- They are big mammals — wild yaks, muskoxen, saiga, takin and more — possessing a multitude of wildly ingenious evolutionary adaptations that allow them to live at the margins, in Asia’s coldest, toughest habitats. But they lack defenses against us and are at risk.
- While some of these magnificent animals have received scattered attention from conservationists and the media across the years, most do not benefit from the publicity boon — or budgets — accorded to rhinos and snow leopards.
- They are unsung, mostly unstudied, existing in the shadows — hidden by high elevations, deep snow, daunting deserts, and in our lack of knowledge and indifference. Scientist Joel Berger asks us to look at why we love only thin slivers of the natural world, while ignoring much of the bounty and beauty at the margins that could provide us hope and inspiration.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Right up front, this is a story about unsung species — not those megafauna with the extraordinary symbolism of a snow leopard, a blue whale, or a rhino. These little-known, mostly unrecognizable species are from remote areas where conditions are extreme, where tourists rarely visit. But first, a quiz for context; you may wish to try this one on your friends:
What single country has moose and elephants, tigers and caribou? If unsure, narrow things by adding brown bears and leopards, then wild camels. Befuddled? Include truly well known icons like the graceful spotted giant flying squirrel and humped-back dolphins; the bulbous-nosed takin or proboscis-swinging saiga too. Now add the pygmy slow loris. An answer will assuredly emerge once we cap the list: giant panda.
Most people know the plight of China’s giant pandas, but few will know the stories associated with a handful of uncommon, unique and beautiful large mammals found at the ecological hard edges and margins of the world.
Perhaps it’s because these unknowns are far from effective markets vitalized by the deftness of a digital media, the savvy of conservation-minded NGOs, or just lacking charisma. If this is the case, then might a brighter future simply require us doing better to increase recognition?
Or, is the problem that these unknown animals — these emissaries of hope — are from the planetary margins, where few of us are willing to peer deeply into Bhutan’s forested curtain, or drop into the Gobi Desert’s remote corners? More precarious still are those species roaming beyond the Himalayas onto the Roof of the World, and on the biodiversity-rich polar isles protected behind complicated and secretive Russian and Chinese bureaucracies.
Yet, along these uncrowded Asian fronts, numerous large mammals remain remarkable icons of hope. Some of these enduring species live at nearly 20,000 feet in elevation, where oxygen is at half that at sea level. Others reach the highest of land’s latitudes. Unlike woolly mammoths, which went extinct, two survivors wear winter coats that droop to the ground and they persist in herds.
But mention wild yak to a friend and they might glaze over. Others might recall Yakety Yak, the 1958 song of the rock group the Coasters. Some few might know that 14 million domestic yaks roam more than half a dozen countries in central Asia’s cold windswept highlands.
Mention muskoxen; they might think producer of musk, though this helmeted Arctic survivor — and the world’s largest polar land mammal — is neither maker of musk nor oxen at all. More closely related to sheep and goats, its predecessors emanated also from the Himalayan realm.
So, why have wild yaks — a totem of the Tibetan Plateau and whose horns bejewel the entry to mud and brick homes — fallen so far off our radar? We in the USA celebrate their nearest relatives, bison, to the extent of acknowledging it as the national mammal, yet we ignore their far more endangered brethren, a species that like bison also were savagely slaughtered.
Wild yak populations are thankfully on the rebound in their natural habitats due to armed protection by Chinese rangers, and also due to the establishment of linked wildlife refuges the size of California.
North of the Tibetan Plateau, in the low rocky deserts and arid steppes is another species veiled in silence. Appearing like an impossible cross between an elephant shrew and a moose is a species Mongolians call bukhun. The rest of the world calls them saiga, their babies unquestionably more adorable than Bambi. Saiga once roamed to England and across northern Alaska, but died out in these places during serious spates of climate alteration.
After the Russian, Kazakhstan and Mongolian governments implemented conservation efforts, 400,000 roamed wild — a recovery up from just some 50,000 a few decades earlier. But, in 2015, the population garnered an indubitable distinction: the largest population crash ever observed by humans of any large mammal on earth; a single-pathogenic event killed more 200,000 at once.
Fortunately, bright spots have re-emerged as the population again rebounds due to the work of dedicated conservationists from the animal’s home countries and international NGO’s.
South of Mongolia and obscured in the impenetrable woodlands of Bhutan and Burma, China and northeast India, are takin. Caught on a tightrope between cats, they balance precariously — tigers as predators down low, and hungry snow leopards up high. They escape leech and insect-riddled lowlands to face the diseases of domestic yaks among mountains while vanishing behind towering waterfalls, on slopes of slime, mud, and rock. In 1913 Harold Frank Wallace commented, “The takin is a strange beast inhabiting a strange country. No animal … is so difficult to describe, and … prepared me for his appearance.”
The eminent biologist George Schaller once proffered that takin entail “the bulky humped body of a brown bear, the legs of a cow, the broad flat tail of a goat, the knobby horns of a wildebeest, and the black bulging face of a moose with mumps.” Others say part tapir, part pig.
We know takin hind-quarters are shorter than the front. We know they live in habitats, cold, wet, and wild. We know they are large, nearly the size of an adult female bison. We don’t know how many there are. We don’t know their status, nor whether populations are in serious trouble. They command none of the accolades of other difficult-to-study species like rhinos or grizzly bears. Studies are few, we know nothing of their demography. They deserve better. They’re Bhutan’s national mammal but barely register on the “awareness scale,” whether within their home country, regionally, or far beyond.
At the extreme of land latitudes in Asia, Greenland, and North America is another large mammal — a goat-like antelope that carries the essence of cold barrens, much like wild yak do atop the roof of the world. In 1780, Danish missionary and zoologist Otto Fabricius noted in his masterful book Fauna Groenlandica an observation of the horns, hooves and hair of a large animal found in floating ice; he initially believed these to belong to a yak that had drifted from Siberia. Decades later Fabricius corrected his miscue realizing the species to be muskoxen.
And, it was this species that Richard Nixon gifted to the Beijing Zoo after China had given the USA giant pandas. In 1975, the year after Nixon’s resignation, Alaskan muskoxen were used to establish a population in consort with Russian biologists on Chuktoka’s Wrangel Island, now the Arctic’s only World Heritage Site.
Muskoxen survive there and elsewhere along with polar bears and brown bears, and range with wild reindeer (northern Asia) and wild caribou (North America). They are a species of the extreme, and one being pressed, as are polar bears, by climate challenge, but not one lacking for conservation efforts.
Like takin babies, and like saiga calves, muskoxen newborns carry the adorability of a wombat, but differ because to survive the muskoxen babies rely on an entirely cooperative society for their defense from four-legged predators.
And so we see that there are species with remarkable adaptive abilities, of large size when grown, and of ceaseless cuteness when small, but few know these Asian wonders.
Why do we think differently regarding furtive species, those found in the shadows of distant mountains, or ghosts out in the Gobi? Is it education, is it remoteness, is it a lack of effort? Is it hopeless?
Stories of conservation success should include even more than saiga and wild yaks and muskoxen. Indeed, they do, both for known and some lesser-known species. But it’s not because we can argue that those species we have conserved so far critically function for human livelihoods, or play key ecological roles that are vital to biodiversity.
Ultimately, the species we choose to save imbue hope due to compassion, and awareness, and recognition.
I wonder why carnivores attract more attention and more money than do herbivores? Or why the great apes and big cats reap more consideration and dollars than their lesser-sized relatives? It can’t be because of ecological function or adorable looks, nor because they are shrouded in mystery or are abject in misery. Is it because their populations are precariously so low?
I’m thinking we — we meaning NGOs and we as academics — have failed to evince more fascination for diversity itself, all life forms, or to arouse passion for the sanctity of life.
Maybe if people empathized with the remarkably difficult life of a woolly bear moth up in Greenland — an insect that can require half a dozen years to reach puberty — or of a wood frog in Alaska — which can have two-thirds of its’ body tissues turn to ice yet survive winter — then we’d be doing better.
All species can captivate, yet global apathy seems to reign. Are just too many of us struggling to live our lives and feed and protect families?
I may be missing a lot but not the bottom line — there is hope.
I began this essay by asking about a complex array of species in China, many of which remain unknown to the public. Understandably, there is much on every one of our plates, and it seems all we can do to keep track of our own existence, let alone that of animals disassociated from our daily lives. My parents and the Los Angeles social milieu where I was raised were little interested in animal conservation. The dictates of geography and culture not only define us today, but modulate the questions we ask and the realities of how science is done. This, in turn, shapes what we’ll achieve.
Everyone knows there is more to conservation than science. There must be motivation, drive, and passion. There must be recognition that our life support systems rely on different forms of biodiversity. There must be opportunities to be inspired. These can derive from travel, from digital media, and from other forms of education and exposure.
Species can be viewed in surrogate settings too. With about as many people visiting zoos as attendees to professional baseball, football, and basketball combined yearly, the opportunities to discover exciting but silent species exist.
Yet, when our hearts have little room for gentleness, and when sympathy disappears from our vocabulary, so do prospects for conservation. It’s then easy to imagine the paths of the unsung.
Joel Berger is the Cox-Anthony Chair of Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University and a Senior Scientist with the New-York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. His new book, Extreme Conservation: Confronting Species Extinction at the Edges of the World will be published in 2017 by University of Chicago Press.