China: Hunshandake Sandland/Xilin Gol Biosphere Reserve


© Thomas Schaaf
Inhabitants from Hunshandake Sandland

Located in the middle of Xilingol Plateau, Inner Mongolia, the Hunshandake Sandland is one of four major sandlands in China. It is about 450 km in length and 50–300 km wide with a total area of 53,000 km2. It is situated in one of the sandiest and windiest areas in China and the area is controlled by temperate semi-arid climate with a mean annual temperature of 0.5–3.5 °C and mean annual precipitation between 250–400 mm, concentrated in July and August.

With a population of 128,000 Hunshandake Sandland is located in an area of pure pasture with 92% of its income obtained from livestock breeding.

Fast increase in animal numbers happened at the last decade of the 20th century, with the highest record of 108,0000 animals being raised in the year of 1990. The rapid increase of middle-sized animals, especially goats and sheep, can be considered as one of the top reasons for the serious degradation of the sandlands in China.  

The average annual income of a herdsman in Hunshandake during 1960-1990 was less than 1,000 RBM, when the whole country was in a less developed state. Today, this figure is 2,910 RMB. Ratio of income from stock production to GDP (gross domestic product) has shrunk whilst income from industry and other activities has increased.

Project objective

Hunshandake Sandland/Xilin Gol Biosphere Reserve (China)

Nowadays, chicken feed contains a mix of hormones, trace elements and animal proteins. This diet can fatten a newly hatched chick into a plump three-to-five-kilogram chicken in 41 to 45 days. China’s markets and supermarkets are filled with this “rapid-growth food”: meat, eggs and seafood; fruit and vegetables grown out of season; grain cultivated with fertilizers and pesticides.

On the other hand, partly grain-fed chickens in the natural grassland take around 150 days to

reach three kilograms. Such quality foods produced using a totally ecological method may have a strong market in large cities like Beijing, which is located only 200 km south of Hunshandake Sandland.

The objective of the second phase of the Project is to try this innovative method to increase the quality and economic output from the grassland while keeping the highest net primary production (NPP) without serious over-grazing.

Solving food security issues means looking at the market. There is a strong trend that more and more urban consumers refuse food that contains hormones and additives. Differential pricing for products of different quality will mean consumer feedback, which can encourage farmers to produce safer food.

Ecologically, the grassland will be kept much healthier after large livestock is replaced by free-roaming chickens.  

© Jiang Gaoming
Chicken farming in Hunshandake Sandland/Xilin Gol Biosphere Reserve

Chicken farming: Local families are going to be helped to raise organic chickens, with baby chicken coming from Tai’an, Shandong Province. The local government agreed also to help local families with chicken house facilities.

Milk cattle: With the help from scientists from the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IBCAS), the Zhenglan Banner will choose Bayinhushu Gacha as the model village to shift meat cattle production to milk cattle production.

Forage marketing: Each year, Bayinhushu Gacha produces some 350,000 kg dry forage thanks to the achievements from first phase demonstration project.  If chicken and milk cattle had successfully replaced even more large lives.


© Jiang Gaoming
First results of the project in Hunshandake Sandland/Xilin Gol Biosphere Reserve (China)

Three main activities were carried out for fostering scientific drylands research: experiments on feeds consumed by chicken to determine the ideal feed types; identification of feed resources for free-range chicken; and, Net Primary Productivity (NPP) monitoring and land use patterns.

Land use patterns in Zhenglan Banner were identified and a protected core area was established in the Sandlands for chicken farming.
New land use patterns have been tested with local families, which also provide them with alternative sources of income; these include chicken farming, baby cattle breeding, and organic milk tofu production.

A proposal was developed by the project team to establish the largest eco-husbandry industry demonstration region in China’s grasslands; this is based on the past 10 years of successful demonstration of the Hunshandake project and the successful eight years of the SUMAMAD project. This plan was presented to the Director at the Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the Deputy President of CAS, and as a result, eco-husbandry became one of its eight mainstream research directions for 2010-2020.

During the national seminar, participants discussed the economic and ecological benefits for replacing cattle breeding with chicken farming in the grasslands. They further discussed possibilities and approaches for increasing the productivity of the grasslands as a way to support increasing populations, and talked about the potential for carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation in China’s sandlands if well restored.

Important decisions had been taken by the government to adopt eco-husbandry of chickens in the grasslands of China; the suggestions made by the SUMAMAD project team and the restoration success of the project have provided strong evidence for these policy decisions.

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