Rangelands and Pastoral Production on the Tibetan Plateau in Western China
Tibetan nomads' yak hair tent at about 5000m near Mun Tso in west central Tibet.
Grazing lands are dominated by grasses of the genera, Stipa and Poa. Yak hair tents are an excellent example of the Tibetan nomads' skill in adapting to life on the windswept steppes of the Tibetan Plateau. Made from the long, coarse hair of the yak that is woven into strips by nomad women on back-strap looms, tents are suitable to a nomadic pastoral mode of production. They can be easily taken down and packed on yaks when moving camp. They keep out the rain, yet let in light. The design of Tibetan tents has been perfected over millennia so that they stand up in the fierce winds that rip across the Tibetan plains in the winter.
Tibetan sheep and goats being sent out for grazing in alpine steppe rangelands at about 5000m near Shuanghu, northern Tibet. Dominant forage plants here are grasses of the genera, Stipa and Poa and a sedge, Carex moorcroftii. Forbs, especially of the legume family are also common.
The indigenous, or traditional, pastoral production systems that operated across most of the Tibetan Plateau were an evolutionary adaptation by Tibetan nomads. The livestock production practices that developed were rational, aggregate behavioral responses by Tibetan nomads to the resources and risks of the grasslands. Since they still operate, many aspects of the traditional Tibetan pastoral production system have proved to be successful over centuries. As such, there is much value in many aspects of traditional pastoral production systems.
Sheep and Stipa rangelands at about 5100m near Rongma, northern Tibet. This site is near the northern limit of inhabited areas in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. North of here, for about 400 km, there are no people until the oases of southern Xinjiang along the Silk Road are reached.
Tibetan nomads usually raise a mix of animal species, including sheep, goats, yaks, and horses. Each species has its own specific characteristics and adaptations. The multi-species grazing system commonly practiced maximises the use of rangeland forage. Maintaining diverse herd compositions is also a strategy employed to minimise the risk of losses from disease or severe winters.
Mountain rangelands in the Wild Yak Valley, Kunlun Mountains, Qinghai Province. The valley floor at 4300m contains good Stipa-Poa grasslands. This Wild Yak Valley is used by Kazak and Mongol nomads in the summer and Tibetan nomads in the winter. The upper part of the Valley, illustrated here, remains relatively unused by herders and still supports good wildlife populations, especially wild yak.
Like the Great Plains of North America, the rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau evolved with large grazing animals. Over millennia, wild ungulates grazing on the plains of Tibet helped create a unique symbiosis between plants and grazing animals. The long history of grazing on many of these rangelands has also undoubtedly contributed to the fact that some species of grasses appear to be more resilient to heavy grazing than the native species in the same genera in North America. Thousands of years of livestock grazing in some rangelands has also probably resulted in considerable changes in vegetation composition that are often hard to detect and difficult to understand.
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)