The birdwatching lama of Qinghai

Monks say he had wings in a previous life; in this one, Tibetan lama Tashi Sange devotes himself to the study, painting and protection of birds. Geng Dong, winner of the “best profile” category at the 2011 China Environmental Press Awards, got to know him.

Tashi Sange, a Qinghai-based lama, has become a local legend for his love, observation, painting and protection of birdlife. Geng Dong, media consultant at the Shan Shui Conservation Center, spent weeks getting to know him and, with this profile, won the “best profile” category at the 2011 China Environmental Press Awards.

“My name is Tashi Sange. In Tibetan this means ‘good omen’. I was born in Jiuzhi in Qinghai, on a farm below the Nianbaoyuze Mountains. There was a lake nearby, shaped like a butterfly. The tent I lived in was right at the corner of one of the butterfly’s wings.”

In May 2008, rural conservation leaders from the prefectures of Guoluo, Yushu, Haixi and Haibei gathered in a meeting room at Qinghai Forestry Bureau for a workshop on biodiversity protection. In his bright red lama’s robes, Tashi Sange already stood out. With his introduction, he further drew me in.

I love birds and, for years, have travelled through western China watching and photographing them. I was at the Qinghai meeting in capacity as a media consultant to a Beijing-based environmental NGO, hoping to find interesting environmentalists and collect their stories.

Tashi quickly became my target. But, even more, I was enthused by the fact that his interests matched my own (except that he is also an expert painter of birds). We spent several days together on a circuit of Qinghai Lake, photographing, identifying and discussing every bird we saw.

Four months later, as pre-arranged with Tashi, my colleague Lu Bin and I set out on a two-day car journey over plateau roads and mountain passes to Tashi’s home – the farm by the butterfly-lake under the Nianbaoyuze Mountains.

In guidebooks, the lake has a very memorable name: Fairy Enchantress Lake. But it isn’t a name Tashi recognises. “I don’t know what it’s called now; the tourism bureau has changed a lot of names. We used to call her Ecuogama. It’s a sacred lake, and there are a lot of water birds here – the ruddy shelduck, the Tibetan Crane, lots of gulls. When I was a child I used to sneak off to the lake to play and the grown-ups would get angry – it’s a sacred lake and you shouldn’t touch the water.”

Lu Bin and I had written up detailed plans for a short documentary about Tashi, to be called Birdtalker. And that was how Tashi looked into our camera and started telling us his story.

Like Sichuan hotpot”

When he was 13, Tashi was sent from his lakeside home to the Baiyu Monastery in Jiuzhu, 40 kilometres away. This monastery – a branch of another in Sichuan – sits in a long narrow valley beside a clear river. But Tashi was unhappy to have left his home, the lake and the birds. “I often dreamt of them,” he said.

Tibetans are often educated in monasteries, and Tashi was no exception. His teacher loved history – but Tashi did not and, as a result, “did not learn very well”, he said, though of course he was being modest. Fourteen years later, he passed exams demonstrating knowledge of Buddhist classics and became a type of religious official.

But 14 years of study only increased his passion for birds. Tashi remembers the first time he travelled far from home, to Chali Monastery. Baiyu Monastery is 3,600 metres above sea level and lies on grassland, while Chali is 500 metres lower and situated in forest. “The birds were completely different to those at home. I used to think the ones at Baiyu were the only ones in the world,” he said. “It was only when I was 19 and went to Chali that I realised there were so many other types. Places are so different. I started to think about finding out how many different birds there are in the whole world.”

Gradually, Tashi became known for his love of birds. The local elders said he might have been a bird in a previous life, and he earned a nickname – “the birdwatching lama”. Anyone within a 50-kilometre radius of Baiyu Monastery who found an injured bird would bring it to him to treat. Friends wanting to see him would send him a message to say they had found an interesting bird – and then when he arrived, they would joke that it had just flown off. Everyone knew he liked to collect stories about birds, so people would come to tell him tales in exchange for a meal. But he had to set rules: “A good story that I had never heard before would get a meal; ordinary stories a drink. I had to refuse to buy anything for people with stories I knew already.”

Tashi’s first brush with art came in 1985. Two painters had been invited to Baiyu from Aba to help restore the Monastery. They needed assistants, and 20 young lamas were given the job – including 15-year old Tashi. Perhaps thinking he was too young for more advanced work, the painters tasked him with grinding stones to make paints. For a month, he would read with his teacher in the early morning and evening, and help the painters grind stones during the rest of the day.

Finally, the work was finished and as a reward the painters gave each of their helpers a paintbrush. Tashi held the brush and didn’t leave. When the painters asked him what else he wanted, he didn’t dare to tell them the truth: to learn to paint.

Tashi was very grateful to the painters – they hadn’t just given him a brush, they had taught him how to make paints. One of the old monks could make paper, and taught Tashi to do that too. By the time he was 17, he had everything he needed to start painting birds. He recalled that the first painting he did was of a mandarin duck from Ecuogama Lake – but it didn’t look much like the real thing.

Tashi said that “if you’re going to do something, the most important thing is to enjoy it. I’ve painted all of the 393 types of bird that I’ve seen four times. That first time, when I was 17, the pictures were too exaggerated – the yellow bits were too yellow, the red bits too red, like a cartoon. The second time, in Sichuan, there was still a lot wrong with them.”

Tashi’s third attempt at painting the birds was in 2001, in Linzhi in Tibet. By then he had a small cassette player, and could record his descriptions of the birds he saw – the colour of their beaks, bellies and wings and what they looked like in flight. Then he would return to where he was staying and listen to the recording while he painted, then the next day take the painting to compare it to the real thing, record the changes that needed to be made – and then go back and make them.

Tashi loves to travel and always stays in the same guesthouse on his annual trips to Lhasa. When he was there in the summer of 2003, he saw a girl reading a book about birds – he thought the book was beautiful, and decided to talk to her.

That girl was Dong Jiangtian, of the Shenzhen Birdwatching Society.

This chance meeting was very significant for Tashi. He showed Dong his thick notebook and his paintings, and she realised that he needed help – his painting style was simple and honest and his use of colour bold, but there were problems with proportion.

As soon as she got back to Shenzhen, Dong sent Tashi lots of books on birds and birdwatching, BBC nature documentaries and even a telescope and binoculars.

In the summer of 2005, Dong travelled to Baiyu Monastery and went birdwatching with Tashi. Tashi was able to learn what the birds that he already knew were called in books. “You could see how happy he was – he wasn’t alone, so many people all over the world also loved birds,” said Dong.

With help from Dong and other bird-watchers, Tashi acquired more and more birdwatching equipment. In 2006, he even got hold of a semi-professional camera with help from his sister. Looking at his photos, he again found that the bearing of the birds in his paintings was off.

And so he tried to paint the birds of Tibet for the fourth time. “Once I used my feet to draw a bird in the snow, it was as big as this yard. That taught me painting needs dedication.” Because he was never taught to paint, he doesn’t think of his paintings belonging to any particular school or style, such as Chinese or Tibetan. “They’re just mine, or like Sichuan hotpot – there’s a bit of everything in there.”

Growing old with the mountain

One evening during that summer of 2005, as Tashi and Dong were watching birds near the monastery, they saw a small plain-looking bird. Tashi didn’t think anything of it, but Dong got excited when she noticed its bright red and chestnut back and red-brown eyes.

It was a Tibetan Bunting! The Tibetan Bunting (Emberiza koslowi) is known as the sixu – heaven’s pearl bird – in Tibetan, perhaps as the patterning of the feathers on its head looks similar to the pearls Tibetans love. The bird is unique to China but has a very restricted habitat and is listed as an endangered species. Records of sightings are rare – but, that day, they saw two and even a chick.

Dong knew how important the bird was. When she returned to Shenzhen, she helped Tashi apply for a small grant from the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society for the survey and protection of the Tibetan Bunting. That survey laid the foundation for an application for a small grant from the WWF in 2007.

Tashi conscientiously carried out conservation trials, mobilising the monks in a number of experiments. The hog badger is a natural enemy of the Tibetan Bunting, as it eats birds’ eggs. And so they left worn clothes near nests to scare them off. But as the scent of people wore off, they returned. After a few more attempts, they went back to the simplest of methods – keeping watch. Fifteen people took turns over 46 days, camping out in a tent. They managed to protect the nest they were watching over, and five chicks hatched. Forty days later, in September, they were able to fly away.

Tashi’s survey allowed him to produce a map of the distribution of the Tibetan Bunting more detailed and accurate than that in the China Bird Outdoor Handbook. He found that the bird’s endangered status is linked to its habits – it builds nests on the ground, leaving its eggs and young vulnerable.

In 2008, Tashi received a small grant for conservation from the European Union and Beijing’s Shan Shui Conservation Center. This allowed him to designate five square kilometres of land in Amulonggou, where the birds are concentrated, as a reserve, and persuade local herders to leave the pastures empty during the bird’s breeding season. Three herding families took 100 head of cows and sheep off the pastures, allowing the birds the space they needed to look after their young.

He also put up a large signboard, providing details about the reserve. “Once that went up, many of the locals said: ‘Oh, so that’s the Tibetan Bunting. OK, now we know we can help protect it.’” Tashi realised how important publicity is.

Tashi’s contact with so many NGOs has broadened his horizons. Climate change, rising populations, tourism, deteriorating pastures, ecological changes – these are no longer things Tashi can ignore. And he is aware that crucial to protecting the birds is protecting their environment. So, in 2007, he founded the Nianbaoyuze Environmental Protection Society.

Just after the society was founded, a 98-year old monk in the village sent in a photograph , along with a letter. The letter said: “I was born on Nianbaoyuze. I remember what the mountains looked like then: white snow, glaciers, lakes, all kinds of grass and flowers and wildlife. It was like a paradise. But like me, the sacred mountain has aged, and is hard to look at it now. My life will soon be at an end, but I’ll be back to sign up to your organisation in the next one.”

Tashi quickly replied: “I’ll keep the position of society director open – make sure you come back.” The group now has 15 employees, mostly lamas from Baiyu like him. There are also 63 local herders or farmers who are members. This local organisation is protecting the Tibetan Bunting, and has also started monitoring the changes in the mountains and lakes.

The most memorable experience I had during the fortnight spent filming Birdtalker was watching Tashi lying on the ground, whispering to a nest of young Tibetan Buntings. He spoke as if to old friends: “Now, buntings, I’ve got something to tell you. When you’re building nests, you can’t do it on the ground, you should make them up in a tree, one with thorns. Otherwise the hog badgers and the weasels will eat your eggs and there won’t be very many of you left and we won’t be able to protect you! Understand?”

“All life is equal”

In July 2009, Tashi took a collection of scientific essays on the Tibetan Bunting to the International Congress for Conservation in Beijing, and accepted an invitation from Shan Shui Conservation Center director and Peking University professor Lu Zhi to talk about his research and conservation work at an academic conference on conservation in China.

Professor Lu introduced Tashi: “He is a natural scientist. He is motivated by a love of nature, and puts that into practice, ensuring that the endangered Tibetan Buntings are protected and filling in the gaps left by scientific research. He shows us the power of public participation in conservation.”

Then Tashi, clad in maroon monks’ robes, took the stage. His shy smile, faltering Chinese, sincere tone and practical words captivated the audience. Shortly after the meeting, there were media reports both in China and abroad about this birdwatching lama.

I took Tashi on a trip to Beijing Botanical Gardens. He was curious about the plastic strips wrapped around many of the trees, and I told him they were there to prevent cicadas and other pests climbing up the tree. He also noticed lights designed to attract and kill insects – I explained what they were for, and he was even more confused.

In August, I saw Tashi again, this time at a photography workshop for locals near Qinghai Lake. The workshop took its title from a Tibetan phrase meaning “all life wants to live”. Talking about this, Tashi referred back to the botanical gardens in Beijing. “The plants there aren’t real plants, they’re plastic. There are many differences between people and insects, but to nature we are all just life.” Put simply, he opposes using human standards to decide which insects are beneficial and which are pests, and which animals should be protected.

What really fascinated me about Tashi is the ideological and cultural backdrop to everything he does.

I remember visiting Tashi’s home and noticing a hole in the wall – it was there to allow red-billed choughs to come and go. Tashi explained that his father had left the hole there when he built the house. Growing up, he heard sayings about sadness for a person lasting a year, but pain for a bird lasting a lifetime. The Guoluo Tibetans also have a saying about the red-billed chough: “Hurt a red-billed chough, and a yak will die.”

His teacher at Baiyu Monastery also taught him similar lessons. There, unwanted hot water was never poured directly on the ground, but thrown into the air so it would cool before falling to the earth – to avoid scalding insects. After “graduating” from the monastery, Tashi’s teacher spoke to him: “There’s nothing more I can teach you. But there are two things I ask of you. One is always to behave well, and the other is never to mistreat animals. Whatever you do to people, there is only so much you can harm, but animals are different – there is nothing they can do if you mistreat them.”

Many of the locals at the photography workshop were engaged in their own conservation efforts. Gawu Cairang from Gangca county is very similar to Tashi. From childhood, he has loved the black-necked crane and, since 2005, has been recording their numbers in the Naren wetlands.

Meanwhile, at the foot of the sacred Sengenanzong mountain in Tibet, a Tibetan named Renqing Sangzhu years ago started encouraging local villagers to plant trees and greenery and protect their sacred mountain. There are many such people and stories.

And, outside of China, there are plenty more examples of the influence of religious culture on nature. I have just finished reading a book on the Bishnois of India, a community founded in the fifteenth century. After a severe drought, its founder Jambheshwar came to believe that human meddling with the natural order was to blame. And so he created 29 tenets on conservation, including the protection of trees and animals. In 1730, a royal camel train arrived – the palace was being renovated, and the large trees around the village were to be used as building materials. But a young and beautiful woman, a mother of three named Amrita Devi, clung to the trees, swearing she would die to protect them. Some 362 other villagers copied her actions; all lost their heads. Eventually, the king was moved to stop the slaughter and set up a reserve around the village.

At the photography workshop Tashi put forward three major methods of conservation for Tibetan areas: protection and passing on of traditional culture, such as Tibetan Buddhism’s ideas on the equality of all species and of sacred mountains and lakes; a respect for faith; and only third the use of modern science to observe, research, and establish laws and regulations on conservation.

I remember eminent conservationist George Schaller once said after a research trip deep into Tibet: “Every inch of the planet needs protection, every inch should be treated like a sacred mountain or lake.” I think that he said that because, deep within Tibetan culture, there is an idea closely aligned with the ideals and aims of today’s environmental NGOs: greater reverence for nature.

Geng Dong is a media consultant at Shan Shui Conservation Center and winner of the 2011 China Environmental Press Awards.

This article was first published in China National Geographic, 4th edition, 2010.

Homepage image by Geng Dong shows Tashi Sange drawing birds at home