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Rangelands and Pastoral Production on the Tibetan Plateau in Western China

Rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau

Alpine meadow rangeland and river with yaks grazing at about 3600m near Hongyuan, northwestern Sichuan Province. The grass, Elymus nutans, is an important forage plant in these grazing lands. Yaks are the dominant animal raised by pastoralists in this area.

Tibetan rangelands are the heart of Asia since they form the headwaters’ environment where many major rivers have their beginnings. The Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, and Brahmaputra rivers all originate in the Tibetan Plateau. The preservation and management of these river source environments have broad regional implications, as water from these watersheds will be of increasing importance in the future to millions of people living downstream.

Alpine meadow rangeland, Tibetan nomads’ tent, and livestock at about 3200 m near Qinghai Lake, Qinghai Province. The grazing lands around Qinghai Lake, in the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau, have been valued for centuries as some of the best grazing lands in Central Asia and even today support large numbers of livestock.

Nomads have been herding livestock on the grazing lands of the Tibetan Plateau for probably 4,000 years. The fact that nomads still populate these grasslands today is proof of the rationality and efficacy of many aspects of traditional pastoral production practices. The survival of nomadic pastoralism indicates that many of the strategies of animal husbandry and range management developed centuries ago are well-adapted responses to the range of environmental conditions found in these grazing lands.

Tibetan nomads' tents and summer rangelands at about 3800m near Madoi, Qinghai Province. Nomads do not move randomly over the rangelands, rather their movements are well-prescribed by complex social organizations and are highly regulated.

Tibetan nomadic pastoralism is distinct ecologically from pastoralism in the semi-arid regions of Eurasia and Africa. There, it is normally aridity, or the lack of water, that separates cultivated agriculture areas from nomadic pastoral areas. Nomads in these areas are pushed into the more marginal grasslands where low and erratic rainfall precludes the growing of crops. In Tibet, the key ecological characteristic that distinguishes Tibetan pastoralism is altitude, not water. In much of the Tibetan Plateau, rainfall is ample and good grazing is found, but the land is too high in elevation and too cold for cultivating crops. Tibetan pastoralism has flourished because there has been little or no encroachment into the grasslands by farmers. Unlike the vast, open steppes of Eurasia, Tibetan grazing lands are divided by rugged mountain ranges, deep river valleys, and large lake basins that gives rise to great diversity in topography, climate, vegetation, and pastoral production practices.

Sheep and goats grazing in riparian, Kobresia sedge meadow at about 5000m near Mun Tso in west central Tibet with an approaching summer storm. The Kobresia meadows, initiate plant growth earlier than alpine steppe on surrounding mountain slopes and are, therefore, a key grazing area.

Tibetan rangelands are complex environments and appear to function as highly dynamic ecosystems. Across much of the Tibetan Plateau, there is considerable variation in forage production from one year to another due to varying rainfall. There are even remarkable differences in grass growth in a small geographic area within one season due to local rainfall events. Severe winter snowstorms can bury grass for livestock under snow, often resulting in large livestock losses. There periodic snowstorms add to the complexity and non-equilibrial nature of the ecosystem, making nomadic pastoralism a high risk enterprise.

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