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Sustainable development of rangeland resources on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, P.R. China

L. Yingchun1 and Zh. Qingping2

1. Project Management Unit of Qinghai Livestock Development Project, Qinghai Bureau of Animal Husbandry, Xining 810008, Qinghai, P.R. China
2. Qinghai Academy of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Xining 810003, Qinghai, P.R. China


From a rangeland industry system point of view, the current situation and obstacles of pastoral resource management and development are discussed. Strategies for sustainable development of rangeland resources are recommended.

Keywords: Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, rangeland, sustainable development, Tibetan sheep, yak


Between 1987 and 1997, the livestock production of Qinghai Province has dramatically increased through the initiation of the Reform Policy. Livestock numbers increased by 118.4% and meat production increased from 113.8 thousand tonnes to 198.4 thousand tonnes (Liu 1995). However, the ecological condition of Qinghai's rangeland environment has degraded due to various reasons, which are obstacles to sustainable livestock development. Accordingly, it is necessary to evaluate each of the contributing factors using the concept of rangeland industry system (Ren 1995), and make policy changes for improving and sustaining the grazing environment.

Rangeland resources in Qinghai Province

The main rangeland resources of Qinghai Province are located in the vicinity of Qinghai Lake, and are of the southern alpine meadow vegetation type. Elevations range between 1700–4000 metres above sea level (masl) (Zheng and Yu 1995). These rangelands comprise a total area of approximately 36.5 million hectare, which accounts for about 9.1% of China's rangeland area and represents China's fourth most extensive rangeland area (Figure 1). About 31.6 million hectare or 86.7% of this rangeland is usable. It is comprised of 16 rangeland types, 28 range groups and 173 subtypes (Figure 2). Among the 16 rangeland types, alpine meadow at the height of 2800–4200 masl is the most extensive formation (29.6 million hectare), of which about 26.4 million hectare (83.7%) is usable by livestock.

Data from Li (1992).

Figure 1. China rangeland distribution.

Data from EC (1983).

Figure 2. Qinghai rangeland types and distribution.

About 2000 plant species have been recorded from the southern alpine meadow (Zheng and Yu 1995), around 800 of which are grasses and sedges forming the forage base of the livestock industry. This forage base has relatively low productivity but high nutrient content; i.e. high crude protein, crude fat, total non-structural carbohydrates, high caloric content, and low content of fibre (Sun 1994).

The vegetation is very tolerant to grazing. The growing season at these elevations ranges between 80–150 days/year, which helps to account for the very low plant height (other environmental conditions affect this too, like high evaporation, transpiration and wind) and low forage production. Dry matter yields average 893 kg/hectare in alpine meadows and 441 kg/hectare in dry alpine grasslands. Seasonal differences in forage biomass and nutrient vary between September when they are highest and May and June when they are lowest. Crude protein content reaches 11.2% in spring and summer and drops to 6.2% in winter (Sun 1994).

According to national criteria on rangeland classification (EC 1983), most rangeland in Qinghai belongs to grade 2, which covers an area of 20.3 million hectare and comprises 55.8% of the total range area in Qinghai. The rest of the range generally falls to middle or low grade. At present, there are 22.3 million livestock. Economic returns from Qinghai rangeland average about 3630 RMB Yuan/hectare (US$1 = 8.2 RMB Yuan during this survey).

Obstacles for sustainable rangeland development

Rangeland deterioration and low productivity of livestock

Over 7.3 million hectare, or 19.9%, of Qinghai's rangeland resources have deteriorated and poisonous weeds dominate on about 1.3 million hectare. Furthermore, desertification is affecting 2.7 million hectare of Qinghai's rangeland resources (Zhou 1995). A survey in Hainan Prefecture showed that forage production of grasses, sedges and legumes dropped by 70%, while poisonous weeds increased 35.6 times between 1981 and 1996 (IFAD 1997). On Potentilla fruticosa L.-dominated rangeland, for example, grasses and sedges have decreased by 82.4% and 67.4%, respectively. Poisonous weeds surveys in the middle province have shown that fresh yield of Stellaria chamaejasme L., a poisonous plant species, averaged 1017 kg/ha in 1963; 2250 kg/ha in 1974; 4900 kg/ha in 1982; and 5437 kg/ha in 1996. Biomass yield on rangeland dominated by Achnatherum, Stipa and Orinus was 1740 kg/ha in 1963 but 1089 kg/ha in 1996. Again according to the IFAD (1997) survey, in Hainan Prefecture, loss of dry forage due to degraded rangeland reached 234.6 million kg in 1996, accounting for 9.77% of its potential forage output.

Consequently, livestock quality and productivity have declined on the degraded rangeland feed base. Investigations indicated that in the 1960s, the average carcass weight of yak was 250 kg, as opposed to 125 kg in the 1970s. The carcass weight of Tibetan sheep averaged 30 kg in the 1960s, as opposed to 20 kg in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the carcass weight of yak averaged 51 kg at 1.5 years, 80 kg at 2.5 years and 110 kg at 3.5 years of age. The carcass weight of Tibetan sheep averaged 16.1 kg at 2 years, 18.6 kg at 3 years and 20.1 kg at 4 years of age (Qinghai Academy of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine 1975, 1987, 1995). Because rangeland degradation and desertification caused reduction of livestock output, the province loses about 12 million tonnes of edible forage every year (8.2 million sheep units), which amounts to 1 billion RBM Yuan financial deficit (US$ 1 = 8.2 RMB Yuan during this survey).

Loss of biodiversity

The alpine rangeland is a unique germplasm pool of alpine biodiversity. Over 5000 species of fungi, 12 thousand species of seed plants, 1300 species of vertebrates, including Tibetan sheep and yak, and 4100 species of insects exist in rangelands of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (Yang 1997). This biodiversity is potentially a rich genetic resource of wild species and selection of domesticated varieties, both plant and animal. Unfortunately, poor management has caused the loss of some species and a loss of nutritious forages in the alpine environment and has reduced its biodiversity. A large area of Achnatherum-dominated pasture has been replaced by poisonous Aconitum species (IFAD 1997). Oxytropus and Gentiana weeds now occupy 50–70% of previously sedge-dominated summer and fall rangeland. It is necessary to take urgent measures to plan for the sustainable development of these rangeland resources to preserve their resources for future generations.

Snow disasters

At least 14 snow disasters have taken place since the late 1940s: 8 between 1950 and 1970, 3 in the 1980s and 3 in the 1990s (Zhou 1995). Snow disasters appear to be happening more frequently and are more serious than those of earlier decades. More severe winter weather is also threatening the fragile rangeland environment. In recent years, snowstorms, hail, drought, flood and frost in rangeland around Qinghai Lake occurred more frequently. Recently, serious soil erosion from the deteriorated ranges at the headwaters of two of China's great rivers, the Yellow and Yangtze, caused floods in lower reaches of the rivers which incurred great human life and financial losses.

Vulnerable ecology and global climate change

The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, with its harsh natural climate, is very fragile ecologically, which makes it hard to recover when it is damaged. Some scientists believe that desertification caused by global warming is the main reason for the deterioration of rangelands located in semi-drought/semi-humid belts, such as Dari County in Qinghai Province. A ground survey and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAAA) images taken in 1985 have shown that the index of desertification in Dari County such as temperature increase, deterioration of vegetation and soil, and degradation of water quality, changed significantly from 1985 to 1997 (Ma 2000). In the territory of Dari, alpine meadow occurs mostly in the dry and upland area of north-west of the plateau. Bush vegetation, however, occurs in the lower and warmer areas of the south-east. The distribution of deteriorated rangeland also appears to follow the same pattern. This suggests that desertification in Asian inlands impacts significantly on rangelands in parts of Qinghai like Dari.

Human activities and rodent damage

Some scientists believe that human activities like over-stocking and rodent damage contribute most to degradation. Over-utilisation by livestock and rodents causes damage to sod and loose soil, which, consequently, can be easily motivated by wind, water, freezing and thawing, then water and soil erosion starts in the areas with poor sod and soil texture

Recommendations for the sustainable development of rangeland resources

Construction of a legitimate system for rangeland management

Government laws, regulations, and rules for effective management and protection of rangeland resources should be put into effect. A rangeland management system that balances the forage resource with the proper stocking rate needs to be established. Rangeland productivity and livestock economic production can be profitably combined. Stocking rate control is a fundamental measure of sustainable development and environmental protection of the rangeland resource (Zhou 1995). Depending upon the health condition of any specific rangeland site, the provincial and local Rangeland Monitoring Organization is responsible for destocking on degraded or desert rangeland. Rotational grazing, exclusion of livestock on severely degraded ranges, and rangeland re-vegetation can be deployed to rehabilitate degraded rangeland. This will ensure that the livestock industry and development of rangeland resources are acting in concert.

Integrated techniques

To halt the current trend in deterioration, an integrated technical package, matched with proper stocking rate and utilisation, should be implemented to rehabilitate degraded and deteriorating rangeland. In Inner Mongolia, for example, an integrated package has increased plant cover of degraded rangeland by 3.6 times, forage output has increased by 5 to 8 times, and carrying capacity by 3 times on 370 thousand hectare of desert rangeland (Li 1994). In northern Inner Mongolia, technical packages were implemented to improve 1.5 million hectare of rangeland, on which plant cover increased greatly. Livestock fibre production increased three-fold, cashmere production doubled, and livestock production increased by 67% (Li 1994). Integrated techniques of fertiliser, reseeding, weed and rodent control have been considered effective for rangeland improvement. In Qinghai, plant growth and reproduction is limited by the availability of soil nitrogen and phosphorous even while the accumulation of soil organic material is high because of low annual temperatures and local soil types. It is estimated that range forage production could be increased a dozen times by means of fertilisers. The authors of this paper strongly emphasise the application of fertilisers, which improve the soil condition and the ecological system together.

Fodder as an alternative forage resource

Animal scientists and agricultural economists in China and abroad, however, acknowledge that rangeland livestock production is not usually sufficient in itself to provide an adequate feed base for a dynamic and profitable livestock industry (Li 1994). Forage crops are a huge alternative resource for high output, high quality, and sustainable production of the modern livestock industry. Forage production is very necessary to supplement livestock feed during periods of seasonal deficiency. Elymus-dominated sown range has most of its leaves below 25 cm of height, which is not suitable for harvesting by machine. Elymus fields are used as grazing land in winter rather than harvested. Because Elymus-dominated range is not fertilised frequently, these ranges become degraded after several years, and their potential productivity is not fully realised. The authors suggest that perennial low grass varieties could be cultivated to establish grazing range for winter and spring and that annual fodder, such as oats and legumes, be grown for making hay for supplemental feeding during winter disasters and for fattening livestock in feed lots.

Crop straw utilisation

At present, there are over 133 thousand hectare of crop fields in Qinghai that are comprised of wheat, barley and rapeseed straw. These crop residues could be used as a valuable feed resource and reduce grazing pressure on rangeland. Mechanised equipment will need to be introduced, however, to produce sufficient hay and silage products.

Rangeland industry system concept as a guide for livestock production

Highly efficient and sustainable development of rangeland resources in Qinghai should depend on a rational rangeland production system. This is extremely important for rangeland development in vulnerable environments. In areas where the nomads are being settled, particular emphasis should be given to both forage quantity and quality, new forage resources, and improvement of rangeland.

Family ranch operations

Family ranch operations are the best practical format for livestock production at present. For Rangelang Industry System to succeed, herders need to be advised on their rangeland and livestock management, to be encouraged to invest in livestock production, and become actively involved in rangeland improvements.


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