This year’s Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar is Dr. Emily Yeh, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado. Dr. Yeh will present the public lecture “Pests, Keystone Species, and Hungry Ghosts: Human-Pika Relationships on the Tibetan Plateau.” A reception with light refreshments will take place after the lecture.
The plateau pika, a small, burrowing (and cute) mammal related to the rabbit, is ubiquitous on the Tibetan plateau. For over half a century, the Chinese government has carried out large-scale poisoning campaigns to exterminate the plateau pika, because it, like the prairie dog in the US, has been viewed as a pest that competes with livestock and causes grassland degradation.
However, since the 1990s, ecological research has suggested that pikas are important keystone species rather than pests. What has been ignored in this debate is the way Tibetan herders understand and relate to pikas.
In this talk, Dr. Yeh examines how Tibetans analyze what draws pikas to specific sites, based on interviews in two pastoral communities, as well as readings from the Epic of King Gesar, which has been performed since the 12th century and continues to be an important part of everyday life.
Tibetans relate to pikas in large numbers as “hungry ghosts,” which are drawn to places where the fertility of the earth has been depleted, causing irritation to territorial deities. Using the idea of “political ontology,” Dr. Yeh examines different worlding practices as they cooperate and conflict in a context of asymmetric power relations.