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Rangelands and Pastoral Production on the Tibetan Plateau in Western China

Livestock of Tibetan Rangelands

Herd of yaks moving to new pastures, 4800 m near Mun Tso, Tibet.

Yaks are one of the most important domestic animals found in Tibetan rangelands. Yaks provide milk and milk products, meat, fibre, and hides. They are also used for draught and riding and their dung is an important source of fuel in an area where firewood is not available. Without the yak it is doubtful if nomads could live as well as they do in the highlands of Tibet. The yak, in many ways, defines nomadic pastoralism across most of Tibet and makes life possible for man in one of the world’s harshest environments.

Tibetan nomad woman milking a yak, near Xiahe, Gansu Province.

Chinese scholars claim yak husbandry is about 4,000 years old. Whenever it began, the domestication of the yak was the singlemost important factor in the evolution of nomadic pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau. Although Tibetan nomads also raise other animals, they place so much value on the yak that the Tibetan term for yaks, nor, is also translated as "wealth".

Tibetan nomad camp near Hongyuan, northwest Sichuan Province at about 3600 m. Yaks are tied up for milking.

An average nomad family in northwest Sichuan Province would maintain about 30-40 milking female yaks. This would mean that the total number of yaks in their herd would be about 100. Thirty to forty milking yaks is about the maximum number an average nomad family can maintain without hiring additional labour.

Tibetan sheep being milked near Mun Tso at about 5000 m in west central Tibet. Sheep lamb in February and March and, beginning in June, after the lambs are weaned, sheep are milked twice a day.

Although yaks characterise Tibetan pastoralism, sheep are usually more important economically. Sheep provide wool, meat, hides, and, in many areas, are also milked. In western Tibet, an average nomad family may raise 300-400 sheep. A family with this many sheep would slaughter 30 sheep every year for their own meat consumption. The wool from Tibetan sheep is also one of the best carpet wools in the world.

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