Prosperity built upon farming pigs

Nyingchi, in the Tibet autonomous region's southeast, is known for its pigs. For families living in the city's more remote villages, pork sales contribute a key part of their incomes during winter.

Tibetan pig meat is more expensive than other types of pork sold in local markets, because it is believed to be healthier and better tasting.

Farming families in Nyingchi prefecture each typically raise 10 to 15 pigs, which are said to be domesticated from wild boar. To this day, these pigs still forage in the forests and open areas as their wild ancestors.

The meat of Tibetan pigs is regarded as a delicacy, which farmers preserve by drying and offer to important guests.

Unlike most farming families who only raise the animals to meet their family's needs, Dawa Tsering operates a Tibetan pig-raising cooperative.

"Most pork sold in the markets is not real Tibetan pork," he said.

"This disappoints me, and I have vowed to bring authentic Tibetan pork to the markets."

As Tibetan Buddhism promotes vegetarianism, the raising of pigs is often frowned upon in Tibet. But Dawa said he has made his peace with this.

"I am an ordinary person, I am aware of the importance of religion in my life, but it is hard for me to follow all religious rules in my daily life," he said.

The 40-year-old has been in the pig-raising business since 2008 and now owns one of the biggest pig farms in Nyingchi.

His cooperative, which began in 2012 with five impoverished families and 28 pigs, was not a success at first. A lack of experience and poor facilities almost caused him to give up.

The farm is relatively isolated, without a reliable supply of water or electricity, and some pigs froze to death during the first winter. Afterward, to ensure the animal's safety, Dawa allowed some of them to live in his bedroom.

"The little pigs were so naughty and always climbed on my bed. I had to wash my bedding every day," he said.

The farmer found his first major client in 2013 during a visit to Shannan prefecture in Tibet, where he secured an order for more than 140 pigs.

This brought in about 50,000 yuan ($7,250), which he used to buy a truck. He also married that year.

"Tibetan pigs have to live in the wild. They need a sty with adequate sunshine and a natural earthen floor," he said.

"They feed on grass and the plants they find out in the wild."

Every day, after eating a simple breakfast that Dawa provides, his pigs go off foraging in the surrounding forests and hills.

"In the evening, I give them another meal to ensure they are well-fed, as I am afraid that otherwise they will not return to me," he said, with a laugh.

In addition to the plants and herbs that the pigs eat in the wild, their daily feed comprises of corn and cabbages.

This diet is said to make their meat rich and tasty.

Dawa sold 126 pigs last year, for about 2,000 yuan each. They take between 15 and 18 months to raise.

Caring for his herd involves not only feeding the animals, but giving them vaccinations, cleaning their sties and making careful observations.

After two months with their mother, piglets are weaned and kept in a separate sty for four months before being allowed to forage in the wild.

As well as his regular clients, Dawa also uses social media to find new buyers and travels to other areas of China to learn advanced business skills and seek new markets.

He dreams of selling Tibetan pork to China's coastal cities, but the cost of transportation is prohibitive.

For now, he just hopes that the Tibetan Pig Association will establish standards to better regulate the market.

"Not all black pigs in Nyingchi are Tibetan pigs," he said.

"There needs to be better regulation of the market and standard prices set. If not, villagers like us will lose out."