Grassland restoration tackles the root of the problem

Herders are cooperating with a local business to revitalize pastures and provide sustainable lifestyles. Li Lei reports from Menyuan Hui autonomous county, Qinghai.

Until four years ago, Wang Zhenlai herded sheep and yaks on his 20 hectares of grassland in Menyuan county, renowned for its highland meadows, in the northwestern province of Qinghai.

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In the days when restrictions on overgrazing were less rigorous, he grazed 120 sheep and eight yaks, four times the number that is now considered sustainable.

Wang felt he had no choice but to overgraze the land, because he needed the money to fulfill his dream of sending his two children to college. His endeavors proved futile, though: The large herds quickly ate all the plants on the low-quality grassland, so he had to buy costly forage to prevent his animals from starving.

“The grass was stunted, and some places were laid bare by the sheep competing for food,” the 50-year-old recalled.

Wang is one of many herders in the province who have learned over the years that tipping the grass-stock balance on the environmentally fragile Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is a dead end.

He now breeds cattle at the Qilian Ecological Pasture, which was established in 2015, and along with his peers, he has embraced new development models on the prairie that allow herders to improve their incomes in sustainable ways.

In 2015, Wang and dozens of families in his herding community collectively leased thousands of hectares of degrading grassland to Baiyi, the livestock breeding and tourism company that established the eco-pasture.

With government support, Baiyi restored the grassland through replanting and the use of organic fertilizers in the hope of attracting a constant stream of tourists to view the county’s stunning scenery.

The pasture quickly became a popular holiday resort featuring tent hotels, restaurants, yak farms and workshops that allow visitors to make local specialties such as yogurt and guokui, a round cake that is popular across Northwest China.

Fan Xiaoan, the pasture’s manager, said 120,000 tourists visited last year, generating revenue of 3.64 million yuan ($512,000).

To avoid ruining the revitalized grassland, 1,500 cattle and 320 yaks are bred indoors for consumption locally and nationwide, all fed on forage grass grown in the eco-pasture.

Fan said total revenue hit more than 13 million yuan last year. “We’re stepping up the pasture’s presence online to draw more visitors,” she added.

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