For almost over three thousand years, Tibet with its three administrative regions, Do-toe, Do-med and U-Tsang existed as a sovereign nation. The communist Chinese took/ liberated the country in 1949 and today China refers only to the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which they created in 1965 as “Tibet”.
Tibet, commonly known as the “roof of the world” is situated at the very heart of Asia. It is one of the most environmentally strategic regions in the world. Tibet lies in the north of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma; west of China and south of East Turkistan. Covering a total area of 2.5 million sq. km., more than 2/3rd the size of India, it stretches some 2,500 km from west to east and 1,500 km from north to south. It has an average altitude of 3,650 metres above sea level and many of the peaks reach beyond 8000m, Mt Everest (Mt. Chomolungma), with 8,848m, being the world’s tallest.
The Tibetan Plateau is the highest and largest plateau on earth and towers over the central part of the continent of Eurasia. It is bounded by the Himalayan mountain chain in the south, and connected with the Altyn Tagh and Gangkar Chogley Namgyal Mountains in the north. Its western part merges with the Karakoram mountains and its eastern part slopes downward more gradually with Minyak Gangkar and Khawakarpo Mountains in Yunnan.
Tibet was ecologically stable and conservation of the environment was an essential component of Tibetans’ daily lives. Tibetans lived in harmony with nature guided by their Buddhist belief in the interdependence of both living and non-living elements of the earth. This belief is further strengthened by the Tibetan Buddhists traditional adherence to the principle of self-contentment, that the environment should be used to fulfil one’s need and not greed.
With the changes of Tibet, this nature-friendly attitude of the Tibetan people was trampled upon by a consumerist and materialistic ideology. The transformation was followed by wide-spread environmental destruction in Tibet, resulting in deforestation, overgrazing, uncontrolled mining, and extinction of wildlife, waste dumping, soil erosion, landslides and other perils. The unprofessional companies continue to extract various natural resources without any environmental safeguard; as a result, Tibet is facing an environmental crisis.
Tibet had the most successful system of environmental protection of any inhabited region in the modern world. Formal protection of wildlife and environment through parks and reserves were unnecessary as Tibetan Buddhism taught the people about the interdependence of all living and non-living elements of the earth. Buddhism prohibits the killing of animals and advocates loving compassion for living beings and the environment.
PLANTS: Over 100,000 species of higher plants used to grow in Tibet, many of them rare and endemic. The plant species also include about 2,000 varieties of medicinal plants used in the traditional medical systems of Tibet, China and India. Rhododendron, saffron, bottle-brush, high mountain rhubarb, Himalayan alpine scrofula, falconer tree and hell Bonne are among the many plants found in Tibet.
There are altogether 400 species of rhododendron on the Tibetan Plateau, which make up about 50 percent of the world’s total species. According to Wu and Feng (1992), the Tibetan Plateau consisted of over 12,000 species of 1,500 genera of vascular plants, accounting for over half of the total genera found in China.
BIRDS: In Tibet, there are over 532 different species of birds in 57 families, which makes about 70.37 percent of the total families found in China. Some of them include stork, wild swan, Blyth’s kingfisher, goose, duck, shorebird, raptor, brown chested jungle flycatcher, redstart, finch, grey-sided thrush, Przewalski’s parrotbill, wagtail, chickadee, large-billed bush warbler, bearded vulture, woodpecker and beautiful nuthatch. The most famous and rare bird is the black-necked crane (trung trung kaynak in Tibetan).
WILD ANIMALS: The mountains and forests of Tibet were once home to a vast range of rare and endangered wild animals including the snow leopard, clouded leopard, lynx, Tibetan taken, Himalayan black bear, brown bear, wild yak (drong), blue sheep, musk deer, golden monkey, wild ass (Kyang), Tibetan gazelle, Himalayan mouse hare, Tibetan antelope, giant panda, red panda and others.
FOREST: Tibet’s forests cover totalled 25.2 million hectares. Most forests grow on steep, isolated slopes of above 35 degree in the river valleys of Tibet’s low lying south-eastern region. The principle types are tropical Montana and subtropical Montana coniferous forest, with evergreen spruce, fir, pine, larch, cypress, birch and oak among the main species.
Tibet’s forests are primarily old growth, with trees over 200 years old. The average stock density is 272 cubic metres per hectare, but U-Tsang’s old growth areas reach 2,300 cubic metres per hectare- the world’s highest stock density for conifers.
MINERALS: Tibet also had rich and untapped mineral resources. It has deposits of about 126 different minerals accounting for a significant share of the entire world’s reserves of gold, lithium, uranium, chromites, copper, borax and iron. Tibet has the largest high grade uranium deposit in the world. Amdo’s oil fields produce over 1 million tons of crude oil per year.
RIVERS: Tibet is the source of many of the Asia’s major rivers, including the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Senge Khabab (Indus), the Langchen Khabab (Sutlej), the Macha Khabab (Karnali), Arun (Phongchu), the Gyalmo Ngulchu (Salween), the Zachu (Mekong), the Drichu (Yangtse) and Machu (Huang he or Yellow River), these rivers flow into China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These rivers systems and their tributaries are the life-blood of millions of people in the continent of Asia.
More than 15,000 natural lakes are also found in Tibet and some of the prominent lakes are Tso Ngonpo (Kokonor lake) being the largest, Mapham Yumtso (Mansarovar), Namtso and Yamdrok Tso.
Our research figure shows that rivers originating from Tibet sustain the lives of 47% of the world population and 85% of the Asia’s total population. Thus, the environmental issue of Tibet is not an inconsequential regional issue, but has huge global significance to warrant international attention. More than ever before, the need to save the Tibetan Plateau from ecological devastation is urgent. Because, it is not the question of the survival of Tibetans, but half of humanity is at stake.