In the 1970s nomadic Mongolian herders lived in balance with their environment, moving from one area of pasture to another to gain the most benefit from each type of grassland and to ensure that the grassland and its wildlife had the best chance to survive and thrive. They revered wolves even as they feared them, hunting them when necessary but recognising that the wolves ensured that gazelles, rabbits and mice couldn't overrun the grasslands and reduce them to desert.
Wolf Totem, the semi-autobiograhical novel from Jiang Rong, focuses on a year in the lives of two Chinese students sent to Mongolia to work alongside the herders. Chen adopts a wild wolf cub (after killing its siblings) and tries to study its development as a top predator. His love for the cub is very touching as is his gradual realisation of the crime he commited against nature in ripping the cub from its natural way of life.
This story is set against the wider story of the settlement of the area by Chinese farmers who don't understand the relationship the herders have with the landscape and the wildlife. Gradually the grasslands become overpopulated by people and livestock and wolves are over-hunted, gradually creating a sandy desert where once there was a vibrant ecosystem.
This is a heartbreaking study of how inappropriate human development can destroy a natural ecosystem and ultimately destroy too a human community that had evolved over centuries to co-exist with that ecosystem.
My only criticism of the book is that the dialogue often sounds as though the author has taken chunks out of ecology and soiology textbooks and put them into the mouths of his characters. Otherwise it is a truly insightful and sobering exploration of a lost way of life.
Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (translated by Howard Goldblatt) published by Penguin.