it takes the fleece of five sheep to keep one person warm,
with so little rain,
the tallest tree is a shrub
that would not reach a grown man’s knee.
That place is the Chang Tang, the Tibetan plains where dwell the world’s chiru (chee-roo), small antelope-like creatures that produce shahtoosh, “the king of wools.” Each strand of chiru hair has one-seventh the diameter of human hair, and the resulting cloth is so soft, it is said that a shahtoosh shawl can be pulled through a hoop the size of a wedding ring. But such luxury comes at a cost: every shahtoosh shawl bears the hair of three to five dead chiru. The animals were hunted to near extinction, and although the sale of shahtoosh has been banned in many countries, poachers continue to drive an underground trade.
I had never heard of chiru before, and Martin’s nonfiction story reads like epic adventure. Consider, first, the strangeness of the chiru: they live in one of the coldest, most rugged environments on earth, yet never survive captivity. This is why harvesting their hair means death: you can’t raise them for their wool, nor can you shear them in the wild, because shorn chiru will die from exposure to the cold. Once a year, female chiru disappear into secret valleys to give birth. No one, not even the local Tibetan nomads, knew where the chiru went. So biologist George Schaller decided to find out. He began working on chiru conservation in the 1990’s and soon decided that if he could locate the calving grounds first, he could protect them from potential hunters.
Schaller tried to follow the migrating chiru. First his food ran out. Then his trucks got stuck in the mud. One year he used camels as pack animals, but once again abandoned the trek when supplies ran low. That’s when four expert mountaineers—Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Rick Ridgeway and Galen Rowell—took over the quest. Instead of using trucks or camels, the outdoorsmen loaded carts with food and hauled them over the plains themselves. Martin doesn’t sugarcoat their journey: the ground was so rugged that on some days they could only cover six miles, and food was a constant worry. They lived on dried beef, energy bars, beans and rice. At dinner, “the men also shared a thin slice of salami/and a few crumbles of Parmesan cheese./Dessert was a cup of hot chocolate.”
As an environmentalist and science writer, of course I was rooting for the journey to succeed. But you don’t have to like animals to enjoy the book. Martin is never didactic. She doesn’t have to point out the mountaineers’ heroism, because it’s all inherent in the undertaking of this dangerous journey. Near the end, when the men followed the chiru into a steep canyon, Martin writes,
They worked together, often standing in a canyon stream—
icy water filling their boots—
pushing, pulling, lifting the heavy carts over boulders.
Rocks as big as basketballs fell off the canyon walls.
The illustrations only added to the eeriness. Wingerter’s acrylic landscapes always seem to depict sunrise or sunset, when the sky is washed in pale pinks and blues. I’ve never been to Tibet, but the paintings remind me of winters in the desert, and the way the sky looks in high-altitude mountainous regions. When the chiru do appear, they often look like wraiths: blurred, distant animals wrapped in mist. At one point Wingerter draws a chiru-shaped cloud, and I could almost see it as a hallucination born of the men’s fear and exhaustion.
Day sixteen: they pushed on—four alone under the huge sky.
They were always hungry and dreamed of ice cream.
Martin ends on a hopeful note, when the men reach the plains where “wobbly-legged babies” run after their mothers. Once the calving grounds were found (the location is kept secret to protect against poachers), governments and conservation societies created a natural preserve, and guards now patrol the region.
You can find out more about the chiru by reading the author’s note. Martin has a list of related books and articles, and she even includes the address of the Wildlife Conservation Society, where readers can send donations for chiru protection. According to the WCS’s website, there are about 100,000 living chiru in the wild. It’s a far cry from the one million or so that once roamed the Tibetan plateau, but it’s enough, for now, to ensure that “the story of the Chang Tang chiru circles on.”