Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts
Drylands of the World: EURASIA: Page 4 To the southeast, many of Pakistan's high plateaus and Himalayan foothills have become overgrazed and denuded of vegetation, leaving a desolate landscape. The Indus Plain and Karchat Hills have become a stony wasteland with stunted acacias scattered about; thin goats scour the terrain for blades of grass and people cut what few trees remain for firewood (Schaller 1980). In his book about the Himalayas, Stones of Silence, Dr. George Schaller (1980) imagined the land as it had once been: "Had man not misused this land for thousands of years, I would be driving through woodland, with wild asses standing in the broad-crowned shade of acacias and cheetah stalking unsuspecting Indian gazelles through swords of golden grass. Perhaps down by the river a pride of lions would be resting after the night's hunt. The forests are gone now, the rivers dry except after a downpour, and the lion, cheetah and asses are dead. Only a few gazelle remain. No wonder the land seems lonely as one drives toward the distant hills, trailing a funnel of red dust made incandescent by the sun."
Two types of wild asses are native to the steppe. Asiatic wild asses (Equus hemionus) once ranged from the Arabian Peninsula to Manchuria and even western India (Nowak 1999). These elegant wild equines have variable coloration, some populations with broad, dark dorsal stripes and black legs, and others uniformly tan without black markings. All have stiff black manes. They have disappeared from much of their range and are now endangered. Only a few hundred to a few thousand survive in Iran, Turkmenistan and India; in southern Mongolia and neighboring China, they are more numerous, with more than 8,000 animals (Schaller 1998). Its total population may not exceed 10,000; it is listed as endangered by the US Endangered Species Act and as vulnerable by the 2000 IUCN Red List. The latter publication also lists six subspecies in various degrees of threat, including one, the Syrian, as extinct, with races in Iran and India as endangered (see Appendix).
The kiang (Equus kiang) is native to the Himalayan region, Tibet and adjacent regions of west-central China (Nowak 1999). These striking wild equines are bright russet in summer and have thick brown coats in the winter; their backs have a black dorsal stripe, and their bellies, legs, muzzle and neck are white (Nowak 1999). They prefer high elevations, up to 5,000 meters, where they forage on grasses and other vegetation. Considered abundant and secure until the mid-20th century, they began a steep decline after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants hunted them and displaced them with agriculture and livestock (Nowak 1999). One race native to western China and adjacent Tibet and India, E.k.polyodon, was thought extinct until a herd of 74 to 120 animals was discovered in Sikkim, China; elsewhere they remain much reduced from former numbers.
Grassland still covers much of Mongolia and Tibet, but vast numbers of domestic animals, yaks, sheep, goats and camels graze in this fragile, arid land. Mongolia has a human population of 2.5 million, and 28 million livestock inhabit its 604,800 square miles. Livestock graze in the Gobi Desert's more verdant portions, which are a mosaic of drifting, bare sands, shrub, grassland characterized by tall tussock grass and arid mountains. Saiga once roamed here, and many extraordinary creatures cling to their existence.
Most of the world's remaining wild Bactrian camels survive in Mongolia's Great Gobi National Park. These camels differ from their domestic counterparts, which have large, misshapen humps, in being slender with trim, conical humps, sandy coats and sparse wool (Schaller 1990). Once widespread and abundant, this species is near extinction, as it is crowded out by hordes of livestock, including domestic camels, and often shot on sight by nomads and professional hunters. Their young have had low survival rates in recent years, and little is known of their reproductive biology that would explain this mortality (Schaller 1998). Herd size has also declined since the 19th century, when numbers in the dozens up to a hundred were seen. This may affect their vulnerability to predators, such as wolves. They are further threatened by interbreeding with domestic Bactrian camels; Gobi Park personnel have shot several hybrids in recent years (Schaller 1998).
Despite their large reserves, human activity is threatening the last of these superbly adapted wild camels. A 1994 film by Survival Anglia, “Mountains of the Snow Leopard,” gauged their total population at only about 300. An aerial survey of the park in March 1997 recorded 314 camels and estimated total park population at 900 animals (Schaller 1998). In the Taklimakan Desert to the west, several other populations survive. One herd near Lop Nur, a lake dried up by irrigation diversion, had an estimated 200 animals in 1985, but they declined to only 80 to 100 in 1995 after a period of heavy hunting (Schaller 1998). Further west, a road built through their habitat near the Tarim River, combined with oil development, reduced the wild camels to only 50 to 80 animals (Schaller 1998). The total world population of these progenitors of domestic Bactrian camels is only about 1,500, while at least 2.5 million domestic camels inhabit central Asia (Schaller 1998).
An extremely rare predator, the Gobi bear (Ursus (arctos) gobiensis), is also resident in the Great Gobi National Park. Schaller (1998) and others consider it to be so distinct that it is a separate species from the brown bear (Ursus arctos). If recognized as so, it would be the rarest carnivore in the world, numbering only about 30 animals in a population isolated from other brown bears by hundreds of miles. They have apparently been separated for a very long time. Its closest relative, the endangered Himalayan brown or red bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), occurs to the west of the Gobi with a range that extends to Nepal. Populations in Mongolia are listed on Appendix I of CITES, but Gobi bears have yet to be recognized by CITES, the IUCN Red List or the US Endangered Species Act. Fortunately, they receive protection in their sole remaining range within this park. They are the world's only true desert bears, and they subsist in extremely arid conditions, feeding on scarce tubers and wild plants. Yellowish-brown or reddish with dark legs, Gobi Bears are relatively small and lanky, weighing less than 200 pounds, about one-tenth the weight of their cousins in Alaska and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. “Mountains of the Snow Leopard” (see above and in Video Section) is the first film record of Gobi Bears ever made. A female was filmed with her half-grown cub, scratching in the sand for wild rhubarb.
The bears to the west on the Tibetan Plateau are quite different in their appearance. Shaggy rather than thin-coated, they often have a conspicuous white collar, dark brown to black coats and rusty faces. Their black ears appear to be adorned with tassels (Schaller 1998). They are known as Tibetan bears (Ursus arctos pruinosus), listed as endangered by the US Endangered Species Act. Extremely rare on the steppe, they survive only in mountainous terrain, and have disappeared from the alpine meadows near the Yellow River where they were once common (Schaller 1998). They are severely persecuted by Tibetans, who usually kill them on sight (Schaller 1998).
A rare and dazzling resident of the Great Gobi National Park is the Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata), a threatened relative of the great bustard. The bustard family, Otididae, with 25 species, occurs in Africa and Eurasia. These stocky, long-legged birds are distant relatives of cranes and are declining from loss of their grassland habitats and hunting. In the dryer steppe, where vegetation is brown and shrubby, the male Houbara bustard stands out dramatically, dashing about and displaying a long chest ruff of white Ostrich-like feathers surrounded by jet black quills that he jerks as he dances a high-stepping strut. His erected white head feathers resemble a puffy hat.
To the southeast, the graceful Tibetan gazelle (Procapra picticauda) is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau, which abuts southern Siberia and western China. Early in the century, the grasslands at the headwaters of the Yellow River in eastern Qinghai, China, presented a great spectacle with enormous herds of these gazelles and other ungulates. The area is dotted with lakes and was home to wild yaks, kiangs and other wildlife (Schaller 1998). In the 1950s, roads were built, and livestock now grazes at densities of 40 head per square kilometer, displacing wildlife (Schaller 1998). Wild yaks disappeared, and kiangs and Tibetan gazelles have become rare and sparsely distributed in the region. As Schaller (1998) remarked, "One can traverse these grasslands for hours and seldom glimpse a gazelle." These gazelles and other ungulates are avidly hunted. Despite their extraordinary swiftness and great leaping ability, they cannot escape gunfire in this open habitat. Tibetan gazelles number 100,000 at most throughout their enormous range (Schaller 1998).
The influx of herders and farmers into these grasslands has been a result of an official Chinese government program which encouraged people from crowded urban areas to enter frontier regions of the west to settle. These new residents converted the steppe into farms and grazing land (Hsu 1988). Three-quarters of these steppe, 266 million hectares (657 million acres) of a total 358 million hectares (885 million acres), had become grazing or farmland by 1988 (Hsu 1988). Since then, this trend has accelerated. These wilderness areas are officially classified by the Chinese government as "wastelands" (Hsu 1988). Other types of wildlife are being eliminated, as well as hoofed animals. Rodent control programs poison pikas and ground squirrels. Some reserves have been set aside which protect at least a portion of the Chinese steppe. The Xianghai Nature Reserve, for example, covers 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres), but livestock and hunting are allowed in these reserves.
In 1993, the Chinese government established the Chang Tang Nature Reserve, an area of Tibetan steppe with breathtaking scenery of distant mountains and steppe dotted with icy lakes, larger than the state of New Mexico. Dr. George Schaller and his organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, played an important role in the establishment of this reserve, which provides habitat for some of the steppe's most endangered species. His 1997 book, Tibet's Hidden Wilderness: Wildlife and Nomads of the Chang Tang Reserve, is illustrated with photographs of this magnificent region and its wildlife. Stunning mountains covered in snow, grassland oases and beautiful gazelles and antelope distinguish this wilderness. A companion book by Schaller, Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe, provides more scientific detail on the biology, ecology and status of the wildlife of the entire region (Schaller 1998).
Chang Tang Reserve allows large numbers of pastoral people to graze their livestock, and approximately 22,000 people live in the reserve, with 1.4 million livestock ‒ most of which are sheep (Schaller 1997). The livestock have displaced many wild herds, which now number only about 103,000 animals, 10 percent as numerous as the domestic animals. The huge numbers of livestock give an indication of the vast numbers of wildlife that once occurred on the steppe (Schaller 1997). Although quotas have been established, with maximum numbers of livestock per family at 486 animals per household in one part of the reserve, they are so generous that they leave little habitat for native wild sheep, gazelles, antelope and other wild ungulates, which are in steep decline (Schaller 1997).
A few wild yak (Bos grunniens mutus) herds inhabit Chang Tang. These extremely imposing animals are far larger and more massive than their domestic counterparts, with humps on their shoulders and shaggy black coats that nearly reach the ground. They survive in a few scattered herds, a result of heavy hunting. In the Aru Basin in the reserve, where a Pleistocene-like panorama of wild herds of many species existed as recently as 1990, yak numbers have been halved by hunting and the introduction of livestock and permanent settlements (Schaller 1997). Only about 15,000 of these magnificent animals remain, the majority surviving in three reserves on the Tibetan Plateau (Schaller 1998).
Tibetan antelope (Panthops hodgsoni) are native to this extremely harsh Tibetan steppe, which is swept by howling winds throughout the long winters. The male has long, straight horns that rise almost vertically from its head and bend forward at the tip. Their faces and front legs are black. Males weigh only about 100 pounds. Females are smaller and lack the male's horns. Both have buff coloration that blends into the pale tans of the steppe. Although considered antelope, recent DNA studies have determined they are more closely related to goats; they retain some ancestral characteristics of both antelope and gazelles (Schaller 1997). Chiru have unusual physical adaptations to cope with the high-altitude environment ‒ such as an extremely fine fur ‒ which has made them the target of hunters, an enlarged nasal cavity to draw in the thin air on their long migrations, and high-crowned teeth to grind the tough vegetation.
Chiru were abundant until the 20th century. In 1897, a British military officer came upon enormous herds: "As far as the eye could reach, were thousands upon thousands of doe antelope and their young...there could not have been less than 15,000 or 20,000 visible at one time" (Schaller 1996). Heavy hunting for its fine wool, Shahtoosh, has been a major cause of its decline throughout this century. This wool is extremely valuable, and has reached luxury markets in western countries in recent decades (see Trade Chapter). At present, chiru still migrate in long lines for great distances over the windswept steppe, but their total population is estimated at less than 75,000. Although it is officially protected, illegal hunting continues, even by Tibetan government officials.
The native deer of the steppe occupy various habitats, from scattered woodlands to open grasslands. The largest species, the red deer (Cervus elaphus), known as elk in North America, has been severely overhunted and crowded out of its habitat. A race from Tibet known as the shou, Cervus elaphus wallichi, was thought extinct until a small population of 200 was discovered recently in an area east of Lhasa (Nowak 1999). Another subspecies from the steppe of western China, the Yarkand deer (Cervus elaphus yarkandenis), once thought extinct, numbers about 5,000 in central Sinkiang, China, with another 6,000 farmed animals (Nowak 1999). The Bactrian deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus) of Central Asia nearly became extinct, reduced to only 300 to 400 animals in the 1960s from overhunting and loss of habitat to agriculture and livestock; it now numbers 900 (Nowak 1999). All three are listed as endangered on the US Endangered Species Act.
White-lipped deer (Cervus albirostris), found only on the Tibetan Plateau, prefer far more open habitat than most deer, especially alpine meadows; stags can weigh up to 230 kilograms and stand up to 140 centimeters at the shoulder, with large, white antlers (Schaller 1998). Heavy hunting and competition for forage with livestock have made them rare in most parts of their range, with scattered, discontinuous populations; they are common only where protected, such as in the vicinity of monasteries (Schaller 1998). Total numbers of this deer, which was once far more abundant, are estimated at approximately 50,000 to 100,000 (Schaller 1998).
A high diversity of small wild cats inhabits the steppe and deserts of Asia. Some are tiny, the size of a small house cat, and others range up to 3 feet in body length. Many have become endangered after their steppe habitat and natural prey were displaced by agriculture or livestock. Some are killed for their fur. The Turkmenian caracal (Caracal caracal michaelis), a sandy brown cat with long tufts on its ears, has disappeared from most of its habitat in the western steppe. Another shy and rare feline, Pallas' cat (Otocolobus manul), ranges from Iran to Siberia and China on rocky steppe and desert up to 4,000 meters in elevation (Nowak 1999). Having the longest, densest fur of any wild cat, this species inhabits the high-altitude rocky mountainsides and cold deserts of central Asia (Sleeper 1995). It has become very rare throughout its distribution from hunting for the fur trade and persecution by livestock owners. Weighing only 5 to 8 pounds, Pallas' cats have a thick muff-like tail they wrap around their feet for insulation in the snow (Sleeper 1995).
The magnificent Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia) is the largest and most endangered wild cat of this rugged region. Pursued by hunters throughout its range, which encompasses more than 2 million square kilometers of mountain ranges that extend over 12 countries, it has disappeared from the majority of its original distribution. The natural prey of these cats, wild goats and sheep, have been overhunted and crowded out of their natural habitats by livestock, forcing Snow Leopards to take livestock in some areas. The combined effects of fur hunting, persecution and loss of their natural prey are pushing the species close to extinction. Only in the past few decades have conservation programs begun to turn this downward trend around. One biologist, J. Fox, estimated total populations for the species at between 4,500 and 7,350 in 1994; in western China, they may number about 2,000, while in Kyrgystan, there may be 1,000 to 2,000; in Mongolia, approximately 1,000; India about 500; with scattered numbers in the Himalayan countries of Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan (Fox 1994, Schaller 1998). For a growing number of countries, these beautiful wild cats have become a valuable asset to attract tourists and an important part of their natural heritage. Work by outside biologists and conservation organizations to persuade herdsmen not to kill them, but rather to protect their herds properly instead, is beginning to take hold in Pakistan and other parts of the Himalayas.