The highland meadows in Menyuan Hui autonomous county, Qinghai province, are a popular tourist site in summer. [Photo/Xinhua]
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.
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.
The once-suspicious herding community began to embrace change after reaping many benefits from the tourism boom and the increasingly robust environment.
Wang leases his meadows to Baiyi at an annual rate of 21,000 yuan, and has also sold all his sheep and yaks to the company at favorable prices.
As compensation for relinquishing their former residence on the prairie, Wang's family has been given a 100-square-meter apartment in the county's urban area by Baiyi. Wang was also given a job on the pasture, tending 100 cows, and earning about 3,000 yuan a month.
He said that last year he saved enough money to buy a car, which he mainly uses to commute between the pasture and his new home in town.
"Initially, I was unwilling to lease the land because I believed that we herdsmen can only count on livestock to make a living," he said. "However, I have started to enjoy the new arrangement."
He explained that contagious diseases among the livestock used to be a constant nightmare for his fellow herdsmen, because one such outbreak could ruin a family. Conversely, working for a large breeder provides a secure, stable income, and the risks are outsourced.
Chongsho Drolma has worked for the eco-pasture since she leased her 46 hectares of meadow to Baiyi four years ago.
She said she used to have trouble paying electricity bills, but now her money problems are over.
While milking a cow for tourists who were keen to try making yogurt, the 49-year-old ethnic Tibetan said her family's annual income has topped 100,000 yuan in recent years, enough to place them firmly in the county's middle-income bracket.
Baiyi said it has created hundreds of jobs, including room cleaners at hotels, bakers, yak and cow breeders, and pasture rangers, and most have been filled by local people. Their monthly salaries range from 2,000 to 4,000 yuan, depending on their duties.
The pasture is just one of several measures the Menyuan government has adopted to ease grazing pressures on the vast Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, an environmentally fragile region that is home to the headwaters of China's major rivers, the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Lancang.
The county government said more than 120,000 hectares of grassland, almost one-third of its total, has been degraded as a result of excessive grazing over several decades, climate change and rats, who devour the grass seeds and roots.
In recent years, the county government has helped to establish forage grass centers on leased land to provide food for herds confined indoors in spring when the grass is so vulnerable that grazing or even walking on it could lead to degradation.
The government also urged partial or complete indoor breeding, and encouraged herders to establish cooperatives and grow quality forage grass, which it has promised to buy.
Local officials said the Qilian Ecological Pasture and other measures have proved effective at stemming environmental degradation in a region with a high concentration of herders from ethnic groups, most of whom still lead impoverished, old-fashioned lives.
Wang Youliang, a senior engineer with the local grassland workstation, which monitors grass issues across Menyuan, said the county's vegetation coverage rate has jumped from 70 to 95 percent in recent years, an indicator of better grass quality.
Menyuan's success has come as China fights to preserve it's nearly 400 million hectares of natural grassland - the largest such expanse in the world - which accounts for about 40 percent of its territory.
Experts said the vast prairies play a vital role in conserving water, regulating the climate and preserving biodiversity, but a lot of the land was subjected to excessive grazing, which risked desertification.
Having recognized the problem at an early stage, the central government launched a widespread campaign in 2003 to reduce overgrazing and restore the degraded grass.
By the end of last year, nearly 30 billion yuan had been pumped into the project.
Figures from the provincial government show that in 2010, the number of livestock being raised in Qinghai, a major grazing area, was almost 36 percent higher than that considered sustainable. By 2017, the number had dropped to less than 4 percent.
In 2011, in another major overhaul, the central government decided to compensate herders who were banned from grazing livestock on degrading meadows in Qinghai and a number of other regions, and to reward those who maintained a balanced stock density.
The decision also made grassland protection a crucial part of the annual government work assessment.
However, despite these long-term efforts, officials with the newly created National Forestry and Grassland Administration said the outlook remains challenging across the country.
Nationally, grass cultivation is 20 to 30 percent lower than in the 1980s, and about 500,000 hectares of grassland disappear every year.
In recent years, central authorities have elevated grassland protection to equal that of other traditionally critical ecosystems, such as lakes and forests, and have pushed for more concerted restoration efforts by a number of government departments.
He Qishisan, deputy head of the Menyuan mountain, forest, farmland, lakes and grassland restoration office, which was established to oversee the restoration of the overall environment, said grassroots officials have gained a better awareness of protection in recent years, but awareness remains low among most herders and farmers.
"Making them more aware is the most challenging part of my job," he said.