Male Chiru indulging around the pasture fences that obstruct their migration routes ©杨柳松
It is a winter morning on the Changtang grassland. The rising sun spreads out golden light shining on the water surface of Lake Konkonzhaka, on the yellow grass and the snowy Xiyaer mountain. The grassland looks so warm under the sun, despite the temperature is lower than -30C. Chubby pikas raise their heads above the ground, out of holes. A Buzzard is fanning its big wings, flying in the blue sky. Near the lake, hordes of Chiru are gathering for their annual biggest party: the mating ceremonies. Male Chiru changed into their most gorgeous coats, and fight for their lovers with other males using their two long horns. However, many Chiru are still missing from the venue. They are struggling around the pasture fences all around Garco. They try to jump these fences, but they are so high that often their efforts do not succeed, and more often than not they sustain bad injuries and die.
“Tibetan antelopes (Chiru) are much less than last year in Konkonzhaka lake (the main mating site for antelopes nearby Garco). The newly built pasture fences are too long. Antelopes do not manage to cross the fences and migrate to the mating sites. Please help us to fix this situation!” It was my friend Yang from Garco where he went to watch the mating of Chiru.
A local wildlife ranger once told me that seven antelopes did not manage to cross the fences around Garco and reach their calving site in the north of Changtang last summer. Pregnant mothers had no choice but giving birth to their babies beside the dangerous fences.
Pasture fences first appeared in the 1980s in Changtang. However, most of them have been set up from 2004 onwards as the main activity of China’s National Project for returning livestock pastures to natural grasslands. This initiative was promoted by government agriculture agencies for protecting the livestock and traditional herding techniques on the grasslands. Pasture fences have two main purposes: 1) to enclose a pasture area forbidden to grazing for either or both livestock and wildlife; 2) to delimit the boundary of household pastures, villages, townships, counties and others. Most fences are very long. Sometimes they are placed along rivers and ridges, and you just cannot see their end. Understandably, local authorities focus on social and economic development first, but with most fences being very long these policies are showing an increasing impact on the local natural ecosystems.
Wherever the best pastures are enclosed for exclusive use by herdsmen, where can wildlife graze? Migratory ungulates such as the Chiru suffer the most from this situation, because fences represent a major interference into their life patterns. Fences are about 1.1 meters high with several lines of barbed wire on top. When the antelopes try jumping over them, these wires provoke severe injuries and often they end up bleeding to death.
Forestry government agencies regulations state that pasture fences should not be set up in wildlife concentration areas, especially in mating and calving areas of Tibetan antelopes. However, there recommendations are never complied with by local villagers and townships.
Barbed pasture fences represent a major threat to Chiru and other wildlife by thwarting their migration routes. ©杨柳松
Because of this situation, WCS has long been active in addressing the environmental impact caused by these pasture fences. We regularly engage in talks with representatives of local townships village heads to explain the severe impact of these fences and identify mitigating solutions. In Garco township, where we have a conservation project funded by SOS, the community agreed to open several migration channels, and WCS will be the one choosing their location. We discussed about some possible mitigations such as cutting the barbed iron wire on top of the fences, and reducing the number of horizontal wires to four, leaving enough space on the top and the bottom for adults and calves to move through safely. At first, these measures were included in the draft cooperation agreements between WCS and the community.
However, at the time of signing the final agreements and implementing the measure, the villagers refused the clause concerning the fences, alleging that the pasture fences belonged to a national project. Fences allowed them to access to the government ecological compensation funds for reducing their livestock. This compensation amounted to USD 743 in 2012, and USD826 in 2013 – a considerable amount of money given the average living expenditure in these remote areas of Tibet, China. Villagers claimed that it was the responsibility of government agencies failing to provide clear guidelines explaining how to identify wildlife concentration areas and identify the acceptable tradeoff between wildlife and community needs. Village representatives showed understanding for the issues we arose, but deferred any decision to upper-level government agencies, as they were unwilling to take the risk. A few months later, when we visited Garco again for monitoring the progress around our conservation agreements, we saw that even more new pasture fences had been established. For tangible impacts and long term benefits to natural habitats a change in attitudes among local communities is crucial.
A Tibetan ass dead beside the pasture fences. ©杨柳松
“Crossing wind, where are you from?
I’m young Droma,
Can you listen to me?
Did you see my little Chiru?
He went to the other side of that mountain, but never came back.
If you see him, please tell him:
Young Droma is waiting for you back home.”
A popular Chinese song sung by Tibetan children.
Written by: Zhao Xiaoyan (赵晓艳)
Edited by: Ramacandra Wong