Monday, March 23, 2009
Map source: QInghai Province website
In May 2008, the government of Qinghai Province launched the 10-year project to restore the ecological integrity of Lake Kokonor (called Tso Ngon by Tibetans, མཚོ་སྔོན་) region. Key environmental protection objectives include protection of wildlife biodiversity, wetlands and the grasslands of the region, which are believed to be threatened by global warming, desertification, human encroachment, over-grazing by yaks and sheep, and also by rodents and pests.
The project area is 30,000 square kilometers in size and comes with a promissory central government funding of $227 million. This project follows the example of a larger conservation project in the same province, the Three Rivers Headwaters Nature Reserve.
Measures to achieve project goals include planting trees and shrubs, controlling rodents and insect pests, and curtailing grazing on grasslands by fencing and "ecological migration" of nomadic herders living in the region.
Plantation of trees and shrubs sounds fine but I wonder what species of plants are being used and if these are sustainable considering local ecology.
Government measures to control rodents on the Tibetan Plateau have been controversial. The mainstream assumption of the government, supported by many local people, is that rodents, which have been found to be rapidly increasing in population, are causing grassland degradation and are competing for forage with livestock. The three main rodent species are plateau pikas (Ochotona curzoniae), voles (Microtus brandti), and zokors (Myospalax baileyi). The government has undertaken many poisoning campaigns to exterminate these little animals in the last few decades. The rodenticides not only killed target animals but also many other species of plants and animals.
In 1999, an important study was published in the journal of Animal Conservation by Andrew Smith and Mark Foggin that shattered the logic of this poisoning campaign. Smith and Foggin argued that the plateau pikas are a "keystone species" which provide essential ecosystem functions to the Tibetan Plateau. The animals are a major food source for wolves, brown bears and most of the large predatory birds of the plateau. The scientists also found that many nesting bird species use pika burrows as shelters for breeding. The increasing number of rodents on the Tibetan Plateau are a symptom, not a cause of environmental degradation.
Another important study by a team of scientists found that grazing is not the cause of rangeland degradation on the Tibetan Plateau but climate warming. Research experiments found that simulated grazing actually dampens loss of plant species diversity caused by climate warming. The team of scientists have also published an argument in the journal Ecological Applications.
There are a ton of studies that have looked at the implications of fencing of Tibetan rangelands. My advisor Tsering Shakya once told me that the academic/scientific consensus on the topic clearly show that the policy has been a disastrous failure. I have read reports from wildlife scientists such as the one here by noted biologist George Schaller who argue that fencing causes problems for many endangered animals such as the Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) and the Tibetan gazelle (Procapra przewalskii). These animals and the local people prefer their grasslands to be open without fences. This study, for example, indicates fencing actually exacerbating overgrazing and causing health problems among Tibetan pastoralist communities.
I think the most important perspective on this topic would be those of the nomads who are directly affected by the projects. My colleagues at TEAM will be interviewing some of these people. If anyone else have any information or insights to share, please let me know.
Before I end this blog, I want to mention about two earlier posts relating to the project area. One was about a government edict which admits there is a problem of illegal gold mining in the region. We also translated a news story about skirmish between nomads and fisherman near the lake.