Restoration prospects for Heitutan degraded grassland in the Sanjiangyuan

Xi lai Li*, George L W Perry, Gary Brierley, Jay Gao, Jing Zhang, Yuan wu Yang

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


In many ecosystems ungulates have coexisted with grasslands over long periods of time. However, high densities of grazing animals may change the floristic and structural characteristics of vegetation, reduce biodiversity, and increase soil erosion, potentially triggering abrupt and rapid changes in ecosystem condition. Alternate stable state theory provides a framework for understanding this type of dynamic. In the Sanjiangyuan atop the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau (QTP), grassland degradation has been accompanied by irruptions of native burrowing animals, which has accentuated the loss of ground cover. Severely degraded areas of alpine meadows are referred to as 'Heitutan'. Here, using the framework of alternate stable state theory, we describe the proximate and ultimate drivers of the formation of Heitutan on the QTP, and we assess prospects for recovery, in relation to the degree of biophysical alteration, of these alpine meadows. Effective rehabilitation measures must address the underlying causes of degradation rather than their symptoms. Heitutan degradation is not uni-causal. Rather it reflects different mechanisms operating at different spatio-temporal scales across this vast region. Underlying causes include overly aggressive exploitation of the grasslands (e.g. overgrazing), amplification of grazing and erosion damage by small mammals when outbreaks occur, and/or climate change. Given marked variability in environmental conditions and stressors, restorative efforts must vary across the region. Restoration efforts are likely to yield greatest success if moderately and severely degraded areas are targeted as the first priority in management programmes, before these areas are transformed into extreme Heitutan.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)687-698
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Mountain Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Alpine meadow
  • Heitutan degraded grassland
  • Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (QTP)
  • Restoration/rehabilitation
  • Sanjiangyuan


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