A Watchtower on the Roof of the World

By Christina Larson

High on the Tibetan plateau stands a rustic observation station. Comprised of two low sheds with corrugated steel roofs and one 90-foot tower, it is located in the no man's land known as Hohxil -- one of the world' s last remaining wilderness areas.

The tower's spindly silhouette is the only man-made structure in this swath of mountains. To reach its observation deck, you must climb up a side ladder, grasping tightly its cold metal rungs. (At night, the temperature sinks as low as minus 40 degrees F.) The view from the observation deck is one of uncanny stillness: for miles and miles, nothing seems to move, save for an occasional antelope darting across dry amber grasslands.

This little outpost on the "roof of the world," as the Tibetan plateau is sometimes called, is usually unmanned. But for the last dozen years, for a few weeks each spring and autumn when weather permits, a small band of devoted volunteers and rugged Chinese scientists have trekked to the station to record the annual migration of the endangered Tibetan antelope.

In recent years, they've taken on an additional mission: inviting experts to travel with them to collect data on the melting of the adjacent Himalayan glaciers, from which all the great rivers of Asia spring.

As such research holds global significance, it's hardly an exaggeration to label this scrappy outpost a watchtower for the planet.

The reason the wildlife station exists at all is somewhat of a miracle. It was not built by the government, but by an independent network of local Chinese and Tibetan environmentalists. Erected in 1997, in the midst of a citizen-led campaign to stop rampant poaching of the Tibetan antelope, it is an unusual monument to bottom-up initiative in China.

Throughout the 1990s, a self-organized band of vigilante environmental watchdogs, calling themselves the "Wild Yak Brigade," had patrolled the Hohxil area against poachers. The wildlife station bears the name, in memorial, of one Tibetan environmentalist shot by poachers in 1994. "If government cannot act first," a friend of his told me, "We believe someone must."

Perhaps surprisingly, the station -- once a veritable rest stop in the wilderness for activists -- still stands. In many cases, the Chinese government snuffs out citizen activism, but in a few instances, it takes its cue from their efforts. Enhancing law-enforcement (i.e, cracking down on illegal poaching) was a cause that Beijing found it could embrace, after the activists successfully thrust the animal's plight into the national conversation.

beijing_olympics_mascots_004.jpgThe numbers of Tibetan antelope have rebounded slightly in recent years. And reflecting its status as a cause célèbre, the government selected it as one of five animal mascots of the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

This under-appreciated interplay between Chinese environmentalists -- most of whom remain unknown in the West -- and the government will be one factor shaping the future course of the country's vast, looming environmental battles. And perhaps, the world's.

Today, the observation station has a secondary use: as a temporary crash pad for glacier researchers.

The vast ice sheets stretching across the greater Himalayas (which includes the Tibetan plateau) sustain every major Asian river, from the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China; to the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra in India; to the Mekong and Salween in Southeast Asia.

Alas, any aura of timelessness is misleading; change is coming quickly. As the climate warms, the Tibetan plateau is heating up about three times faster than the global average. This is due in part due to its high elevation and in part to the compounding effect of lost snow cover that would otherwise reflect back some sunlight. The prominent Chinese glaciologist Yao Tandong estimates that the Himalayan glaciers could be two-thirds gone by 2060 -- jeopardizing the fresh water available downstream for more than a billion people.

Already the impacts are apparent.

When I tried to visit the Tibetan Zhuanlong Temple, in northwestern Gansu province, no one answered my knock at the door. The lama had gone. I was told he had left to spend two weeks praying at the source of each of the nearby streams -- glacier-fed trickles down the mountains -- that in recent years had receded. For the first time in the living memory of any local villager, regular religious services were on hiatus. Melting ice had rendered their temple silent.

Christina Larson is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow or message her on Twitter at @larsonchristina.