The Tibetan Monk Who Shoots Snow Leopards
This is the fourth in a series of stories exploring the importance of the Mekong River in China.
On a frosty winter morning at a remote monastery on the Tibetan Plateau, Drukyab starts his day. Slipping out of bed, he wraps his monk’s robes tightly around him to ward off the chill and shuffles into the kitchen, where he coaxes the stove to life by igniting discs of yak dung until the room warms and the kettle rises to a gentle boil. Then it is time for morning prayers, which, after three and a half decades as a monk, have become second nature to him. When the chanting is finished, Drukyab returns to the kitchen to prepare a cup of salted butter tea, pouring the mixture over powdered barley. Both the breakfast and the hot drink help to ward off the cold.
With these morning rituals completed, Drukyab opens up his laptop and starts scrolling through digital photos and videos of Tibetan Plateau’s most iconic animal, the elusive snow leopard. The media is not pulled from National Geographic or Google’s image search, but from Drukyab’s own self-imposed mission to document as much of the Tibetan Plateau’s flora as he can. The Mekong River — called the Lancang in China — has its source several hundred kilometers to the west and supports the plateau’s fragile ecosystem. For Drukyab, who is in his late 40s, documenting wildlife over the past decade has been a way to raise awareness of the most pressing threats to the region’s biodiversity.
Looking back on Drukyab’s path to adulthood, it is perhaps surprising that he ended up as an advocate for wildlife conservation. Born into a nomadic family that survived in the unforgiving landscape by tending yak herds and hunting what few wild animals could be found, he recalls trips into the mountains with his father on which they would hunt game before hauling kills back to their camp. Every edible part of the animal was consumed, but instead of becoming desensitized to the taking of life, Drukyab’s compassion only grew.
“I felt a strong connection to the animals. One day, I saw a group of Chinese hunters kill a gazelle,” said Drukyab, who explained that the gazelle had been nursing a fawn. “I went back for three days in a row to try and help its baby, but I couldn’t, and it died. After that, I decided to stop hunting and become a monk.”
When he was 13 years old, Drukyab left his nomadic roots behind, shaved his head, and entered the monastery in Payul, where he has lived ever since. The monastery, like Drukyab himself, wasn’t always stationary. In order to spread the message of Buddhism, the monks had to go where the nomads were, drifting along seasonally with the herds. But as time passed and the nomadic lifestyle began to give way to more sedentary inclinations, the monks decided to build a permanent home.
Today, the complex in Payul, which sits just across the border from Sichuan province, in southwestern China’s Qinghai province, is home to hundreds of monks and novices, and the crimson robes of Tibetan Buddhism are as much a presence on the town’s main thoroughfare as the blue jeans and waterproof jackets of its secular citizens.
Now a senior monk, Drukyab began to notice a worrying decline in biodiversity around 2007 — not only apex predators like the snow leopard, but also more common species like birds and wild goats. While not entirely certain of the supporting science, Drukyab knew that the warming climate was somehow responsible, and he took it upon himself to create a comprehensive digital catalogue of every living species, both plant and animal, that he could find. First, however, he had to learn how to use a camera.
“In the beginning, I had no money,” Drukyab recalled, so he borrowed money from his family to buy a digital camera. With his new gear in tow, he hiked into the mountains in the dead of winter, wearing nothing more than his monk’s robes and a pair of hiking shoes, and settled into a place where a family of nomads had told him they had seen snow leopards in the past.
While he waited, Drukyab taught himself the basic functions of his camera, but as no translation of the instruction manual was available in his native Tibetan language, much of it was guesswork and trial and error.
Drukyab’s chance came after two weeks in the wild, when he noticed a flock of mountain sheep charging past the rock formation he had been using as a blind. It wasn’t until the animals were a mere 10 meters away from his position that he saw the leopard: It had grabbed a lamb and was preparing for the kill.
In that critical moment, Drukyab’s compassion for life overrode his photographer’s instincts. “The baby was crying,” he said, “and I thought, ‘I’m a monk — I should rescue it!’ So I put my camera down and saved the sheep.” As a photographer, Drukyab should have taken the shot, but as a monk, he felt compelled to step in and save a life. “It is hard to balance being a monk and a photographer, but I don’t regret not taking the picture,” he said.
In the decade since that first encounter, Drukyab has taken numerous photos of snow leopards and other animals that would make even the most seasoned wildlife photographers jealous. When National Geographic decided to make a documentary about the illusive animal, it took more than 10 months to shoot enough footage, despite the equipment being state-of-the-art.
Only a few thousand snow leopards roam the Tibetan Plateau, and yet Drukyab, wearing his simple woolen robes and armed with a single camera, has captured the highly endangered cat on three separate occasions.
Drukyab is interested in more than just snow leopards, too. By cataloging the Plateau’s most vulnerable species and sharing their likenesses on social media, he hopes to both preserve their memories for posterity and encourage fellow Tibetans to fight for their protection. “The purpose of this work is not only to protect the snow leopards, but also to protect the whole ecosystem that surrounds them,” he said. “The leopard has become a symbolic animal, and I use its power to protect everything around it.”
Drukyab’s four-year study on the Tibetan bunting, a tiny gray-breasted bird that can only be found at the base of a mountain called Nyanpo Yurtse, was published in the Chinese Journal of Zoology. Multiple copies of the issue sit on Drukyab’s bookshelf in Payul, and he is just as excited to show visitors the journal article as he is to show them heart-stopping images of snow leopards charging through the mountains.
As Drukyab sees it, the Tibetan Plateau is in real danger. The nomadic way of life, and its long tradition of living sustainably with nature, is fading fast in the face of modern luxuries like concrete houses and motorcycles. At the same time, 21st-century scientific solutions have been slow to reach the plateau’s smaller, more vulnerable inhabitants. In Drukyab’s mind, we have to set new priorities and prioritize the fragile ecosystem if its incredible biodiversity is to be saved.
“I wish ambitious people would put the same energy into protecting the environment as they do into making money,” Drukyab said. “My hope is that people who understand environmental issues will do good work to protect both nature and culture. This is the only way that either will survive.”
This year marks Drukyab’s 10th anniversary as a photographer and conservationist. Even though he has witnessed the general decline of indigenous species, he feels far from defeated. “I have always had a strong connection with animals, and now it is my turn to give something back to them,” he said.
On the side of the road, returning from a trip into the mountains, Drukyab sets his camera aside and stretches his robe above his head, watching it billow like a sail in the fierce winter wind. Clutching this makeshift parachute, he begins bounding down the mountain in great leaps, laughing with all the joyful abandon of a child.
This story was published in collaboration with A River’s Tail, a yearlong exploration of the Mekong from the river’s delta in Vietnam to its source in the Tibetan Plateau. For more stories from the Mekong, visit www.ariverstail.com.
(Header image: Drukyab, 47, scans the valley for animals to photograph from his perch on a rock in the Amdo region of the Tibetan Plateau, March 20, 2016. Luc Forsyth for Sixth Tone)