filmmaker, environmental activist, and amateur biologist. Through him we learn about the challenges facing Tibet’s flora and fauna, and how he has combined modern technology with close relationships to nomadic families in order to document and protect nature.

“When I was a boy I saw some Chinese hunters kill a gazelle and leave behind its baby,” Drukyab said. A 47-year-old senior monk, Drukyab had originally come from a family of nomadic herder-hunters before donning his Buddhist robes. “I went back to try and rescue the baby, but I couldn't and it died. After this I decided to stop hunting and become a monk.”

It was 5.30 a.m. in Drukyab’s small house in the monastery town of Payul (Baiyuxiang in Mandarin). His morning prayers finished, we were sitting in his kitchen and warming our hands over a stove fuelled by dried yak dung. The house was simple but comfortable, and Drukyab refilled our cups with salty tea as we talked.

We’d heard about Drukyab and his work long before we arrived in Payul. His reputation as a man of many talents preceded him; beyond his position as a senior Buddhist monk he was a photographer, filmmaker, environmental activist, anthropologist, botanist, and zoologist. Over the last ten years he had made it his mission to comprehensively document and catalogue Tibet’s flora and fauna in order to increase awareness about the environmental complexities of the region.

“My only wish is for people who understand environmental issues do what they can to protect nature and culture,” Drukyab said when we asked him to define his goals. “This is the only way either will survive.”

For his part, Drukyab’s contribution was to harness the power of technology to show the world why Tibet was worth protecting.

The Multimedia Monk

“In the beginning I had no money,” Drukyab remembered. “I had to borrow from my family for a digital camera and lens. Even then I didn’t really know how to use it.”

Despite his camera’s instruction manual not being available in Tibetan, Drukyab gradually taught himself the skills necessary to photograph birds and other wildlife that lived in the mountains and grasslands around Payul. In an effort to bring more attention to his work, he decided to shift his attention to documenting Tibet’s most recognizable endangered species: the snow leopard.

Following the directions of a nomadic yak-herding family who had firsthand experience with snow leopards, Drukyab trekked into the mountains with a 300mm lens and a single camera and waited. For two weeks he stayed in the same place, not wearing the Gore-Tex snowsuit of a National Geographic expeditionary team, but a basic jacket over the layered crimson robes of a Tibetan monk.

Eventually his persistence paid off. When he spotted a herd of sheep running down the mountainside, he knew that something must be chasing them. Scanning the area through his telephoto lens, he had trouble locating the source of the threat. It was when he put his camera down to look with his naked eyes that he realized there was a snow leopard just ten metres away from him in pursuit of a sheep. It was at this moment of climax when Drukyab’s position as a monk forced him to make a decision that not many professional wildlife photographers would have made.

“The leopard grabbed a [mother] sheep and I could see its baby was nearby and crying,” he recalled. “I thought ‘I'm a monk, I should rescue it,’ so I put my camera down and saved the sheep. It is hard to balance being a monk and a photographer, but I don't regret not taking the picture.”

Since then Drukyab has had many more successful missions, and has made stunning images of three separate snow leopards - an animal that many conservationists and documentarians would be lucky to see just once in their careers.

For Drukyab, however, the snow leopard is not the main goal, but rather as a means to achieve a much larger goal: “The purpose of this work is not only to protect the snow leopards, but to protect the whole ecosystem that surrounds them. The leopard has become a symbolic animal, and I use its power to protect everything around it, including less famous animals like goats or birds.”

Over the last decade his dedication to documenting Tibet’s natural environment has seen him accomplish more than most, from working with the BBC to publishing a four year study of the Tibetan bunting (one of the rarest birds in the world, found only around Nyanpo Yurtse mountain) in the Chinese journal of zoology.

But Drukyab’s approach has always been a holistic one. He isn’t motivated by career ambitions or international recognition, nor are the animals alone his focus. The overriding purpose is to encourage a symbiotic harmony between the region’s traditional cultures and the environment so that the two can coexist and thrive in the future.

“In Tibet there is a problem with science and tradition. Science isn't arriving fast enough and traditions are disappearing. We need science to arrive so it can mix with tradition and culture before it's gone.”

Cultural Crossroads

Tibet’s struggle for its cultural and political independence has been in the news for decades. For Drukyab, keeping Tibetan culture alive was inextricably linked to the natural environment. Nomadic traditions depend on a healthy ecosystem for the survival of their animals, and because of this many of the nomads that he encounters have a deep appreciation of the natural world not often shared by their Chinese neighbours.

"When I talk to Tibetans and I tell them that a mountain is being mined, even if he hasn't been there, he gets sad,” Drukyab told us. “Then, if I tell them that another area has many animals, they become happy. When I say the same thing to Chinese tourists, it's very different. Their first question is ‘are the animals delicious?’ and ‘why isn't the mountain being mined yet?’”

While Drukyab is quick to point out that he has no problems whatsoever with Chinese people, and welcomes them to visit Tibet and its landscapes, he wishes that the health of the environment played a more prominent role in the developmental decisions being made about the Tibetan plateau and its resources - most of which he feels are disconnected from the needs and attitudes of locals.

“If there is clean water, the first thing the government does is sell it to a big city,” Drukyab said. “If there is a big river, they build a dam. They don't think about the environment, economics always comes first. Locals aren't like this, they don’t pollute. They don't even wash themselves in the rivers in case they make them dirty.”

But while the basic urge to take care of the environment may be common among Tibetans, according to Drukyab, it is formal education that is lacking. As a senior monk in a predominantly Buddhist region, he is using the natural authority his religious position gives him to share his environmental knowledge with nomads.

The Sori family, whose seven members live inside the Ragka valley to the east of Payul, is one such nomadic group that Drukyab visits regularly to learn about animal activity and changes in the local environment. And though the Soris are not scientifically measuring anything, their relationship with the monk has increased the attention they pay to the changes happening around them, and has caused them to think critically about the root of such changes.

“In the last few years there have been many environmental changes,” said Ame Gawa, a 17-year-old and the second oldest son in the Sori family. “The weather is changing and the animal populations are changing. This whole area is a big wetland, and after [the government] built a road here, the wetland is not the same. The flowers don’t grow as well.”

In Drukyab’s opinion, Tibetans, including nomadic families like the Soris, are the guardians of the world’s most important natural resource - water. “The biggest problem we're going to face as a species is water,” he says. “If we damage Tibet, we ruin the source of Asia’s biggest rivers. If humans don't have clean water to drink, neither will any other sentient being.”

When we asked Drukyab about his outlook for the future of the plateau, he reiterated the importance of preserving traditional, sustainable cultures, in the face of ever larger and more destructive economic developments, from mining to hydroelectric dams.

“I just hope ambitious people can put the same energy into protecting the environment as they do to making money.”

Latest stories: