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A catt of the Bakhtiari people, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, Iran. Nomadic Camping (266139768).jpg
A catt of the Bakhtiari people, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, Iran.
Global map of pastoralism, origins and spread, from ArchaeoGLOBE PAS.gif
Global map of pastoralism, origins and spread, from

Pastoralism is a form of animal husbandry where domesticated animals known as livestock are released onto large vegetated outdoor lands (pastures) for grazing, historically by nomadic people who moved around with their herds. The species involved include cattle, camels, goats, yaks, llamas, reindeer, horse and sheep. [2]


Pastoralism is found in many variations throughout the world, generally where environmental characteristics such as aridity, poor soils, cold or hot temperature, and lack of water make crop growing difficult or impossible. Operating in these more extreme environments with more marginal lands, mean that pastoral communities are very vulnerable to global warming. [3]

Pastoralism remains a way of life in many geographies including Africa, the Tibetan plateau, the Eurasian steppes, the Andes, Patagonia, the Pampas, Australia and many other places. As of 2019, 200-500 million people practise pastoralism globally, and 75% of all countries have pastoral communities. [3]

Pastoral communities have different levels of mobility. Sedentary pastoralism is becoming more common as the hardening of political borders, land tenures, expansion of crop farming, and construction of fences and dedicated agricultural buildings all reduce the ability to move livestocks around freely, leading to the rise of pastoral farming on established grazing zones called ranches. Sedentary pastoralists might also raise crops and livestocks together in the form of mixed farming, for the purpose of diversifying productivity, obtaining manure for organic farming, and improve pasture conditions for their livestock. Mobile pastoralism includes moving herds locally across short distances in search of fresh forage and water, something that can occur daily or even within a few hours; to transhumance, where animals are routinely moved between different seasonal pastures across regions; to nomadism, where pastoralists and families move with the animals in search for any available grazing grounds without much long-term planning. Grazing in woodlands and forests may be referred to as silvopastoralism. [4]

Pastoralist herds interact with their environment, and mediate human relations with the environment as a way of turning uncultivated plants like wild grass into food. In many places, grazing herds on savannas and woodlands can help maintain the biodiversity of the savannas and prevent them from evolving into dense shrublands or forests. Grazing and browsing at the appropriate levels often can increase biodiversity in Mediterranean climate regions. [5] [6] Pastoralists shape ecosystems in different ways: some communities use fire to make ecosystems more suitable for grazing and browsing animals.


Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, preparing to move to new pastures. Aquatint by Samuel Daniell (1805). Sameul Daniell - Kora-Khokhoi preparing to move - 1805.jpg
Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, preparing to move to new pastures. Aquatint by Samuel Daniell (1805).

One theory suggests that pastoralism developed from mixed farming. Bates and Lees proposed that the incorporation of irrigation into farming resulted in specialization. [7] Advantages of mixed farming include reducing risk of failure, spreading labour, and re-utilizing resources. The importance of these advantages and disadvantages to different farmers or farming societies differs according to the sociocultural preferences of the farmers and the biophysical conditions as determined by rainfall, radiation, soil type, and disease. [8] The increased productivity of irrigation agriculture led to an increase in population and an added impact on resources. Bordering areas of land remained in use for animal breeding. This meant that large distances had to be covered by herds to collect sufficient forage. Specialization occurred as a result of the increasing importance of both intensive agriculture and pastoralism. Both agriculture and pastoralism developed alongside each other, with continuous interactions. [7]

A different theory suggests that pastoralism evolved from hunting and gathering. Hunters of wild goats and sheep were knowledgeable about herd mobility and the needs of the animals. Such hunters were mobile and followed the herds on their seasonal rounds. Undomesticated herds were chosen[ by whom? ] to become more controllable for the proto-pastoralist nomadic hunter and gatherer groups by taming and domesticating them. Hunter-gatherers' strategies in the past have been very diverse and contingent upon the local environmental conditions, like those of mixed farmers. Foraging strategies have included hunting or trapping big game and smaller animals, fishing, collecting shellfish or insects, and gathering wild-plant foods such as fruits, seeds, and nuts. [9] These diverse strategies for survival amongst the migratory herds could also provide an evolutionary route towards nomadic pastoralism.[ citation needed ]


Pastoralism occurs in uncultivated areas. Wild animals eat the forage from the marginal lands and humans survive from milk, blood, and often meat of the herds and often trade by-products like wool and milk for money and food. [10]

Pastoralists do not exist at basic subsistence. Pastoralists often compile wealth and participate in international trade. Pastoralists have trade relations with agriculturalists, horticulturalists, and other groups. Pastoralists are not extensively dependent on milk, blood, and meat of their herd. McCabe noted that when common property institutions are created, in long-lived communities, resource sustainability is much higher, which is evident in the East African grasslands of pastoralist populations. [11] However, it needs to be noted that the property rights structure is only one of the many different parameters that affect the sustainability of resources, and common or private property per se, does not necessarily lead to sustainability. [12]

Some pastoralists supplement herding with hunting and gathering, fishing and/or small-scale farming or pastoral farming.


Mongol pastoralist in the Khovsgol Province Khovsgol Aimag19.JPG
Mongol pastoralist in the Khövsgöl Province

Mobility allows pastoralists to adapt to the environment, which opens up the possibility for both fertile and infertile regions to support human existence. Important components of pastoralism include low population density, mobility, vitality, and intricate information systems. The system is transformed to fit the environment rather than adjusting the environment to support the "food production system." [13] Mobile pastoralists can often cover a radius of a hundred to five hundred kilometers.

Pastoralists and their livestock have impacted the environment. Lands long used for pastoralism have transformed under the forces of grazing livestock and anthropogenic fire. Fire was a method of revitalizing pastureland and preventing forest regrowth. The collective environmental weights of fire and livestock browsing have transformed landscapes in many parts of the world. Fire has permitted pastoralists to tend the land for their livestock. Political boundaries are based on environmental boundaries. [14] The Maquis shrublands of the Mediterranean region are dominated by pyrophytic plants that thrive under conditions of anthropogenic fire and livestock grazing. [15]

Nomadic pastoralists have a global food-producing strategy depending on the management of herd animals for meat, skin, wool, milk, blood, manure, and transport. Nomadic pastoralism is practiced in different climates and environments with daily movement and seasonal migration. Pastoralists are among the most flexible populations. Pastoralist societies have had field armed men protect their livestock and their people and then to return into a disorganized pattern of foraging. The products of the herd animals are the most important resources, although the use of other resources, including domesticated and wild plants, hunted animals, and goods accessible in a market economy are not excluded. The boundaries between states impact the viability of subsistence and trade relations with cultivators. [16]

Pastoralist strategies typify effective adaptation to the environment. [17] Precipitation differences are evaluated by pastoralists. In East Africa, different animals are taken to specific regions throughout the year that corresponds to the seasonal patterns of precipitation. [18] Transhumance is the seasonal migration of livestock and pastoralists between higher and lower pastures.

Some pastoralists are constantly moving, which may put them at odds with sedentary people of towns and cities. The resulting conflicts can result in war for disputed lands. These disputes are recorded in ancient times in the Middle East, as well as for East Asia. [19] [20] Other pastoralists are able to remain in the same location which results in longer-standing housing.

Camel market in Sudan Camel Market (8626639754).jpg
Camel market in Sudan

Different mobility patterns can be observed: Somali pastoralists keep their animals in one of the harshest environments but they have evolved of the centuries. Somalis have well developed pastoral culture where complete system of life and governance has been refined. Somali poetry depicts humans interactions, pastoral animals, beasts on the prowl, and other natural things such the rain, celestial events and historic events of significance. Wise sage Guled Haji coined a proverb that encapsulates the centrality of water in pastoral life

Ceel biyo lihi ma foga

A well which has water is never far

—Guled Haji [21]

Mobility was an important strategy for the Ariaal; however with the loss of grazing land impacted by the growth in population, severe drought, the expansion of agriculture, and the expansion of commercial ranches and game parks, mobility was lost. The poorest families were driven out of pastoralism and into towns to take jobs. Few Ariaal families benefited from education, healthcare, and income earning. [22]

The flexibility of pastoralists to respond to environmental change was reduced by colonization. For example, mobility was limited in the Sahel region of Africa with settlement being encouraged. The population tripled and sanitation and medical treatment were improved.

The Afar pastoralists in Ethiopia uses an indigenous communication method called dagu for information. This helps them in getting crucial information about climate and availability of pastures at various locations.


Pastoralists have mental maps of the value of specific environments at different times of year. Pastoralists have an understanding of ecological processes and the environment. [23] Information sharing is vital for creating knowledge through the networks of linked societies. [24]

Pastoralists produce food in the world's harshest environments, and pastoral production supports the livelihoods of rural populations on almost half of the world's land. Several hundred million people are pastoralists, mostly in Africa and Asia. ReliefWeb reported that "Several hundred million people practice pastoralism—the use of extensive grazing on rangelands for livestock production, in over 100 countries worldwide. The African Union estimated that Africa has about 268 million pastoralists—over a quarter of the total population—living on about 43 percent of the continent’s total land mass." [25] Pastoralists manage rangelands covering about a third of the Earth's terrestrial surface and are able to produce food where crop production is not possible.

Nenets reindeer herders in Russia Stoibishche nentsev.jpg
Nenets reindeer herders in Russia

Pastoralism has been shown, "based on a review of many studies, to be between 2 and 10 times more productive per unit of land than the capital intensive alternatives that have been put forward". However, many of these benefits go unmeasured and are frequently squandered by policies and investments that seek to replace pastoralism with more capital intensive modes of production. [26] They have traditionally suffered from poor understanding, marginalization and exclusion from dialogue. The Pastoralist Knowledge Hub, managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN serves as a knowledge repository on technical excellence on pastoralism as well as "a neutral forum for exchange and alliance building among pastoralists and stakeholders working on pastoralist issues". [27]

Pastoralism and farm animal genetic resource

There is a variation in genetic makeup of the farm animals driven mainly by natural and human based selection. [28] For example, pastoralists in large parts of Sub Saharan Africa are preferring livestock breeds which are adapted to their environment and able to tolerate drought and diseases. [29] However, in other animal production systems these breeds are discouraged and more productive exotic ones are favored. [28] This situation could not be left unaddressed due to the changes in market preferences and climate all over the world, [30] which could lead to changes in livestock diseases occurrence and decline forage quality and availability. Hence pastoralists can maintain farm animal genetic resources by conserving local livestock breeds. [29] Generally conserving farm animal genetic resources under pastoralism is advantageous in terms of reliability and associated cost. [31]

Tragedy of the commons

Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons (1968) described how common property resources, such as the land shared by pastoralists, eventually become overused and ruined. [32] According to Hardin's paper, the pastoralist land use strategy suffered criticisms of being unstable and a cause of environmental degradation. [33]

Tuareg pastoralists and their herds flee south into Nigeria from Niger during the 2005-06 Niger food crisis Niger nomads flee drought 16 aug 2005.jpg
Tuareg pastoralists and their herds flee south into Nigeria from Niger during the 2005–06 Niger food crisis

However, one of Hardin's conditions for a "tragedy of the commons" is that people cannot communicate with each other or make agreements and contracts. Many scholars have pointed out that this is ridiculous, and yet it is applied in development projects around the globe, motivating the destruction of community and other governance systems that have managed sustainable pastoral systems for thousands of years. The outcomes have often been disastrous. [34] In her book Governing the Commons, Elinor Ostrom showed that communities were not trapped and helpless amid diminishing commons. She argued that a Common-pool resource, such as grazing lands used for pastoralism, can be managed more sustainably through community groups and cooperatives than through privatization or total governmental control. [35] Ostrom was awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her work. [36]

Pastoralists in the Sahel zone in Africa were held responsible for the depletion of resources. [33] The depletion of resources was actually triggered by a prior interference and punitive climate conditions. [37] Hardin's paper suggests a solution to the problems, offering a coherent basis for privatization of land, which stimulates the transfer of land from tribal peoples to the state or to individuals. [32] The privatized programs impact the livelihood of the pastoralist societies while weakening the environment. [23] Settlement programs often serve the needs of the state in reducing the autonomy and livelihoods of pastoral people.

The violent herder–farmer conflicts in Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries in the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions have been exacerbated by climate change, land degradation, and population growth. [38] [39] [40]

However, recently it has been shown that pastoralism supports human existence in harsh environments and often represents a sustainable approach to land use. [23]

See also

Related Research Articles

Overgrazing When plants are grazed for extended periods without sufficient recovery time

Overgrazing occurs when plants are exposed to intensive grazing for extended periods of time, or without sufficient recovery periods. It can be caused by either livestock in poorly managed agricultural applications, game reserves, or nature reserves. It can also be caused by immobile, travel restricted populations of native or non-native wild animals.

Nomad Person without fixed habitat

A nomad is a member of a community without fixed habitation which regularly moves to and from the same areas. Such groups include hunter-gatherers, pastoral nomads, and tinkers or trader nomads. In the twentieth century, population of nomadic pastoral tribes slowly decreased, reaching to an estimated 30–40 million nomads in the world as of 1995.

Pasture Land used for grazing

Pasture is land used for grazing. Pasture lands in the narrow sense are enclosed tracts of farmland, grazed by domesticated livestock, such as horses, cattle, sheep, or swine. The vegetation of tended pasture, forage, consists mainly of grasses, with an interspersion of legumes and other forbs. Pasture is typically grazed throughout the summer, in contrast to meadow which is ungrazed or used for grazing only after being mown to make hay for animal fodder. Pasture in a wider sense additionally includes rangelands, other unenclosed pastoral systems, and land types used by wild animals for grazing or browsing.

Rotational grazing System of grazing moving animals between paddocks around the year

In agriculture, rotational grazing, as opposed to continuous grazing, describes many systems of pasturing, whereby livestock are moved to portions of the pasture, called paddocks, while the other portions rest. Each paddock must provide all the needs of the livestock, such as food, water and sometimes shade and shelter. The approach often produces lower outputs than more intensive animal farming operations, but requires lower inputs, and therefore sometimes produces higher net farm income per animal.

Transhumance Type of pastoralism

Transhumance is a type of pastoralism or nomadism, a seasonal movement of livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures. In montane regions, it implies movement between higher pastures in summer and lower valleys in winter. Herders have a permanent home, typically in valleys. Generally only the herds travel, with a certain number of people necessary to tend them, while the main population stays at the base. In contrast, horizontal transhumance is more susceptible to being disrupted by climatic, economic, or political change.

Extensive farming Agriculture system that involve low inputs and outputs relative to land area

Extensive farming or extensive agriculture is an agricultural production system that uses small inputs of labour, fertilizers, and capital, relative to the land area being farmed.

Grazing feeding livestock on forage

In agriculture, grazing is a method of animal husbandry whereby domestic livestock are allowed outdoors to roam around and consume wild vegetations in order to convert the otherwise indigestible cellulose within grass and other forages into meat, milk, wool and other animal products, often on land unsuitable for arable farming.

Rangeland Biomes which can be grazed by animals or livestock (grasslands, woodlands, prairies, etc)

Rangelands are grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, wetlands, and deserts that are grazed by domestic livestock or wild animals. Types of rangelands include tallgrass and shortgrass prairies, desert grasslands and shrublands, woodlands, savannas, chaparrals, steppes, and tundras. Rangelands do not include forests lacking grazable understory vegetation, barren desert, farmland, or land covered by solid rock, concrete and/or glaciers.

Pastoral farming Method for producing livestock

Pastoral farming is aimed at producing livestock, rather than growing crops. Examples include dairy farming, raising beef cattle, and raising sheep for wool. In contrast, arable farming concentrates on crops rather than livestock. Finally, mixed farming incorporates livestock and crops on a single farm. Some mixed farmers grow crops purely as fodder for their livestock; some crop farmers grow fodder and sell it. In some cases pastoral farmers are known as graziers, and in some cases pastoralists. Pastoral farming is a non-nomadic form of pastoralism in which the livestock farmer has some form of ownership of the land used, giving the farmer more economic incentive to improve the land. Unlike other pastoral systems, pastoral farmers are sedentary and do not change locations in search of fresh resources. Rather, pastoral farmers adjust their pastures to fit the needs of their animals. Improvements include drainage, stock tanks, irrigation and sowing clover.

Nomadic pastoralism is a form of pastoralism when livestock are herded in order to seek for fresh pastures on which to graze. True nomads follow an irregular pattern of movement, in contrast with transhumance where seasonal pastures are fixed. However this distinction is often not observed and the term nomad used for both—in historical cases the regularity of movements is often unknown in any case. The herded livestock include cattle, water buffalo, yaks, llamas, sheep, goats, reindeer, horses, donkeys or camels, or mixtures of species. Nomadic pastoralism is commonly practised in regions with little arable land, typically in the developing world, especially in the steppe lands north of the agricultural zone of Eurasia.


Yaylak is a summer highland pasture associated with transhumance pastoralism in several Central and Western Asian communities. There are different variants of yaylak pastoralism forms of alpine transhumance, some of which are similar to seminomadic pastoralism, although most are similar to herdsman husbandry. However, in the Eurasian steppes, the Middle East and North Africa, yaylak pastoralism often coexists with seminomadic pastoralism and pastoral nomadism. The term had been commonly used in Soviet anthropology.

Livestock Animals kept for production of meat, eggs, milk, wool, etc.

Livestock is commonly defined as domesticated animals raised in an agricultural setting to produce labor and commodities such as meat, eggs, milk, fur, leather, and wool. The term is sometimes used to refer solely to those that are bred for consumption, while other times it refers only to farmed ruminants, such as cattle, sheep and goats. Horses are considered livestock in the United States. The USDA classifies pork, veal, beef, and lamb (mutton) as livestock and all livestock as red meat. Poultry and fish are not included in the category.

North Australian Pastoral Company

The North Australian Pastoral Company (NAPCO) is a large, privately owned, Australian cattle company which operates 13 cattle stations covering over 60,000 km2, managing about 200,000 cattle, in Queensland and the Northern Territory. It produces beef cattle which are grass fed and grain finished before sale to Australian meat processors who onsell beef to domestic and international customers.

Holistic management (agriculture)

Holistic Management in agriculture is an approach to managing resources that was originally developed by Allan Savory. Holistic Management is a registered trademark of Holistic Management International.

Fulani herdsmen

Fulani herdsmen or Fulani pastoralists are nomadic or semi-nomadic Fulani people whose primary occupation is raising livestock. The Fulani herdsmen are largely located in the Sahel and semi-arid parts of West Africa, but due to relatively recent changes in climate patterns, many herdsmen have moved further south into the savannah and tropical forest belt of West Africa. The herdsmen are found in countries such as Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, and Cameroon. In Senegal, they inhabit northeastern Ferlo and the southeastern part of the country. In many of these countries the Fula often constitute a minority group. But in Nigeria Operating mainly in the middle belt of Nigeria, opposed to the north which is dominated by Boko Haram, the group recorded 847 deaths last year across five states, and has also been known to stage attacks in the Central African Republic (CAR), according to the latest report from the Global Terrorism Index.

Rangeland management

Rangeland management is a professional natural science that centers around the study of rangelands and the "conservation and sustainable management [of Arid-Lands] for the benefit of current societies and future generations." Range management is defined by Holechek et al. as the "manipulation of rangeland components to obtain optimum combination of goods and services for society on a sustained basis."

Animal genetic resources for food and agriculture

Animal genetic resources for food and agriculture (AnGR) are a subset of genetic resources and a specific element of agricultural biodiversity. The term animal genetic resources refers specifically to the genetic resources of avian and mammalian species, which are used for food and agriculture purposes. Further terms referring to AnGR are "farm animal genetic resources" or "livestock diversity".

Grassland accounts for China’s largest land resource, covering nearly 41 percent of the national land area. Grassland in the Chinese context comprises widely varying eco-types ranging from the meadows and forest steppes of former Manchuria in the Northeast; and the high, alpine pastures of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau; to the (semi)arid steppes and deserts in China’s Great West. Due to this geographical and ecological variety, the utilization of grassland is not limited to grazing and forage production, but extends to the exploitation of grassland and forest by-products, as well as the exploitation of mineral resources. Of the total of around 393 million hectares of grassland in China, 84 percent or 331 million hectares is deemed usable for grazing.

A Subsistence Pattern – alternatively known as a subsistence strategy – is the means by which a society satisfies its basic needs for survival. This encompasses the attainment of nutrition, water, and shelter. The five broad categories of subsistence patterns are foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, agriculture, and industrial food production.

Transhumance in Ethiopia

In the crop growing season, transhumance is practised on a broad scale in the northern Ethiopian highlands, as farmland and its stubble can no longer be accessed by livestock.


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