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doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.108 Published online 14 August 2013

Demand for cashmere triggers ecological imbalance in Central Asian deserts

Sandhya Sekar

The demand for cashmere wool among the world's fashion-conscious is affecting the delicate ecology of the cold deserts of Central Asia. Large-scale introduction of cashmere producing goats is displacing several native species of hoofed mammals in Ladakh, the Tibetan plateau and large parts of Mongolia, according to a new study. This has triggered a series of ecological problems in the region.

A herder with his sheep and goats in Ladakh.
© National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy

In the cold grasslands and semi deserts of Central Asia, goats are reared for the special wool called cashmere. The demand for cashmere from the Western fashion industry is a welcome economic boon to nomadic herders roaming these deserts. However, the cashmere-based economy is unleashing a cascade upsetting the region's ecological balance.

Joel Berger from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Montana, Bayarbaatar Buuveibaatar from WCS Mongolia and Charudutt Mishra from Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) and the Snow Leopard Trust decided to examine this cascade, using data from Gobi desert in Mongolia, Ladakh in India and China's Tibetan plateau.

A cashmere-driven economy

They found that the number of domestic goats had increased tremendously in the last 30 years. This increase in goats had resulted in the displacement of many native species of ungulates (hoofed mammals). Goats ate up almost 95% of all the available forage in the region, while only 5% was left for the native ungulates, thus squeezing them out of their habitat.

The goat-sheep ratio was 20-80 earlier. It is just the reverse now, according to, Yash Veer Bhatnagar from NCF, who works in Ladakh. "Wild ungulates such as the Tibetan argali and Tibetan gazelle dwelling on the rolling slopes appear to be negatively impacted," he told Nature India. The worst affected is a species called saiga (Saiga tartarica), which has teeth very similar to the goat and hence eats the same types of grass. Shepherds and dogs that guard goat herds chase away native ungulates. The wild yak, blue sheep, ibex and gazelles have all been forced to occupy a fraction of their original homes.

In the Indian study area, the researchers observed that insufficient food and nutrition was making the wild ungulates unhealthy. As such fewer juveniles were being born and their survival rates were poor. Consequently, the region's top predator — the snow leopard — was not getting enough prey and thus resorted to attacking livestock. This triggered constant conflict with local communities and, in many cases, death of the iconic animal.

First author of the study Joel Berger says the amount of food in the habitat has remained constant and is being consumed by a very high number of goats, and much fewer native species. Eventually, the large herds will degrade the land to such an extent that cashmere production may become unviable. "In some areas, the ecological point has already been tipped; livestock proliferation is not benefiting herders, because food is limited, and livestock themselves have a surfeit of food," Berger notes.

Saving the ecology

But how can one blame the herders for wanting to improve their economic condition? The high demand for cashmere and the profits are enough incentive for herders to maintain large goat herds. The Indian government has also been promoting the cashmere industry in Ladakh for the last 25 years, by establishing goat breeding farms and providing veterinary services to reduce mortality.

The authors suggest reduction in livestock holdings to save the region's ecology. Charudutt Mishra, a co-author of the study says the first step should be to bring together some producer communities and buyers. "If we can work with a few model producer communities to ensure sustainable and measurable wildlife-friendly grazing practices, and help them acquire better prices through certification or branding, that would be a start," he adds.

Another measure would be to prioritise sites that have endangered wild species, Bhatnagar says. "Also, nomadic herders in Ladakh have new aspirations – they want more comfortable lives in urban centres. If conservation agencies can ensure good education, fewer herders with sustainable livestock holdings will continue the profession viably, while a substantial number would emigrate," he says.


References

  1. Berger, J. et al. Globalization of the cashmere market and the decline of large mammals in Central Asia. Conserv. Biol. 27, 679-689 (2013) | Article | PubMed |