Kyrgyz Republic: Transhumance in the Northern Mountainous Areas



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • Central Asia


  • Kyrgyz Republic (Issyk-Kul and Naryn Provinces)


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of SEPLS practices in the northern region of the Kyrgyz Republic as an example of landscape-management practices in the region.


  • Transhumance, pastures, pastoralism


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Natural and Social Background

[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

The Kyrgyz Republic is a mountainous state with arable land accounting for only 7.1% of the national land (the figure as of 2008 quoted from FAOSTAT). Pastures, however, are abundant as the high mountain range is largely covered with natural steppe grasslands, leading to the livestock industry accounting for nearly half of the gross agricultural product (JICA, 2007). In particular, Issyk-Kul and Naryn provinces in the north have an active livestock industry with large mountainous areas. The lowest altitude within the province is 2,040 m for Naryn province, which is the highest among all the provinces in Kyrgyz, followed by 1,600 m for Issyk-Kul province (Kajiura, 2009). The country has an climate in which the precipitation gradually increases from winter to spring in the lowlands, while the rainy season is in the summer in the highlands. The north, more mountainous than the south, experiences high rainfall and a cool climate in the summer, which is suited to grazing (Kajiura, 2009). A small proportion of the population is fulltime livestock farmers, while the majority is agriculture-cum-livestock farmers, who keep livestock and, at the same time, practice farming on the limited area of arable land (JICA, 2007). Those in Issyk- Kul and Naryn provinces in the north cultivate agricultural products adapted to the highlands, including wheat, barley and potatoes, but the number of product items is less than in other provinces (Kajiura, 2009).

The Kyrgyz Republic became independent in August, 1991, just before the USSR collapsed in December of the same year. Since independence, the country has pursued a market economy and its economy has been gradually rising since 1995, with a major contribution from the agricultural sector. Its agro-pastoralism system has drastically changed since independence. When Kyrgyz was annexed by the USSR in the 1920s, all the arable land and livestock became state-owned property to serve the collective production system set up under the Soviet production regime composed of the kolkhoz (collective farms organized as cooperatives) and the sovkhoz (state-owned farms). In the postindependence era, the collective farm system was dissolved and a large portion of the arable land was distributed to the residents, leading to the generation of a number of small independent farmers. Livestock also became privately-owned, while the pastures remain state-owned even at present (Kajiura 2009; Esengulova et al., 2008).

In the pastures and their vicinity in the mountainous areas, there are many larger wild animals. The pastures are an important ecosystem that sustains the survival not only of the livestock, but of such wild herbivores as the Marco Polo Sheep (Ovis ammon polii) and the Siberian Ibex (Capra sibirica), and hence for the carnivores that eat such herbivores, including wolves and the Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia), which faces the threat of extinction (Watanabe et al., 2008; Arase et al., 2011; UNESCO, 2002).  

Characteristics of Transhumance

The livestock grazed in Kyrgyz include five species: sheep, goats, cattle, yaks, and horses. Among others, sheep and goats occur in high numbers as greater efforts have been made towards the production of wool since the Soviet era (Kajiura, 2010). In the post-independence era, livestock became privately-owned and its management also shifted from an organization-based system to an individual-based system, when the inappropriate transfer of management skills to individuals contributed to a sharp decline in the number of livestock, combined with the closure of wool processing plants and forced sales of livestock due to the hyperinflation during 1992-1993. From 1998 onwards, however, there had been no major changes in the number of livestock, which continued to show a stable trend. In recent years, the number of livestock has been growing steadily (Figure 1) (JICA, 2003; Esengulova et al., 2008).

The number of livestock per household varies according to the region and the ownership pattern of the livestock. According to a study conducted in the Naryn district, Naryn province, the average number of livestock per household was 15.3 head of sheep or goats, 2.5 of cattle and 2.8 of horses (JICA, 2007). Another study on 34 families in the Tong district, Issyk-Kul province found out that for 26 out of 34 families the grazing of livestock was contracted out to them by their acquaintances or relatives who were absent from the pastures. The average number of livestock owned by each of the 34 families was 56.1 head of sheep or goats, 9.3 of cattle and 5.4 of horses, while the average number contracted out to the 34 families by their counterparts was 202.9, 14.2 and 3.3 head, respectively. Thus, the number of grazed livestock was far larger for the contracted-out livestock than for the livestock owned by them (Kajiura, 2010).

In terms of the location of the pastures, the traditional pattern of Kyrgyzstan transhumance consists of the highlands in summer and the lowlands in winter. Such seasonal movement of livestock is made possible through livestock production by the subsistence economy of the people living in areas like Kyrgyz where the topography and climatic conditions are not suited to food crop production and is practiced based on the least amount of plant production. Livestock directly provide the people with food such as meat and milk and they generate cash income by selling some wool and the fattened livestock. In summer, it is important for fattening the livestock to take them to the alpine grasslands with lush pastures due to the high rainfall, which are located above the limit for crop agriculture. The grasses on the pastures are used as forage, or the livestock are directly fed by grazing them on the pastures. In Kyrgyzstan, depending on the season of use and the distance from the village, these pastures can be largely categorized into three types: the Spring- Autumn (Jazdoo – Kuzdoo), the Summer (Jailoo) and the Winter pastures (Kyshtoo). The use of state-owned pastures takes the form of leasing out arrangements to livestock farms or owners.

Figure 1. Trends in the Livestock Population in Kyrgyz from 1992 to 2009 (FAOSTAT)

The three types of pastures were separately managed by different administrative units: the Winter pastures, which are located closest to the villages, were managed by a local government at the village level known as the “Aiyl Okumotu”; the Spring-Autumn pastures were managed by a district government known as the “Raion”; and the Summer pastures, which are located farthest from the villages, were managed by a provincial government known as the “Oblast” (USAID, 2007). In 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government adopted a new law, the 2009 Law on Pastures, which transferred the responsibility for pasture management of all three types of pastures to the local government (Aiyl Okumotu) through the establishment of an Association of Pasture Users (APU) in each aiyl okmotu. A Pasture Committee, which consists of representatives of the pasture users and executive officers, was established as the executive body of the APU, which develops a plan for pasture use and implements the monitoring of the pastures and so on. The 2009 Law on Pastures also stipulates provisions for the distribution of pastures to the users. The areas of pasture for transhumance and fees for the use of the pastures are determined according to the number and type of livestock by the Pasture Committee. Users who pay the fee can obtain a ticket that certifies their right of access to the pastures and their use. Several documents are attached to the ticket, such as a map of the pastures, a receipt for the payment, the terms of pasture use, etc., and the users graze livestock based on information in the documents.

This sort of transhumance between high and low altitude areas is commonly practiced in mountainous areas unfit for agriculture in the adjacent countries of Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as in Nepal. Much further away, seasonal transhumance is practiced in areas along the Alps and along the Mediterranean coast.

The three types of pastures are described below in terms of their characteristics and the specific cycle of transhumance.  

1) Spring-Autumn pastures (Jazdoo – Kuzdoo)

The Spring-Autumn pastures are largely situated in the hilly areas at the foot of mountains below 2,500 m above sea level (Photo 1). Grazing starts in early spring, when the pastures sprout. They are also used as the venues for shearing and dipping. A number of herders own their huts to provide a base for livestock rearing and prepare to move up to the summer camp sites. In autumn, they return from the Summer pastures to this type of pasture for grazing (Esengulova et al., 2008; Fitzherbert et al., 2000). In the typical Spring-Autumn pastures, fescue, a member of the Compositae family, and Artemisia grow sparsely. Leguminous plants, including Medicago, Trifolium and Astragalus are lusher than in the Summer pastures, making a greater contribution to the grazing. However, overgrazing poses a major problem for the Spring-Autumn pastures. For example, the land surface vegetation cover in areas along the Tian Shan range rarely exceeds 40%. This also leads to the invasion of some plants unfit for grazing, including Ranunculus alberti , and Inula (Fitzherbert et al., 2000).  

Photo 1. Pasture of the early summer in northeastern Kyrgyz (Near the Kazakhstan border, about 2,000m above sea level) (Photo: Koichi Tokugawa)

2) Summer pastures (Jailoo)

Summer pastures in general are the alpine grasslands on the slopes of moderately undulating mountains at over 2,500 m above sea level, which take one to six days on foot or by horse to reach from the villages (Photo 2). The total area of Summer pastures is the largest among the three types of pastures (as shown in Table 1) and the high rainfall and cool climate during the summer season generates high biological productivity, altogether being taken advantage of by the grazing livestock. Sixty to one hundred percent of typical Summer pastures are accounted for by plants 5-15 cm high, including Festuca valesiaca (Poaceae), Carex and Cyperus, and the rest of them by broadleaved perennial herbs, legumes and Leontopodium ochroleucum. Around 10% of the Summer pastures have been invaded by prostrate plants, including Potentilla and Alchemilla (Fitzherbert et al., 2000).

3) Winter pastures (Kyshtoo)
There is no clear-cut benchmark for the altitude of the Winter pastures, but most likely they are located at a lower altitude and are closer to the villages than the Spring-Autumn pastures. As the pastures are to be fitted out for wintering camp sites, they are semi-arid steppes with less snowfall, where Artemisia and Stipa plants grow in general. In Naryn province with its lowest altitude of 2,040 m within the province, for instance, the Winter pastures in Kara-Kujur valley are located at 2,700 m above sea level and can produce abundant forage with little snowfall. As is often the case, the pastures, which are situated close to the villages, adjoin agricultural lands, fields for hay, orchards and forests. Most of the agriculture-cum-livestock farmers thus also cultivate wheat, barley, vegetables and so on.

Photo 2. Sheep grazing of summer in the northern part of Issyk-Kul Lake (Oruktu, about 2,500–3,000m above sea level) (Photo: Koichi Tokugawa)

Since the Winter pastures are closer to the villages, land degradation due to overgrazing is more severe than for the Spring-Autumn pastures (World Bank, 2007; Fitzherbert et al., 2000).

Table 1. Area of the Three Types of Pastures in Kyrgyz

Type of Pasture Km2 %
Summer pastures, from 2,500 to 3,500 meters above sea level 38,890 44
Spring-Autumn pastures – 1,500-2,500 meters above sea level 26,970 30
Winter pastures 22,850 26
Total Pasture Area 88,710 100

Source: Fitzherbert et al. (2000)

A case study on the herders in the Tong district, Issyk-Kul province will be discussed below from the point of view of the annual cycle of grazing. In the Tong district, located near the Issyk-Kul Lake, the traditional pattern of grazing took the form of the winter camp sites on the lake coast along the Teskei range, where, aside from grazing, agricultural practice was the cultivation of grains such as wheat and barley, as well as pomiculture, including grapes, apricots, apples, peaches and pears, and the summer camp sites for grazing were set up on the mountainside at higher altitudes (Sawada, 1999).

According to Kajiura (2010), the current grazing pattern of full-time herders in the Tong district can be summarized as shown below. Around April, they leave the winter camp sites and take their livestock to the huts around the villages. In May or soon afterwards, they choose a warm day to start shearing. Subsequently, they prepare for grazing, which begins in June and, in summer, transfer their livestock to the pastures at higher altitudes, where they set up the traditional assembled mobile houses known as “boz-üy” to provide a base for grazing. In September, when the temperatures decline sharply, the descent from the highland pastures commences and is completed no later than mid- October, when it snows. In their huts, they prepare for wintering and take their fattened livestock with them, as traders, to the livestock bazaars in nearby towns. During December, they practice breeding and wait for the calving season around March before they resume the livestock migration the following spring (Kajiura, 2010).  

Challenges and Responses

Kyrgyzstan pastoralism has significantly changed its form in the context of Soviet history from the founding to the collapse. Prior to the founding of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyz recognized that the pastures were common property. With no administrative organization in charge, they were managed by the kin or tribal groups actually practicing the grazing, the chiefs of which met together to discuss the grazing. The pastures were divided up on a kin or tribal group basis according to the natural topographic conditions such as rivers and valleys, and were used through shifting the sites for grazing subject to the condition of the pastures (rotational use) (Esengulova et al., 2008). In the Soviet era, all the livestock and pastures became state-owned and operated under the Soviet production regime composed of the kolkhoz and the sovkhoz, as mentioned above. Though the rotational use of pastures was encouraged under the control of the state, the maximization of livestock production under the collective production system led to a major problem of the intensive use of all the pastures. In the post-Soviet era, as mentioned in section (2) above, the pastures, which remain state-owned, were separately managed by different organizations and were leased out to livestock farms or owners until a new law was adopted in 2009. However, they had not been appropriately distributed due to the blurred boundaries, as well as to a lack of management capability, as exemplified by the fact that many of the organizations responsible for management even have no maps of the pastures. In the context of this situation, a number of the herders did not follow the traditional pattern of transhumance and have overused, for their convenience, the Winter and Spring- Autumn pastures, which are located closer to their villages. As a result, these pastures have become degraded and this has allowed the invasion of species unfit for grazing. In contrast, it was often the case that the Summer pastures, which are located further away from the villages, were underutilized. Although some have recovered from the degraded situation attributed to their intensive use during the Soviet era, many more underutilized pastures have declined in economic value due to the progress of plant succession with the invasion of secondary plants unfit for grazing (USAID, 2007; Esengulova et al., 2008). According to the Gosregister, the situation of grassland coverage in 2005-2006 was categorized into the lush growth of non-edible weeds (27%), soil erosion (19%) and substantial degradation (33%). Other problems that have been pointed out include the low profits from leasing out the pastures (US$ 0.35/ha on average), the lack of any role played by the local communities in the pasture management and the underdevelopment of the infrastructure (USAID, 2007).

In order to improve the situation concerning the pastures, a new law which was adopted in 2009 completely changed the pasturage system of Kyrgyz. It is expected that by managing all pastures at the local level, and clarifying the pasture areas and the payment, the state of pastures will be improved and also qualified pastures will increase the productivity of the livestock.  


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