While an increasing number of studies focus on desertification processes in northern China, pressing soil erosion and desertification in Tibetan regions have received little attention (Zeng Yongnian et al., 2003) . The few studies that do mention the desertification issue in Tibetan regions often simply jump to the same conclusion and blame the Tibetan traditional way of living—animal husbandry. “Overgrazing” has been the easy way out for most of studies. Overgrazing leads to land desertification? Maybe, but not in the simple way suggested. First, in traditional Tibetan animal husbandry, nomads practice rotational grazing and migrate multiple times a year. They allow pastures to lay fallow for months to recover and enable vegetation to reclaim the land before using them again. Additionally, Tibet has vast land but a sparse population. Often times, there are only two or three families for hundreds of miles. Finally, the Tibetan nomadic way of life has been in practice for generations, while land desertification seems to be a relatively recent environmental issue. Therefore, it seems inconclusive to blame “overgrazing” as the cause of soil erosion and land desertification in Tibetan regions. At the same time, decreases in primary productivity resulting from desertification directly threaten the animal husbandry-based economy in many parts of Tibetan regions.
Alternative explanations to overgrazing have been suggested by ecologists working in the area. According to Zheng Du et al. (2000) , overpopulation of pika and zokor is one of the main causes for degradation of grassland. Pikas (called “abra” in Tibetan language) are relatives of hares and rabbits, but are much smaller. In most of the pasture areas they live in astonishing numbers and are consequently considered major pests. Zheng Du et al. (2000) conclude that the main species of pika impacting grasslands on the Tibetan plateau include Ochotoma curzoniae, O. Dahuricaamage, and Myospalax baileyi. Pikas dug two or multi-ended holes all over the grassland. In the process of preparing their tunnels they separate plants’ main bodies from their roots and leave them to wither.
In 2000, there were “roughly 600 million ochotomas and 100 million myospalaxes in the Plateau areas” (Zheng Du et al., 2000, p215). Zhou Xingmin et al. (1995), point out that pika and zokor species on the plateau “annually consumed 15 billion kilograms of fresh grasses that were equal to the food quantities of 10 million sheep and destroyed 200 million ha of grassland areas” (as cited in Zheng Du et al., 2000). The damage of pika and zokor is closely related to, if not worse than, over grazing. Microtus oeconomus and O. cansa dominate local animal communities and not only impede the growth of local flora and compete against livestock for food, but also destroy plant cover and induce loss of water, top soil and stored carbon (Zheng Du et al., 2000).
Local Governments’ Failed Approach:
In many instances, relevant local governments provided plastic bags of rodenticide and mandated each household to send a representative to participate in pika hunting. This approach has not only failed to ease the pika crisis, but also triggered other concerns. When local Tibetans were mandated to poison pika, these results were forthcoming: 1) they hired other people to do the job on their behalf, 2) they ignored the governments’ call and were willing to accept the penalty (often pecuniary fines), 3) they physically participated but refused to kill, so they buried the bags filled with pesticide, and 4) they genuinely participated. As one can see, such governmental approaches often failed because the responsible officials ignored local religious beliefs. The approach failed because local participation was coerced as supposed to being voluntarily sought.
The use of poison to control the rodents has not only failed but also triggered other concerns. When bags of poison are barely covered with topsoil, it does not take much wind or rainwater to unearth the toxins. These harmful substances are left undisturbed in modern durable plastic bags until one day a curious passer by or starving animal swallows the whole thing. This results in not only losing its own life, but also economic loss (in case of livestock) or emotional injury (in case of household pets).
Why this is such a pressing issue that is in urgent need of a solution?
The occurrence and development of pika-induced land desertification reduces grassland primary productivity and threatens the plateau animal husbandry-based economy. It results in “an annual loss of organic matter of 20.413x109kg, total N 1.267x109kg, total P 1.149x109kg and total K 31.901 x 109kg” (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005, p.291) . Liu Yi-hua et al. point out that land desertification in Tibetan regions has led to nitrogen and phosphorous loss that is 200 times greater than the application amount of chemical fertilizer in Tibet. Therefore, as Pika contributes significantly to grassland degradation and desertification, their over-population significantly threatens the agricultural and livestock productivity in Tibetan regions.
Pika further damages water conservancy, hydropower projects, roads and civil aviation in its processes and sand drifts (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005). What is more, grassland degradation and topsoil loss lead to an increase in river sediment content, which can cause water shortages in dry seasons and flood inundation in wet seasons. Decrease in vegetation cover in Tibetan regions has led to climatic desiccation and warming (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005). It has also weakened surface soil resistance to wind erosion. Consequently, strong wind could directly act on the sandy surface and thus exacerbate sand drift activity.
Throughout Tibetan regions, a large proportion of the population is still semi-illiterate at best and local livelihood and development directly rely on the production function of land resources. Grassland degradation and topsoil loss not only reduces primary productivity, but also negatively affects seasonal caterpillar fungus collection, which is one of the main sources of income for local Tibetans. The loss of vegetation due to an ever-increasing pika population also translates to a decreasing amount of land for caterpillar fungus production.
While other factors such as overgrazing may enhance ground surface disturbance and land desertification, it is important to realize that an increasing number of pika have been doing damage for far too long. More importantly, these factors are not acting in isolation, but instead are linked with each other, and feedback and intensify each other. Therefore, if there are no effective control measures to be adopted in the coming years, the associated loss will not only be environmental, and economic, but also cultural.
Why is grassland degradation/land desertification in Tibetan regions a cultural issue?
Tibetans have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years in a nomadic context as well as an agricultural context and this has entailed having a rich and complex knowledge of nature that is not well understood by westerners or Han Chinese. The Tibetan language also owes its richness and uniqueness to the plateau’s distinctive landscape and flora and fauna. Thus, pika induced ground disturbance and vegetation loss not only has environmental but also cultural imapcts. Restoration of the plateau’s environment therefore also indirectly contributes to Tibetan cultural and linguistic preservation.
What do I propose?
I propose a pilot project to reintroduce predatory species to the region and let nature perform its own magic. While an increasing pika population has done most of the damage, this does not downplay human’s involvement. Quite the opposite, it has been anthropogenic disturbance of the local food chain that has led to the explosion of pika population. For generations, Tibetans have hunted foxes for fur hats and killed wolves in protection of their herds. As the populations of these local predatory species have dwindled, the pika population has exploded beyond human control. So, I propose to test the reintroduction of a predatory species, foxes, and monitor their impact on the pika population.
How can we guarantee that history will not repeat itself in that local people won’t hunt down these species once again? My reasoning for precluding such occurrence is multifaceted: 1) differing from the past, firearms are outlawed throughout Tibet due to political concerns and thus the means of hunting foxes and wolves are greatly reduced. 2) religious awakening has recently led some Tibetan people to burn their otherwise precious animal pelts , suggesting they would be unlikely now to hunt for them. 3) outreach through TV and radio by non-governmental organizations as well as some local efforts have enabled indigenous people to become ever more environmentally conscious and to realize the importance of biodiversity conservation.
What are some potential challenges and corresponding solutions?
Reintroducing species to a region is by no means an easy task and there are many unanswered questions: which species to reintroduce? Where to reintroduce? Where to obtain these animals? What other ecosystem impacts can be expected from reintroduction? How to address associated local concerns? Where to get the funding needed? These questions do not excuse policy makers, local governments, indigenous residents, and even global citizens from trying to address this problem.
Given the complexity of the project, I propose to start a pilot project at a small scale. I propose to reintroduce a species of fox that can coexist with local livestock and bring no harm to the local population. This will not only ease local concerns over livestock loss, should we reintroduce wolves, but also preclude human injuries from predatory species.
Further studies are needed as which species in the fox family to reintroduce, and where to reintroduce it along with all the aforementioned concerns, but I believe this project is implementable, vital to the health of local as well as global environment, and fundamental to supporting the continued existence of Tibetan culture and language.
At this stage of the project proposal development, I do not have funding sources available, as I have not yet sought support. However, I have had past successes obtaining funding for well-conceived projects supporting traditional Tibetan lifestyles. I believe given my education and experience in civil engagement, plus Bard Center for Environmental Policy’s support, this project is not only implementable, but shall bring positive changes to the environment, culture and people of Tibet.
Thupgon (Spring 2010)