A Buddhist Monk Saves One of the World’s Rarest Birds

High in the Himalayas, the Tibetan bunting is getting help from a very special friend

Resembling a protective amulet, the Tibetan bunting charms Tashi Zangpo and the other monks he has trained. (Courtesy of Nyanpo Yutse Environmental Protection Association)
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I first met Tashi at a scientific conference in Beijing. A Chinese conservation organization had invited him to speak to provide an example of the grass-roots efforts they support. Tashi is just one of countless amateur biologists around the world, but he possesses a rare combination of passion and talent.

“He is a good scientist who at the same time is doing conservation and environmental education,” says George Schaller, one of the world’s pre-eminent conservation biologists (see “The Jaguar Freeway,” p. 48). Tashi recently started assisting Schaller, of Panthera, a big cat conservation organization, by monitoring snow leopards and blue sheep in the mountains around Baiyu. Schaller says the monk’s greatest contribution to conservation, however, may be his field guide of the region’s birds in the local language. “He is an exceptional artist, like the talented, old-fashioned naturalists of Britain and North America, who brings to his work a deep Buddhist reverence for all life. It’s a wonderful combination.” Tashi’s field guide “will be a tremendous benefit to the Tibetan culture,” Schaller says.

Four years ago, Tashi and Druk Kyab, another monk in the monastery in Baiyu, formed the Nyanpo Yutse Environmental Protection Association, named after a nearby mountain considered sacred by local Tibetans. The group, consisting of five full-time staff members and about 60 volunteers, has taken it upon itself to preserve the region’s plants, animals, lakes and streams. Most of the work has focused on the Tibetan bunting, but the group has also compiled detailed notes on dozens of other species, as well as the rate at which nearby glaciers are receding.

One of the remaining mysteries Tashi and Wang are trying to solve is why the buntings have such poor breeding success. Even in areas where summer grazing has ceased, fewer than 30 percent of chicks survive. Predators and flooding are the top causes of mortality, but it’s not clear why these problems afflict Tibetan buntings more than other bird species that nest on the ground.

On the mountain slope, Tashi discovers there may still be hope for at least one of this year’s young. A short distance from where he found the ravaged nest, he spies a chick, still too young to fly, hopping through the grass. The bird somehow escaped the badger attack and is likely the sole survivor from this year’s brood.

The bird’s parents have seen it as well. As Tashi and Druk watch, the adults feed it grasshoppers and other delicacies. It won’t be able to fly for a few more days and predators are still a risk. “Tonight we’ll say a prayer for this chick that it can grow up to be big and strong, and go to college,” Tashi says with a smile.

We descend into a valley for the night and head back up the mountain the following morning. The bunting parents have continued to feed the chick. The young bird can hop farther now than the day before, and the monks are confident it will soon fly.

Returning to Baiyu that afternoon, Tashi and Druk stop by the monastery, where a group of young monks crowd around them. Tashi tells them about the badger that ate all but one of the chicks and how the Nyanpo Yutse group helps protect the birds.

“As Buddhists, this is something we have to do—we have to help protect the birds and animals that don’t have any other protection,” he tells the youngsters.

Then he tells them that he’ll be going back up the mountain soon. He asks who would like to join him. A roomful of hands shoot up from beneath crimson robes. “Me!” the children shout.


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