The changing face of Tibet’s “Marlboro” Country

Once thriving, the Plateau's rangelands are beginning to be threatened by increasing human and livestock numbers.

The Tibetan Plateau is the most extensive high elevation region on earth, encompassing almost one million square miles of the People's Republic of China, about 20 percent of its total area. Of this, about 70 percent is grazing land.

The remarkable variation of the plateau's vegetation is attributable to its variation in altitude, temperature, and precipitation. Most of the landmass stands above 3,000 meters, with large areas above 4,000 meters. Little vegetation is found above 5,000 meters. Temperatures are low the whole year, with the possibility of snowfall any time. Growing seasons are short and vegetation is scarce.

It is the northeastern rangelands of the fang Thang — as the plateau is called in Tibetan — that have long been regarded as about the best grazing lands in Asia. Many 19th century explorers to the region have written at length about its lush pastures, large herds of livestock, and the incredible wildlife. The "open range" of eastern Qinghai Province is true "Marlboro country" -the snow peaks, sprawling mountain valleys watered by clear running streams and good grass, and cold, wind-swept steppes where a horseman can ride for hundreds of miles without encountering a fence.

This open range is the home of the legendary Golok tribesmen, among the best horsemen of Asia, their horses equally renowned. Although the Mongols are known as great horsemen, Tibetan tribes such as the Goloks galloped over and conquered the steppes at least 500 years earlier. Tibet in general was a horse-oriented society in which kings assumed their thrones as soon as they could ride a horse, supposedly at the age of 13. A "pony express" for sending dispatches across their vast territories existed almost 1,000 years before North America saw its first horses, with the coming of the Spanish.

Clearly, the rangelands of the plateau supported a pastoral culture for centuries, probably well developed by the seventh century, when Tibetan civilization began to expand. The survival of Tibetan pastoralism, based on extensive herding of Nor (Nor refers to the species, whereas Yak is the male, and Dri the female), sheep and goat reflects well-evolved responses to markedly different range and environ-mental conditions.

The total number of Nor in China is estimated to be about 12 million, with most of it found on the fang Thang. More than 30 million sheep and goat are sustained by these rangelands, where herds of thousands are not uncommon. Nor are a source of milk products, meat, hair, wool and hides, while Tibetan sheep wool is highly sought for carpet weaving — about 3000 tonnes of wool.

But this state of pastoral well-being is being threatened. With the opening of the Tibetan Plateau and improved communication with the mainland of China, the traditional equilibrium of the pastoral system is under considerable pressure to support more intensive live-stock production because of the demands that have been prompted by China's economic growth. This demand for more livestock products is now arousing interest in new technologies of livestock production. In fact, the introduction of incentives through the "individual responsibility" system in the late 70's did increase livestock numbers in some areas. But no one seems to be considering the carrying capacity of the rangelands. Nor has there been any attention given to improving range management techniques. The policies for destocking certain ranges have often not taken into account the flexibility inherent in the traditional management systems either. If well managed, and some modern techniques incorporated, the plateau's rangelands can support a greater productive livestock population.

Also, the plateau's wildlife species are beginning to be threatened by increasing human population and livestock numbers. Presently, species such as Tibetan gazelle, wild ass, and blue sheep, and musk deer, are abundant. White-lipped deer (Thorold's deer) and red deer still roam the high forests and shrublands, and marmots and pikas (curiously, pikas are also found in the Rockies) are common in Tibetan grasslands. Many large raptors, predator of pikas, are also found in the eastern part of the plateau. In the more desolate valleys of western Jiang Mang, there continue to be large herds of wild yak. Wild yak are huge — a big bull standing almost two meters from the shoulders and weighing up to a tonne — their horns large enough to serve as milk pails for early nomads. Tibetan antelope, too, are found in large numbers. Mongols believed a whip handle of antelope horn prevented their horses from tiring, and Tibetans used a pair as rifle "rests." The once-abundant Przewalski Gazelle are now found only along the northeastern shore of Qinghai's Koko Nor Lake, while Tibetan argalis share the mountain ranges with snow leopard and wolves. A wide variety of waterfowl and shore birds swarm the plateau's numerous lakes and marshes. Rockhill, who explored Tibet in the late 1800's, called the country around the upper Yellow River "the most wonderful hunting ground in Asia".

Apart from the pressures mentioned, there is also danger from hunting and commerce. Large numbers of blue sheep are killed every year and shipped as meat to markets in Europe; musk deer are increasingly poached for the valuable musk, as are red deer and white-lipped deer for their velvet antlers. Knowledge of the numbers and distribution of wildlife, and that of the ecology of wildlife on the Tibetan Plateau, is sorely lacking.

Tremendous potential exists to improve the livestock productivity in the rangelands. But the dynamics of the pastoral ecosystem need to be understood, and for this, a much better appreciation of the traditional pastoral system is important. It is essential to consider the pastoralist's needs, and to include his participation when introducing any development. The best strategies are those that build upon the best aspects of traditional management systems, rather than impose new systems on them.

Much needs to be known about plant-animal interactions, and the effects of grazing in different rangeland types. Grazing management should consider appropriate stocking rates and proper seasonal use of the range. Hay meadows, for instance, could be developed to supplement forage during the winter.

Foremost, really, is a need for eminently practical development interventions. Instead of introducing expensive tractors and forage harvesting machinery for the Tibetan Plateau, it may be more feasible to introduce horse-drawn mowing machines and technology that was widely used on range operations in the western USA not too long ago. On the other hand, remote sensing imagery could be valuable to analyze range vegetation and forage production, given the vastness and difficult accessibility of the plateau. The protection of wildlife, a vital resource of the plateau, must accordingly be considered in any range management programme.

Daniel Miller is a rangeland specialist who visited the Plateau in 1988.

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