ANOTHER "OPTIONAL" FACET of the nomad economy is hunting. The Changtang traditionally abounded with wild antelope, blue sheep (bharal), Marco Polo sheep, wild asses, gazelles, and wild yak. Between 1959 and the mid-1980s, local officials and army personnel are said to have killed large numbers of these animals for meat by hunting in jeeps with modern rifles. More recently, a lucrative trade in antelope skins has developed. The antelope's soft "cashmere" (kulu) undercoat is combed out and smuggled to India where it is used to make the finest shawls. There is also pressure on small carnivores such as the snow leopard and the Tibetan lynx, both of whose pelts appear to end up as Russian-style fur hats.
Recent laws prohibit this type of hunting, and the Chinese govemment has cracked down somewhat on the illegal antelope-pelt trade, but each day dozens of leopard and lynx pelts are offered for sale in the Lhasa market, and many more never reach the market because they are collected directly by traders scouring the Changtang for pelts. The price in Lhasa's open market for the beautiful tawny lynx pelts has more than doubled over the past two years, bringing about 800-1000 yuan (the equivalent in value of two to three yaks) in 1987-88.
Despite all this, wildlife is still abundant in Pala and other parts of West Tibet. As we traveled between encampments and to areas surrounding Pala, we regularly saw herds of wild asses, antelope and gazelle, some as large as 100 animals.
The nomads traditionally hunted the blue sheep, wild yak, gazelle and antelope, and still maintain that tradition. One of the best hunters in Pala is Damdrin, a taciturn 44-year-old bachelor who lives alone. He explained the nomads' hunting technique when we accompanied him on a hunting trip in search of the blue sheep or na, as the nomads call it.
I always travel with my hunting dogs and rifle so that if I spot some na I can go after them. But you've seen my matchlock rifle. To begin with it is only accurate up to 30-40 meters. Moreover, it takes a very long time to fire. Even though I keep my rifle loaded with powder and a lead musket ball [held in the barrel by a wad of wool plugging the muzzle hole], after I spot a blue sheep I still have to plant the gun on the ground with its gun-rest, then light the wick with a spark from my flint-striker and then put the wick to the small powder bowl on the outside of the gun. This in turn ignites the powder in the barrel and fires the bullet. By the time I have done all that, the prey is long gone. With just our Tibetan rifle we are no match for the na. That is why we always hunt with our hunting dogs. They tilt the odds in our favor. As you wilt see, as soon as I spot blue sheep on a mountain slope I turn loose my dogs. Their job is to corner one of the na among the crags, and bark loudly to lead me to the spot. The best dogs will even try to run back a ways to make it easier for me to find them, all the time, of course, keeping their prey at bay. Once I get there, I have plenty of time to set up my rifle and shoot. In fact, during the commune period when I had no rifle, I climbed above the cornered na and heaved down large rocks to kill it.
These sleek naki or "blue sheep dogs" look like tawny-colored greyhounds. Bred for hunting, the best is worth a yak nowadays. They tend to be treated better than the nomads' watchdogs, and in some cases are treated almost like pets, given affection and allowed to come into their tents. Cats, on the other hand, are generally treated like pets-they are allowed inside the tent, are sometimes petted, and are even fed milk by rich families. The hunting dogs typically do little in camp but sleep. However, as soon as their owner-hunter heads out of camp, they immediately perk up and follow eagerly. Seeing, them in action, we quickly understood why they are so valued. When Damdrin spotted a small herd of 10 blue sheep and released his three dogs, they took off like greyhounds, bounding up a steep, rocky slope whose base was just over 18,000 feet. They were quickly out of sight. We followed as best we could, moving toward their barking. Damdrin, who continually complained to us that he couldn't do strenuous work because his lungs were no good, went up the steep slope at a very fast pace without a single rest. We tried to keep up with him, following as quickly as we could. We were slowed, however, by poor footing on the 45-degr-ee incline covered with loose dirt and rock, and by having to stop every few minutes to gasp for breath. It graphically demonstrated the difference between lowlanders acclimatized to living at high altitude and real native highlanders. Although life at 16,000-17,500 feet normally did not bother us greatly, we were no match for the nomads at strenuous work.
The nomads' hunting dogs, however, are ineffective against the antelope and gazelle which inhabit the open plains where they cannot be cornered. Instead, the nomads use two other methods: placing a simple snare along paths to watering holes and shooting from ambush. The latter involves hiding in a depression near a regular trail in the hope of getting off a shot. As unlikely as this may seem, in May 1988, two nomad friends hid like this from morning until nightfall (with a brief break for lunch) for three days until on the last afternoon, each shot one antelope.
This hunting is not a serious threat to the antelope since only six to seven were killed in 1987-88. More seriously, in spring 1988 we met several nomads from another shang in Tsatesy who had came to Pala with a modem rifle they had borrowed from a Tsatsey official. Although officials have to account for all their bullets and these nomads had to obtain their own bullets, this was no problem. For example, they were on sale at the hay-cutting marts for two yuan a piece. These nomads were able to shoot six antelope in two weeks and were planning to move on to a new location.
Not all nomads hunt. Some clearly enjoy the challenge of hunting, and others hunt because they like the extra meat, but many if not most Pala nomads have renounced it. Our friend Wanam explained, "We are Buddhists, and as such should not kill other creatures. Most nomads in Pala, therefore, are like myself and nowadays do not hunt. However, if we are desperate for food, we all will hunt. I myself did so to maintain my family during the Cultural Revolution when my wealth was confiscated and I was excluded from the commune. But these days I do not need game to survive and will not take the life of another sentient creature." Another young friend, who was an accomplished hunter with fine dogs in 1986, proudly informed us in 1987 when we asked to go hunting with him, "Over the winter I decided it was sinful to kill animals when I don't need the meat, so I gave away my rifle and no longer hunt. I think it will be better for me to say prayers than hunt."
This religious sentiment was reinforced by the sad experience of an old nomad neighbor of ours. He explained:
Last summer some traders came and said they would pay high prices for lynx or snow leopard pelts. I wanted some extra money so last fall, after you returned to America, I bought two Chinese steel traps and baited them. I thought I was lucky when I was able to kill two snow leopards and sell them for 500 yuan (equivalent to the value of two young yaks). But during the winter my wife suddenly fell ill and died. She was very healthy before this, and I now know that Dargo, our powerful Buddhist mountain protector, was angered by my slaughter of these animals for profit and showed his displeasure by taking my wife from me."
Since then, despite the enormous profit, trapping for pelts is no longer done near Mt. Dargo.
Hunting and salt collecting, therefore, represent non-essential components of the nomads' subsistence-they are economic reserves. In bad times more nomads turn to salt collection and hunting to supplement their income, while in good times most will not bother to make the three to four-month effort needed to collect and sell salt, and will adhere more closely to Buddhist tenets by renouncing hunting.
As many Colorado skiers, Himalayan trekkers, and Andean tourists know first hand, arriving abruptly at high altitude can be physically unpleasant. Common initial symptoms for lowlanders include headache, nausea, insomnia, and the inability to perform normal activities. Usually these symptoms abate after a few days. They are caused by high-altitude hypoxia resulting from lowered barometric pressure. Oxygen is the portion of air that supports life and comprises about 21 % of air., At 5,000 meters (or 16,400 feet), an altitude within the range of the Pala encampments, the barometric pressure is nearly 45.5% lower than that found at sea level-422 torr vs. 760 torr. Similarly, nearly 45% fewer oxygen molecules enter our lungs with each breath, and thus fewer oxygen molecules diffuse into the blood for transport to the cells which must be continuously replenished with our most vital nutrient. Only 85% of the nomads' hemoglobin is actually carrying oxygen (versus over 95% at sea level). This is the hypoxic stress of high altitude.
However, high-altitude natives like the Pala nomads live without symptoms because they have adapted physiologically to their lifelong hypoxic stress by enhancing their ability to transport oxygen from air to tissues. The principal mechanism is an increase in the amount of hemoglobin in the blood which increases the blood's capacity to obtain oxygen from the inspired air in the lungs.