Doctoral dissertation

Foggin, J.M. 2000. Biodiversity protection and the search for sustainability in Tibetan plateau grasslands. PhD dissertation. Arizona State University, Tempe, USA. 397 pp. URL:




A Dissertation Presented in Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for the Degree

Doctor of Philosophy



December 2000



Grasslands have provided fundamental goods and services to humankind for millennia. In many of the world’s mountain regions, pastoralists (livestock herders) have benefited from and maintained alpine grassland biodiversity through sustainable land use practices. In recent times, however, many new factors have begun to impact even the remotest ecosystems. Developments far removed from the grassroots – both literally and metaphorically – now largely determine the future of these critical habitats, both their biodiversity and the local people that they support. The Tibetan plateau is the highest and largest alpine grassland region in the world. Situated in western China, its vast rangelands form the headwaters of Asia’s most important rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, and Brahmaputra rivers, and they are home for the internationally endangered Tibetan antelope, wild yak, snow leopard, black-necked crane, and other Central Asian wildlife. Tibetan pastoralists also have inhabited the region for many centuries and their survival in this exceptionally harsh environment is testimony to the sustainability of traditional resource management practices. In recent decades, however, as the Tibetan plateau region has become increasingly integrated with the rest of China, many new socio-economic and political realities have begun to emerge. Protecting the native biodiversity of the Tibetan plateau and seeking sustainable development opportunities for this economically poor region of China are the two parallel and tightly interwoven themes of this dissertation. In climatically variable environments, such as found on the Tibetan plateau, flexible resource management strategies are essential. The maintenance of mobility and seasonal grazing also promote sustainability, while large fencing schemes and the conversion of high altitude lands to agriculture are unsustainable and decrease grassland biodiversity. Fortunately, several policies and initiatives in China now have begun to rectify some former misguided development practices. Perhaps most significantly, grassroots participation in conservation and development now is increasing in China. In Qinghai, for example, local leaders in the source area of the Yangtze River recently have established the Upper Yangtze Organization. Based on their experience (reported in this dissertation), local community participation and ownership are found to contribute very significantly to the success of integrated conservation and development projects.



Many different people have helped me with this work. However, a special word of thanks must go to the following people. Without the genuine support of the faculty and staff of the Qinghai Education College (Qinghai Jiaoyu Xueyuan) in Xining, virtually none of this work would have been possible. I am in particular indebted to my language teacher, Mr. Shi Wenhua, as well as to Mr. Zhao Yanwu and Ms. Wang Minghui of the Foreign Affairs Office. The Jianhua Foundation also provided various forms of assistance, especially through its Qinghai Office.

For true friendship and for inviting me into his world, the pastoral community of Suojia in the source area of the Yangtze, I especially want to thank Zhaduo. Through him I have met many other people as well, from local pastoralists to academic researchers to government leaders. Here I extend my heartfelt thanks to all of them, as well as to Zhaduo, for helping me to better understand this special part of the world and for doing their utmost to make me feel at home.

For their wonderful companionship and real encouragement along the way, I also want to thank Laurens Wester, Chris Turner, and Raija Pyykkönen. I also thank my advisor, Dr. Andrew T. Smith, for his ongoing assistance and genuine friendship that dates back to our fieldwork together in Qinghai in 1991. All the other members of my research committee (Drs. Will Graf, Donald McTaggart, Dave Pearson, and Frederick Steiner) have been extremely supportive as well, and I thank them too.

Finally, I give heartfelt thanks to my parents, Peter and Beth Foggin, for their unwavering support throughout all these years, and to my wife, Marion Torrance, who I met in the course of my research in Qinghai, who has provided valuable assistance in this work, and with whom I now have the joy of continuing in life together.



CHAPTER ONE – Introduction: Biodiversity and Sustainable Development in Qinghai Province, PRC

CHAPTER TWO – Grassland Conservation in a Global Perspective: Four Key Themes (Grasslands, Pastoralism, Sustainability, Biodiversity)

CHAPTER THREE – The Human Environments of China: A Diversity of Scales, Frames of Reference & Study Areas

CHAPTER FOUR – Pastoral Landscapes in the Qinghai Lake Area: Current Developments & Trends

CHAPTER FIVE – The Ecology of Grassland Enclosures and Changing Patterns of Livestock Grazing: A Vegetation Analysis

CHAPTER SIX – Rangeland Utilization, Grassland Quality, and Biodiversity in Alpine Grasslands: A Regional Analysis

CHAPTER SEVEN – New Wildlife Sightings in Qinghai Province

CHAPTER EIGHT – Regional Conservation Planning in the Source Area of the Yangtze River (Suojia Township): A Case Study