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Conflict between Nomadic Herders and Wild Predators and Ungulates in the Chang Tang Region of Tibet

Date:2012-04-28 11:37 Hits:


Dawa Tsering and John D. Farrington

Due to improvement in conservation efforts since 1993, rampant commercial-scale poaching of wildlife in Tibet’s Chang Tang region has ended, and wildlife populations are now rebounding. However, livestock populations in the Chang Tang are also increasing, having doubled since the 1960s. Recent increases in both domestic livestock and wildlife numbers have led to a dramatic increase in human-wildlife conflict, including the loss of livestock and stored foodstuffs to brown bears and other predators and grazing competition between livestock and wild ungulates. Consequently, since 2001, human-wildlife conflict has emerged to be one of the largest challenges facing wildlife protection efforts in the Chang Tang. This conflict frequently results in large economic losses to the region’s livestock herders and occasionally the death of herders themselves. In total, 87 percent of surveyed households reported having experienced some form of wildlife conflict between 1990 and 2006, in particular with Tibetan brown bears (49 percent), wild ungulate herds (36 percent), and snow leopards (24 percent). Therefore, today, there is an immediate need to mitigate, reduce, and prevent human-wildlife conflict so that herders and wildlife can peacefully coexist in the Chang Tang.

1. Introduction
The Chang Tang of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is a vast area of barren, sparsely populated, high altitude steppe grasslands that cover roughly the northern half of the TAR and extend into southwest Qinghai Province. Known locally as the “great northern void,” the rolling expanses of the Chang Tang have an average elevation of about 4500 m and form one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth. Remarkably, the region was never permanently inhabited until the latter half of the Twentieth Century, and as a result, the Chang Tang has been preserved as one of the world’s last great relatively untouched grassland ecosystems (Schaller 1998, Fox and Tsering 2005).

In spite of the harsh high altitude climate and scant forage, the region harbors a unique assemblage of large wild mammals, which until recently numbered in the hundreds of thousands of Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle, and Tibetan wild ass, tens of thousands of wild yak and blue sheep, and large populations of such predators as the Tibetan brown bear and snow leopard. Of these, the Tibetan antelope, Tibetan wild ass and wild yak are all strictly endemic to the Tibetan Plateau.

Since the 1960s, however, as a result of increasing population pressure and government policies to increase livestock production, large numbers of nomadic herders from throughout the southern Chang Tang have moved northward, into what is now the Chang Tang National Nature Reserve. These transplanted herders reside in what were previously uninhabited lands, where they have built the first permanent settlements in the northern Chang Tang. Yet, in spite of the appearance of towns and villages on the landscape, the nomadic herders of northern TAR continue to live a largely subsistence existence today, surviving under the harsh climatic conditions on a staple diet of barley flour (Tibetan: tsampa), yak meat, milk, butter, and cheese, with surplus meat and dairy products being bartered for grain and other necessities. These nomads also continue to use yak and sheep wool for making tents, ropes and clothes, and live an extremely hard life that has changed little in the past few centuries (Goldstein and Beale 1990).

As elsewhere, human attitudes and behavior in the Chang Tang determine the fate of the region’s wildlife. While herders in the Chang Tang hunted local wildlife at a subsistence level for centuries, with the introduction of motor vehicles and modern firearms to the region in the 1960s, the mass slaughter of the region’s vast wild ungulates herds for commercial sale of meat and wildlife parts began (Schaller 1998, Tsering and Namgyal 2004). As a result, the total population of wild ungulates in the Chang Tang fell by more than 90 percent by the mid-1990s (Schaller 1998).

In order to halt the slaughter of the Chang Tang’s wildlife by commercial poaching rings, subsistence hunters, and destitute herders trying to protect their livestock from wild predators, in 1993 the vast Chang Tang Provincial Nature Reserve was created, which in 2001 was elevated to the status of a national-level nature reserve. Today, the Chang Tang National Nature Reserve has an area of 298,000 km2, about the size of Italy or the American state of Arizona, which covers the entire northwest quarter of the TAR (Liu 2007). In addition, in 1993 the government of the TAR established the Shenzha Provincial Nature Reserve in the southern Chang Tang, which in 2002 was expanded, elevated, and renamed the Seling Lake Black-necked Crane National Nature Reserve (Liu 2007). The new Seling Lake nature reserve has an area of 18,936 km2, about the size of American states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. It is somewhat ecologically distinct from the Chang Tang reserve in that it seeks to protect a number of large lakes and wetlands that provide important summer nesting grounds for black-necked cranes and other water fowl in the southern Chang Tang region.

Since their initial establishment as provincial nature reserves in 1993, the Chang Tang and Seling Lake reserves have been extremely successful in bringing illegal poaching under control and protecting wildlife habitat. This is due to improved enforcement of wildlife protection laws following establishment of these reserves and a TAR-wide hunting ban and gun and trap confiscation program. But with the simultaneous increase in both wildlife and livestock populations in the Chang Tang in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century has come a growing problem of conflict between humans and wildlife. As wild animals become aware that humans no longer pose an immediate threat to them, they are residing in ever closer proximity to settled areas where they are coming into increasingly frequent conflict with humans. Human-wildlife conflict in the Chang Tang takes on many forms, including loss of livestock to predation by Tibetan bears, snow leopards, lynx, wolves, and fox; destruction of homes and home furnishings by Tibetan brown bears in search of food; loss of stored foodstuff to these bears; driving off and loss of female domestic yaks to wild yak bulls; and grazing competition for the region’s limited grass resources between domestic livestock and large herds of Tibetan wild ass, Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle, blue sheep and wild yaks. Furthermore, herders themselves are occasionally attacked and killed by Tibetan brown bears and wild yaks.

For subsistence livestock herders, the loss of large numbers of livestock to predators or the loss of stored butter, dried meat, and flour – which often represents a family’s entire income for the year – to a marauding brown bear can be financially devastating, and may lead to the retaliatory killing of the species involved. Thus there is an immediate need to determine the extent of human-wildlife conflict in the Chang Tang and devise ways to reduce this conflict for the benefit of both humans and wildlife.
2. The Human-Wildlife Conflict Survey Methodology

In order to gain an understanding of how human-wildlife conflict is affecting herders and wildlife in the vicinity of the Chang Tang and Seling Lake Nature Reserves, in April 2006, the authors conducted a survey of 300 herding households in the southern Chang Tang’s zone of high population concentration in Nagchu Prefecture’s Shenzha, Tsonyi, and Nyima Counties (Figure 1). Of the nine counties that fall within the Chang Tang and Seling Lake Nature Reserves, the above three counties were chosen for this survey for two primary reasons: 1) the authors have conservation projects ongoing in these counties and the information obtained will be used in later stages of these projects, and 2) road conditions in these three counties, though poor, are still much better than in more remote areas of these reserves, which made it much easier to conduct the survey in a reasonable amount of time.

 The survey did not intend to specifically target areas already known to have a high incidence of human-wildlife conflict, but sought to gain a broader view of this issue in the most heavily populated areas of the TAR’s south-central Chang Tang. In order to get a fairly random geographic sampling from these three counties, the names of all townships in each county were placed in a box, and two townships from each county were drawn in a lottery. The original intention had been to interview 50 residents in each township. However, when this proved to be logistically unfeasible, a simple total of 100 residents were interviewed from two townships in both Shenzha 
Figure 1. Human-wildlife conflict survey area in the central Tibet Autonomous Region.

Table 1. Number of surveyed households by county and township.
County Township Number of Surveyed Households Percentage of Surveyed Households
Nyima U’chu 45 15
 Nyima 55 18.3
Shenzha Shenzha 78 26
 Maiba 22 7.3
Tsonyi Parling 51 17
 Shide 19 6.3
 Tso Lho 30 10
Total 300 100

and Nyima counties, while a total of 100 residents were interviewed in three randomly selected townships in Tsonyi County (Table 1). The only criteria used when choosing individual households to interview was that all households had to be engaged in livestock herding as their primary occupation and their homes and camps had to be accessible by jeep. Consequently, no herders dwelling in remote camps accessible only by motorcycle, horseback or foot were interviewed.

3. Survey Respondents’ Living Situation and Economic Status

 As a prelude to the main survey section concerning human-wildlife conflict, survey respondents were asked about their living situation and self-assessed economic status. Survey responses revealed that the use of permanent houses by nomadic herders has increased dramatically in recent years, to the point where as of 2006, only 6 percent of surveyed families lived year-round in tents, while 46 percent spent the entire year in permanent houses and 48 percent of households divided their time between both tents and houses. A total of 32 percent of survey respondents stated that their households lived alone, in isolation from their nearest neighbor. When asked to classify themselves as poor, middle class, or rich, 25 percent of survey respondents considered themselves to be poor, while 63 percent considered themselves to be middle-class and only 12 percent considered themselves to be rich.(cont......)(editor:Pe ma)