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Development dynamics of fragile pastoral systems of the south-eastern Tibetan Plateau

B. Weikai, W. Ning and L. Zhaoguang

Chengdu Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chengdu 610041, Sichuan, P.R. China


This study was conducted in Deqin County of north-western Yunnan, an important yak-raising area in China, and focused on the recent development of pastoral production systems. The status of rangeland resources and forage productivity, yak grazing patterns, changes in management systems, livestock structure and pastoral output in recent years were examined. Recommendations based on identified socio-economic and ecological features are provided in this paper in order to promote the sustainable development of pastoral production.

Keywords: Pastoral production, rangeland ecosystem, Tibetan Plateau, yak


Rangeland ecosystems on the Plateau-Tibetan are some of the most fragile and dynamic ecosystems in the world. They comprise about 38% (149.3 million km2) of the grasslands in China (Zhou et al. 1995; Wu 1997a), and have been neglected by the rest of the world because of their inaccessibility and remoteness (Miller and Craig 1997). At present, maintaining rangeland productivity and biodiversity, increasing livestock offtake to meet growing demands and improving the living standards of local people are challenging tasks in this high-altitude region.

Yak is native to the high altitude areas of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and the surrounding regions and is the only bovidae species that can fully utilise alpine rangeland resources (Wu 1997b; Wu 1998). The sustainable development of yak husbandry therefore becomes the fundamental guarantee for socio-economic development on the plateau. In addition, the unique pastoral cultures of the Tibetan and other indigenous ethnic groups of the plateau, sustained by extensive yak herds and the high-frigid rangeland ecosystems, are worthy of conservation. Understanding the complexity and mutual interaction of these pastoral production systems are prerequisites for promoting sustainable socio-economic and ecological development in this region. In the last few decades, unfortunately, many efforts have only contributed to rangeland revegetation and yak improvement, most of which stand in an isolated position and neglect the mutual action of whole system. Long neglect has negatively impacted traditional pastoral systems as well as rangeland ecosystems and enhanced by inaccessibility and poverty in a rapidly changing global economy.

The lack of concern for pastoral regions has led to a general downward spiral in the productivity, biodiversity as well as increased marginalisation of herders. This has limited options for the proper management and sustainable development of rangelands. Miller (1997, 1998) proposed that improving knowledge of range ecosystem processes, better understanding of pastoral production systems and more thorough analyses of the constraints and opportunities for improving the management of grazing lands will surely contribute to design more effective pastoral policies and rangeland development strategies. Rangeland management and sustainable pastoral development in the world's highest and largest mountain ecosystem should be of high concern in the world's economic development. The present paper is to examine the existing relationship among livestock, human demands, and rangeland ecosystems and to understand the recent development of the pastoral production systems in Deqin County of north-western Yunnan Province.

Materials and methods

Case study area

Located in the southern part of the Tibetan Plateau and on the north-eastern fringe of the Himalayan region, Deqin County is characterised not only by extremes in topography, but also by its environmental fragility and richness in both biological and cultural diversities. With the longitude from 98°35'6" to 99°32'2" and the latitude from 27°33'4" to 29°15'2", the county has a total area of 7596 km2. The Jinsha River (upper Yangtze) and Langcangjiang River (Mekong) drainage cross the whole territory of the county from north to south, forming many deep-incised valleys. Ranging from 1800 metres above sea level (masl) to 6740 masl, mountain forests, subalpine forests and alpine meadow occur along the vertical gradient and some secondary communities dot the landscape. According to the land survey in 1996, the area of forests in Deqin is 2373.5 km2, making up 31.2% of the total land surface, and the area of pastoral lands (including grasslands and scrubs) is 2508.7 km2, amounting to 33% of the total land area. Agriculture, including cultivation and animal husbandry, is the main source for livelihood and income of both local people and government in this county. According to the statistics in 1994, the gross agriculture output value, including animal husbandry, comprised nearly 64.3% of the county, or 52 million RMB Yuan (US$ 1 = 8.2 Yuan). In Deqin, yak husbandry has played an indispensable role in both subsistence and socio-economic development. Yak and yak-cattle hybrids are the most important grazing animals not only to provide milk products, meat, hair, and hides to local Tibetan households, but also to generate income and benefits to the mountain societies as a whole.

Data collection methods

This study surveyed the change of rangeland resources, grazing livestock, particularly yak and yak-hybrids, pastoral output, and management systems during fieldwork. Local herders and officials were interviewed in order to learn the traditional pastoral systems and development processes. Some unpublished documents such as the Rangeland Map of Deqin County (1/100,000) were the partial results of the field investigations in 1985 organised by Deqin Bureau of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. Community plot method was employed to investigate the rangeland types, forage plants, and edible aboveground biomass (Chapman 1976). The sampling area for every plot was 9 or 25 m2. In 1998 and 1999, we reinvestigated the rangelands based upon the indications of the rangeland map in order to estimate any changes in rangeland resources. Over 30 plots were established. In order to estimate the total annual biomass production of each rangeland types, the biomasses production in different seasons were examined and monthly increment indices were determined. The method was firstly to monitor increment change in pasture with months on fixed plots and then identify average increment percentage for every month in per unit area. We found that the biggest monthly increment occurred in September, so we considered the increment index as 100% in September and increment indices in other months were accounted based on the ratio with the most monthly increment. Accordingly, indices 0.63, 0.83, 0.89, 0.92, 1.00, 0.45 and 0.40 were assigned to months from April to October, respectively. The annual aboveground biomass production in unit area of each rangeland type was measured by the biomass measured in the investigation month plus the rest adjusted by the monthly increment index. So the annual aboveground biomass production in unit area plus the area of the types used in the paper computed the total annual edible biomass of each pasture type. Deqin Bureau of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry provided data on change in livestock number, offtake and meat output.


Change in grazing resources

In Deqin County the area of open pasturelands changed from 178,280 km2 in 1986 to 205,942 km2 in 1999, an estimated 15% increase. The major expansion of grazing lands has mainly occurred in the subalpine belt (Table 1). In Deqin, as well as in many other counties of the eastern Tibetan Plateau, the expansion of farming fields and commercial loggings have resulted in a decline in forest cover and the invasion of subalpine meadow or scrub (Wu and Liu 1998). The decrease in total annual edible biomass production is estimated to be 1.7%, from 517,582 tonnes in 1986 to 508,805 tonnes in 1999. A striking feature is that the biomass of alpine meadow and alpine scrub-meadow has declined, but the biomass of subalpine grazing lands (pasture among forests, thinning woodland-pasture and subalpine scrubs) has increased due to the expansion of pasture area.

Change in composition of grazing livestock populations

In Deqin County the total heads of domesticated animals increased by 8.5% from 1986 to 1998 (Table 2). It should be noted that the population of yak/cattle has increased by 17%, but the population of goat/sheep declined by 29%. This trend has also been found in other Tibetan pastoral regions such as in Hongyuan County of Sichuan Province, which occurred after the implementation of the 'Household Responsibility System' in the 1980s (Wu 1999). Another apparent change is the dynamics of the horse population, which has increased over 124%. This is in contrast to other Tibetan pastoral areas where horse numbers have declined in the last decade owing to restrictions by local governments (Wu 1997b). The increase in Deqin may be attributed to the boom of tourism in the last decade, because horses and mules provide an indispensable means of transportation to mountaineers, trekkers and explorers. Because of the limited carrying capacity of the area, the increase of horse and mule population may directly affect the development of cattle/yak and goat/sheep husbandry.

Table 1. Change of pasture area and total annual biomass production in Deqin County.

Rangeland types

Pasture area (hectare)

Total annual edible biomass (tonnes)







Alpine meadow







Alpine scrub-meadow







Pasture (converted forests)







Woodland pasture







Subalpine scrub














Table 2. Livestock development in Deqin County.






Total (cattle units)*


















































*: 1 cattle/yak = 0.14 sheep/goat = 0.8 horse/mules/donkey.

Change of pastoral output and meat production

In the last 14 years the output of livestock showed an apparent difference between yak/cattle and goat/sheep populations (Figure 1). The number of butchered yak/cattle has remained fairly steady, but the butchered goat/sheep numbers have fluctuated greatly, especially during the period before and after 1990. Generally speaking, Tibetan herders place high value on the yak. The yak is also generally thought to typify Tibetan pastoral production, but in much of the Tibetan pastoral areas sheep and goats are more important economically, especially for income generation. Sheep and goats require more care and attention than yak but can deliver handsome economic returns where it is practical to raise them. Since they generally give birth every year, sheep and goat are important animals for restocking following heavy losses during severe winters (Miller 1998), but are also much more susceptible to winter kill. Moreover, goat/sheep production is more readily influenced by market fluctuations, so yak herds provide a steadier base for a pastoral household against natural or economic disasters.

Figure 1. Change in butchered head of livestock in Deqin Country.

Since 1993, the output of meat and other products decreased compared to sheep wool production (Figures 2 and 3). The yield of milk remained steady due to the maintenance of yak herds. The output rate of livestock in CU (cattle unit) was only 2.5% in 1986 and 1.2% in 1998. The development of pastoral output seems more in relation with marketing demands rather than with the number of livestock.

Figure 2. Meat production in Deqin Country.

Figure 3. Milk and wool production in Deqin Country.

Socio-economic development in relation to the pastoral production systems

The gross output of animal husbandry in Deqin County made up 33.1% of the local GDP in 1986 and 36.5% in 1999, but grazing lands only cover about 30% of the land surface. With the population density of 8 persons/km2, this mountainous county supports about 55 thousand people, among which Tibetan people make up 82% with most depending on livestock for subsistence. The shortage of infrastructures such as roads, communication and marketing outlets hinders the economic development of the livestock sector, with only 10% of the output being sold to markets.

However, livestock production is playing an important role in local economies. Since the logging ban on natural forests was issued in October 1998, the most important income for local communities has been interrupted. Animal husbandry and tourism have become the main sources to generate government revenue. Increasingly, development programmes will be sponsored to accelerate the modernisation and commercialisation of pastoral production.


The results above have displayed that the features of the pastoral production systems in Deqin County are a typically subsistence one. In view of the development in the last 14 years, this system has been facing a number of problems, some of which are also common in pastoral areas elsewhere.

Rangeland degradation

Rangelands degradation was reported in the 1980s when the government rangeland survey was finished. Production of pastures in alpine meadows and alpine scrub-meadows appeared to have declined more than in subalpine pastureland (pastures among forests, thinning woodland-pasture and subalpine scrub). Compared to 1986, in 1999 edible biomass of alpine meadow and alpine scrub-meadow declined by 28.4% and 21.9%, respectively (Table 1). Despite the enlargement in subalpine grazing land area, the edible biomass of pastures among forests, thinning woodland-pasture and subalpine scrubs, decreased by 12.6%, 17.2% and 6.9%, respectively from 1986 to 1999. The greater decline in alpine rangelands could be ascribed to the harsh conditions such as erratic precipitation and cold temperature. When the population density of livestock increases continuously, overstocking is unavoidable and degradation of pastures occurs at the points where livestock gather, for example, water sources and settlements. Moreover, the degraded pastures are difficult to regenerate due to the high altitude environment.


A key factor causing unsustainability of the pastoral production system is overgrazing on pastures in the long-term. Although the total CU (cattle unit) of livestock has not changed greatly in the last 14 years (Table 1), the grazing pressures on different pastures have shifted. Because of the expansion of farming fields and reforestation blocks, the period of herders and their livestock having to stay in summer/fall pastures both in alpine meadow and alpine scrub-meadow was longer than they traditionally practised. The overgrazing phenomenon of summer/fall pastures therefore was found to be more serious than winter/spring pastures. The upward expansion of sedentary farming has partially expelled herders out of their winter pastures, which has further shortened the traditional routes of seasonal migration of livestock and increased grazing pressures on alpine meadows. Although enlarging the grazing area in the subalpine zone is a potential option to lighten the pressures on higher altitude pastures, grazing livestock in reforested areas is thought to negatively impact the forest restoration and the conservation of water and soil.

Extensive management

Animal husbandry in Deqin depends mainly on natural pastures, and is practised as a low-input transhumance system. Owing to the uncertainty of environment, yak husbandry in these conditions has been always a high-risk enterprise. Historically, only a few forage plants are planted around winter houses. Crop residues are also used as hay during the winter. Traditionally, herders must migrate between summer pastures on mountains (alpine meadow) and winter pastures in valleys. Just as other pastoral areas on the Tibetan Plateau, with the development of livestock production, the key to improve livestock productivity is providing animals with enough forage throughout the year. The winter and spring are the main forage deficit times, so in the future more attention needs to be directed towards providing more forage, either in the form of grazing or hay that is made from native grass or artificial (exotic) pasture.


Because of extensive management on yak production, crossbreeding and hybridisation for improving yak production have not been carried out to a great extent. Continuous inbreeding of the yak population impacts the productive performances of yak. Inbreeding among yak in Deqin could be impacted by changing pattern in migration, although this is mere speculation at this point. Changing from a mobile system to a more sedentary system has potentially led to the decrease of gene exchange among yak populations. Yak-cattle hybrids are very important in Deqin, because they can adapt to the local environment very well and provide packing and ploughing labour. However, the hybridisation practices between yak and cattle should also be systematised and improved with the help of modern genetic technology.

Sustainable development

Striking a balance between the conservation of rangeland and forest resources and pastoralism in light of increasing demands from people is crucial for the sustainable development of the region. Resolving rangeland management and pastoral development issues mentioned above require that ecological principles regulating rangeland ecosystem functions be linked with economic principles governing livestock production and general economic development processes. It should be stressed that there are no simple solutions to readdress pastoral development in the harsh environment of the Tibetan Plateau and due to the multifaceted dimensions of the problems; actions will need to be taken at several levels. Based on the situation in Deqin, four suggestions are proposed as follows:

  1. Yak has better adaptability to the harsh environment of Deqin than any other bovidae animals. Therefore, the systematic selection of yak and the in situ conservation of the yak gene pool should be carried out immediately, which will become an important base for the sustainable development of yak husbandry.
  2. Regeneration and rehabilitation of degraded rangelands should be given more attention so that the base of pastoral livelihood can be conserved. Furthermore, it is necessary to conduct research on fodder and hay meadows development for winter-feeding. If there is not enough forage provided to yak and/or their hybrids, their milk, meat and hair production potential cannot be realised.
  3. Livestock output should be increased so that it cannot only provide more products to satisfy human demands but also reduces the grazing pressures on rangelands. This requires improving social services and market outlets for animal products on part of the government.
  4. It is imperative to raise the level of technical capacity through training and technical exchange in pastoral areas and to survey socio-economic problems associated with yak production. The relationship between the dynamic nature of high-altitude rangeland ecosystems and yak management systems must also be understood thoroughly in the near future so that the grazing density of yak population could be better managed.


This work was carried out under the auspices of national key project for fundamental research planning on Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (G199804800-0304), the Chinese Natural Science Foundation (49601018) and the Chinese Academy of Science's key project (KZ951–A1–104–03–01). It is also partly supported by Chinese Academy of Sciences' South-western Base for the Creation Engineering of Knowledge. The authors are thankful to Mr Azhui, Director of Deqin Bureau of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, for providing information, Mr Zhang Sixin from Deqin County Hospital, for providing vehicle to implement the field investigation, Mr GeMa Jiangchu, Miss Yang Peifang and Mr Zhog Yong Cili for their assistance in the field.


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