Pastures gone

By Tashi Morup
Published: Wednesday 15 October 2008

Pastures gone

But Changpas have survived here with their flocks of sheep, goats, yaks and horses in a delicate balance with nature, forever careful of its scarce resource pastures. Over centuries they have evolved an indigenous and effective rangeland management system that involves reserving certain pastures for winters when snow covers higher grazing areas and regulating communities' movement according to the pasture's condition. Today this system is under strain.

The survey teams constituted by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (lahdc), Leh, in February 2008 have reported that this year herding groups shifted to spring pastures in January and February, one-and-a-half to two months ahead of time, "due to which there is every apprehension that the livestock in general may suffer scarcity of fodder". The trend was observed in Anley, Rongo, Kuyul, Skagjung and Demchok areas.

"Desert locust swarms have already devoured almost entire lower pastures," says Sonam Tashi, a 60-year-old nomad from Anley Khaldo, which is among the worst affected areas in Changthang. "Our main summer pasture Zhung (used in June, July and August) is lying abandoned, completely destroyed by locusts. Instead we are using Shuzhung winter reserved pasture," says Chinba Gyatso, Goba, chief of Rongo. "More than half our grazing grounds perished after repeated locust attacks, and we suffered the loss of over 300 lambs and kids in the past three years." Gyatso adds that in the wake of locust attacks a reddish grass has replaced normal pastures. Animals do not eat this grass because it burns their mouth, says Tsering Phuntsog, district sheep husbandry officer, Leh.

Changthang sub-division's assessment report on damages by locust swarms in 2007 submitted recently, shows 124,530 sheep and goats and 10,391 large animals, primarily yaks, were directly affected by pasture scarcity caused by the desert locust attack. Some of the worst-hit areas are Rongo, Loma, Anley Pongog, Anley Khaldo, Anley Buk Shado and Korzok where between 40 and 60 per cent pasture damage by locust is reported. Nidder, Nyoma, Mudh, Skagjung, Demchok, Kuyul, Tsaga, Chushul, Man Merak and Phobrang are other severely hit areas, with 15 to 30 per cent of grazing land destroyed by locust swarms, says the report.

Even as the administration was assessing the damage done by the desert locust last year, the swarms attacked again this summer. Kuyul, Rongo, Loma and Zhung were the target this time, said T Dawa, scientist, agriculture department. Although it was not as severe as earlier, it came at a time of crisis. lahdc had arranged for about 270 tonnes of barley and alfalfa to help the Changpas sustain tens of thousands of livestock through the winter this year. Last year also it had distributed free feed and ration among the Changpas.

But such measures treat the symptoms, not the causes, which are overgrazing and pasture denudation over decades. Locust attacks only made the situation worse. Many argue that subsidies and relief have only made people susceptible to dependency. What the region needs is a long-term strategy taking into account various factors that have led to the pasture crisis.

What's nibbling at rangelands
The genesis of the problem can be traced to the Tibetan uprising in 1959 and the Sino-Indian war in 1962. The turmoil in Tibet and the war saw a large number of Tibetan Changpas settling in eastern Ladakh. The Changpas' traditional grazing grounds shrunk considerably after China captured some crucial winter pastures, including large portions of Skagjung, the key winter reserve pasture for the entire Changthang, in Kuyul area. Indian and Chinese army posts that came up along the border following the war also restricted the movement of nomads across Changthang. Chimet Nurboo of Kharnak nomadic community, says earlier most nomads would migrate to Skagjung in winters. As a result, the nomads now migrate more often on a smaller region.

According to a project report on the development of pashmina by the Leh Sheep Husbandry Department, it is the winter pastures that are more at threat. "A good portion of our pastures reserved for use in winters at Skagjung are grazed by animals brought in from the other side (from the Chinese side) of the border in summers," says Tangay from Kuyul border village. The Changpas have been complaining that their movements are highly restricted along the border, whereas nomads from the Chinese side move in freely along with thousands of animals.

Today, the sheep and goat population of the Nyoma block alone is 171,376, of which 47,129 are owned by Tibetan nomads, according to the Sheep Husbandry Department, Leh. Increase in livestock population on reduced pastures is putting stress on rangelands. As a result the growth of grass is stunted and some important leguminous plants are facing extinction. According to Om Prakash Chaurasia, scientist, Field Research Laboratory, Leh, the quality of the Changthang pastures, which have been a mix of grass and legumes, is declining with the proliferation of weeds such as artemisia.

Wildlife, including kyang, argali, antelope and gazelle, also graze on these pastures.

Tourists with pack animals and car rally teams also destroy the fragile top soil as is evident from the condition of pastures surrounding Tso-kar (lake) in Samad area and Ldad in Kharnak, which are turning into deserts. Tyre marks can be seen all over Loma, Rongo and Anley as well.

Yet another cause of pasture degradation is the increasing goat population with growing pashmina business. The Leh Sheep Husbandry Department data shows that the number of goats has gone up from 184,824 in 2005-2006 to 208,878 in 2007-08, whereas the number of sheep has gone down from 76,443 in 2005-06 to 60,721 in 2007-08.

Grazing habits of goats contribute to desertification. "Goats have stiletto heels which break up the delicate plants that hold the dust in place," Chicago Tribune quoted Martin Williams, an authority on desertification at the University of Adelaide, Australia, as saying in an article in 2006. Goats are also expert foragers. "They graze down to lower levels and pull up stuff, where a camel would be browsing ... The goats nibble at the bark around seedlings which transports nutrients to the plant, so once that bark has been damaged, the plant will die," Williams said.

Phuntsog of the sheep husbandry department says the number of goats has been increasing since 2005 when cashmere wool price was stabilized as a result of the pashmina de-hairing facility coming up in Leh and the formation of the All Changthang Pashmina Growers Society, a regional cooperative that buys pashmina directly from the Changpas. People are rearing more goats than sheep because the demand for pashmina has overtaken that of wool and pashmina is fetching them better prices. Sonam Tashi of Anley, who has 80 goats and 20 sheep, says the Pashmina Growers' Society pays him Rs 2,600-2,700 a bhatti (2 kg) and Tsongpas (middlemen supplying pashmina to Kashmiri traders) pay even Rs 3,000 a bhatti.

Searching for solutions
To tide over the immediate crisis, the Sheep Husbandry Department is helping with feed banks, lambing shed facilities and enclosures on the lines of tsapkaks (reserved pastures). There are also schemes to provide free goats and sheep. But these initiatives have a limited impact given the magnitude of the pasture crisis.

"Pastures have come to the state of exhaustion in many areas such as Skagjung," says P Angchuk, scientist with the department. Although Changthang is spread over about 22,000 square kilometre, the grazing land is restricted to lower altitudes with poor vegetative cover. But there is tremendous scope for pasture development given the numerous waterways that gurgle through the Changthang wilderness.

In the past the authorities have tried to build canals--the Durbugh canal and Zara Canal in Kharnak--for irrigation, but they are yet to supply a drop of water. These and some newer projects remain mired in the bureaucratic process. Nor has there been a study of possible impact of such irrigation.

Not long ago, Phuntsog approached the Hill Council with the idea of consulting the Changpas themselves on crisis management. The Hill Council sanctioned Rs 1 lakh under "Development and Management of Winter Pastures", under the Border Area Development Project. The aim is to blend indigenous knowledge with scientific expertise.

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