The Changing Role of Hunting and Wildlife in Pastoral Communities of Northern Tibet

  • Toni HuberEmail author
Part of the Advances in Asian Human-Environmental Research book series (AAHER)


Hunting and wild animals have long been part of pastoralist life across the Tibetan Plateau, and especially in the northern Changtang region. Most recent research on Changtang hunting has focussed upon economic aspects in relation to conservation issues, wildlife ecology and status, human-wildlife conflicts and modern development. In contrast, the present study emphasizes social and cultural features of subsistence hunting practice and establishes some historical depth with which to contextualize data from recent decades. This chapter offers a rare diachronic perspective on hunting in a case study area located in the north-west of the Tibet Autonomous Region (China) and utilizes ethnohistorical evidence from throughout the twentieth century and contemporary ethnographic data from repeat fieldwork visits to the area. The results demonstrate that hunting in Changtang areas is best conceived of as a dynamic arena of practice. A subsistence hunting pattern for the region is described in relation to local ecological factors which seasonally determine hunting activity. This pattern is then viewed in relation to two historical periods of regional-level social and economic transition: a pre-modern wealth division between local pastoralist groups and the modern Communist period of collectivization into pastoralist communes. In conclusion, a range of local attitudes towards wildlife are examined in an attempt to open alternatives to the predominant economic, conservation and development-centred discussions of hunting and wild animals in Changtang pastoral communities.


Hunting Pastoralists Wildlife Changtang Tibetan Plateau 



Field research from 2002 to 2010 was funded by Victoria University (Wellington), Humboldt University (Berlin) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Bonn) and conducted in conjunction with the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences (Lhasa).


1.A few cases of temporary taming of some wild species, especially wild sheep, can be observed in the Changtang region. These animals are often found by hunters as orphans or strays and sometimes dedicated or donated to lamas, monasteries or pilgrimage shrines for care.

2.Tibetan words and text are rendered in simple phonetic form followed in parentheses or in footnotes by proper spellings using the Wylie system of Romanization. Certain local words (such as dzaekha or Khogtse) have no known or stable spellings.

3.The oldest examples of khogtse trap, perhaps more than 1,000 years old, have been excavated on the northern periphery of the Tibetan Plateau; see Stein 1921, vol. 2, 704, 767, 782; vol. 4, plate LIV, item no. T. XV. A. i. 009. Also British Museum, Oriental Antiquities Department, OA MAS 796.

4.Although probably of prehistoric origins and related to other known alpine and sub-arctic game drive techniques (cf. Benedict 2005; Ingold 1980, 56–61; Popov 1966), dzaekha were first recorded in the northern Changtang during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; Deasy 1901, 32 and Hedin 1913, vol. 3, 58. On recent dzaekha use, see Huber 2005 and Fox and Tsechoe Dorji N.d.

5.An overview of Changtang ecology is given in Schaller 1998, chapt. 2.

6.Other locally hunted wild species include blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), Tibetan gazelle (Procapra picticaudata), Tibetan wild ass (Equus kiang) and Tibetan argali sheep (Ovis ammon hodgsoni). Occasionally, wolf (Canis lupus), two species of fox (Vulpes vulpes, Vulpes ferrilata) and Tibetan brown bear (Ursus arctos) are hunted as predator or pest animals. Although both snow leopard (Uncia (Panthera) uncia) and lynx (Felis (Lynx) lynx) are also hunted as predators in various Changtang areas, I obtained no reports of this for my fieldwork sites. For details of wild ungulates and carnivores of the Changtang, see Schaller 1998.

7.Lambing and kidding occur during late winter or early spring when weather is still cold and sometimes stormy, and the mortality rates are typically high.

8.See Hedin 1922, 93–95, 97, 113, 242–245, 264; Hedin 1913, vol. 1,179, 185–186.

9.In fact, the same guns were also intended for use by the ‘local militia’ (yul dmag) when not being used for hunting.

10.The verb bshan ba and noun shan pa are always used in relation to killing of domestic animals, and this expression is intentionally ambivalent as it mixes cultural categories.

11.Several informants reported that it was official policy to exterminate Tibetan wild ass in pastoral areas during the commune era. Government officials informed commune members that wild ass competed with livestock for valuable pasture resources and was thus a pest animal they must destroy at every opportunity. This conforms with well-known Maoist dogmas and practices of ‘struggling against nature’; see Shapiro 2001.

12.The official Communist Party slogan of the day, ‘smashing the four olds’, was aimed at destruction and replacement of ‘old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas’.

13.The same applies to domestic butchery; no pastoralist would ever knowlingly eat meat from an animal killed by a woman.

14.See, for example, Goldstein and Beall (1990, 124, 127), Rinzin Thargyal and Huber (2007, 195) and Stubel (1958, 22).

15.See Huber 2004 for a review of legal protections for wildlife by pre-modern Buddhist states and religious institutions in Tibetan Plateau regions.

16.Goldstein and Beall 1990, 127; Stubel 1958, 22.

17.Goldstein and Beall 1990, 127; Rinzin Thargyal and Huber 2007, 106; Namkhai Norbu 1997, 48–49.

18.In response to a survey question asking Changtang pastoralists ‘why should wildlife [such as predators] that cause conflict be protected?’, only 2% of the 300 respondents choose to answer that ‘Killing wildlife is against Buddhist teachings’; Dawa Tsering et al. 2006, 68.

19.See Karma Tshul khrims 2003b, 1–3, 21–23; Tshe ring rgyal po 2005; Tshe ring rgyal po 2006, 392–95; Trotter 1915, 165.

20.Here one can contrast the presence of a few mountain deities in places just outside of the case study area further to the south and which are located in the original home territory of the Sengkor Tsowa (bSe’khor tsho ba), a different population who claimed to have been settled in the area when the migrant Drongpa Changma Tsowa (’Brong pa Byang ma tsho ba) and Gertse Tsowa (sGer rtse tsho ba) populations arrived from the east. Missionary lamas from outside the region are reported as articulating connections between hunting and these mountain deities; Karma Tshul khrims 2003a, 30; Bellezza 2005, 101.

21.This is not to say the killing and butchering of hunted wild animals is non-ritualized in Tibetan contexts; it certainly is, although such rites as are performed relate directly to the human social order or to the dralha deities associated with a hunter’s weapons.

22.Dgra ri dwags gnyis kyi gnya’ rtse bkugs.

23.There is a very long Tibetan cultural history of representing wild yak as dangerous foes or enemies who must be destroyed, conquered or tamed by human heroes.

24.A similar lack of conservation awareness amongst pastoralists in the Aru Basin, immediately adjacent to my case study area, was noted by Fox et al. 2008, 10.

25.A popular fifteenth-century narrative biography of Tibetan Buddhism’s most beloved saint, Milarepa, describes the rapid multiplication of a herd of Tibetan wild ass in the wilderness; Gtsang smyon He ru ka 1981, 597.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Central Asian Seminar, Institute of Asian and African StudiesHumboldt UniversityBerlinGermany

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