Initially, I was hesitant to accept the assignment from the Image Biodiversity Expedition (IBE) to spend a full month taking photos on a zoological investigation in southern Tibet.
The investigation group was composed of elite Chinese zoological photographers. Despite the wealth of experience spread throughout the group, team captain Xu Jian cautioned us before the journey: “Everyone has been insured. Your family will get 300,000 yuan if you become bear food or are washed down the Yarlung Zangbo River to India.” We knew that behind his humor was some truth. Everyone’s pulse accelerated in anticipation of the adventure to come.
I’ve been photographing wild animals for some time, so I thought I knew what to expect. I was well aware of growing dangers threatening the survival of countless endangered species in the country - results of urbanization, deforestation, mining, and extensive construction of highways and rails. Even in some nature reserves, conditions are less than ideal for protecting animals.
Too many habitats of wild animals have been unintentionally surrounded by roads, towns, and farmland, breaking the biological chain connecting living creatures, resulting in increasing extinction. It is a heartbreaking trend for both biologists and zoological photographers in China.
The reason southern Tibet was chosen for this trip is quite simple: As depicted in the movie 2012, in the case of an unprecedented global disaster, Tibet could preserve the last surviving humans on earth. Southern Tibet remains largely untouched, and most of its wildlife thrives in peace.
It took two hours to drive from Nyingchi Airport to Paizhen before reaching Gyalha Sengtak, our final destination. Along the way, we passed barren hills with sparse vegetation. “We haven’t seen animals down here for a year,” revealed a local.
Fortunately, Gyalha Sengtak is located in a virgin forest. We were in for a two-day trek up a tall mountain.
As we inched up the hills, we passed a great variety of vegetation, including green sub-alpine coniferous trees, broad leaves, and a river-valley monsoon forest. I had never seen such a large chunk of untouched forest. I found myself guessing that it served as an ideal habitat for big animals, particularly predators.