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April 2, 2011

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The lama who loves swans

FOR 33-year-old Tibetan lama Dripa, gazing at swans is like gazing at figures of the Buddha. Now he has made a 15-minute conservation video about the regal birds on Qinghai Lake. Ji Shaoting and Wu Guangyu report.

Every year, when the snow comes, the big swans fly to the lake. In the spring, when the snow and ice melt, they fly away, says a lama with prayer beads and a digital camera near Qinghai Lake in northwest China.

Dripa, a 33-year-old lama, has made a 15-minute documentary in Tibetan about his beloved swans that this winter numbered 4,000. He counts and photographs them.

"When I look at the big swans, I have the same feelings as when I look at Buddha figures," says Dripa, a lama at the Ga'rila Temple in Trelnag Village. It's located in Gonghe County, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province.

Dripa first saw large swans on Qinghai Lake at the age of 15 when he became a lama at the temple near the lake. "They were so beautiful. I could not think, I was simply staring," he recalls.

He started visiting the lake to watch the swans regularly since that year. In 2008, a non-governmental environmental conservation organization called Shan Shui (literally meaning mountains and water) heard about him.

The organization and the Qinghai Lake Administration jointly held a special training program for local residents on protecting the environment and wild animals. Dripa was invited to the program, and he learned basics about Qinghai Lake's wildlife, as well as photography and monitoring methods.

From then on, Dripa started to record, in detail, the birds on the lake. He designed a table to record the number and behavior of different species, especially the swans.

"Swans are timid. They fly away when humans approach. But they are not scared of me," he says, with a shy smile, speaking in Mandarin. "They see people as friends when they are with me," he says.

The young lama goes to the lake every two or three days and stays at the shore for two to three hours each time.

"I think nothing in my mind. The world is quiet," he says, standing still by the lake, staring at the swans, with the wind blowing his red robes.

For some minutes, he watches the swans far away with a telescope, then says, "Forty-two. There are 42 swans."

He takes digital photos and uses a video camera, storing pictures on a laptop computer. All the equipment was provided by the NGO and the lake administration.

He has bought a printer and plans to buy a new camera; he has taken a fancy to a 20,000-yuan (US$3,048) camera.

"I do not have that much money and I borrow some from a friend," says the lama who lives with his elderly grandmother. His only income is from small donations from villagers.

"It will take me years to pay off. I love photography," he says.

He has taken thousands of photos of his beloved birds. His favorite picture is of two swans crossing their necks on the lake. "I see love in the picture," he says.

Dripa says the best time to take photos is the morning when the temperature is below zero, even though it is difficult to operate the camera in the cold. Sometimes he has to warm the battery with his hands.

"I went to see the swans on the very first morning of the new year, and then I came home to greet my family members and lamas in the temple," he says.

Dripa, however, does more than record swans. He and other lamas also pick up garbage by the lake left by tourists in the summer.

This winter the number of swans has reached 4,000.

"To protect the environment, we mainly rely on the local residents, especially the Tibetan people, as they really love the place where they live," says He Yubang, director of the Qinghai Lake Administration.

He says the administration has recruited more than 30 volunteers, mostly Tibetan herdsmen, to help protect the wildlife and report on damage around the lake.

"We have many, many other Dripas across the country," says Lu Zhi, founder of the Shan Shui.

"Human beings are damaging nature in many ways, including polluting waters, digging wild herbs and hunting wild animals. These will lead to serious consequences for our environment," Dripa says in his 15-minute documentary.

In his short video, lamas are holding ceremonies under the blue sky, children are riding bicycles and playing games, villagers are yelling as they race horses, and swans are flying over the lake.

"The big swans fly up when the lamas blow the trumpet shells in the temple. The beautiful sounds of the shells and the swans interlace with each other and resound across the heavens," Dripa says in the video.

"To cherish and protect the lovely birds will be tied to my life," he says. "To live with them is my life-long wish."


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