PhD Research Summary

The socio-ecological dynamics of overgrazing in the Dhofar Mountains of Oman


Supervisors: Joseph Tzanopoulos (University of Kent), Douglas Macmillan (University of Kent) and Jonathan Mitchley (University of Reading).


Despite 40 years of rapid modernisation across Oman, pastoralism has remained deeply embedded in the culture of rural communities in the southern Dhofar Mountains. Improved veterinary care, low livestock disease prevalence, improved rural infrastructure, poor market access, and an absence of land tenure policies has seen livestock numbers increase exponentially since the 70’s, with numbers now significantly exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment. As a result widespread overgrazing is degrading key ecosystem services which support pastoral livelihoods, degrading unique habitats and threatening species of global conservation value.

Jabal Qamar, Jabal Qara and Jabal Samhan comprise the Dhofar Mountain ranges. Qamar and Qara (approx. 4,375 square km) receive the highest amount of precipitation between July and September. Here, the Dhofarian cloud forest (a hotspot for endemism) is threatened by overgrazing due to inhibition of a critical process known as horizontal precipitation capture. Removal of the tree canopies stops the ecosystem capturing crucial water from monsoon fog and evidence suggests severely overgrazed areas are unlikely to recover. The impacts of overgrazing are also undermining biodiversity conservation efforts. Most notably concerning the critically endangered Arabian Leopard, a flagship species for conservation in Oman.

An intervention is urgently required to manage pastoral activity in Dhofar with greater consideration for its environmental impacts. However, previous research in the region has failed to bridge disciplines to unravel the dynamics behind overgrazing, or harness the local knowledge (LK) of the pastoralists themselves.


This project aims to provide an interdisciplinary understanding of the dynamics of overgrazing in the monsoon-influenced Jabal Qamar and Jabal Qara mountain ranges of Dhofar, the results of which could help to support future policy decisions.

To this end the following four questions will be addressed:

1. What are the social drivers and dynamics of overgrazing?

lawrence camelAkin to most resource-use studies, the first priority will be to identify who
the resource users are. Gathering basic information such as gender, age, employment status and household size helps to characterize the resource users.

In order to revise livestock management strategies in Dhofar to reduce overgrazing it will be vital to quantify the feedback relationship between the availability of grazing resources, financial loss or gain and the fondness of individuals for keeping livestock. In other words, how valuable are grazing resources to pastoralists?

Many of the problems faced by pastoralists today are a consequence of the rapid development of Oman over the last half-century. One of the objectives of this study is to identify, rank and explore the problems perceived by livestock keepers in relation to livestock keeping. This is vital information as livestock keepers may have a more in-depth understanding of the problems (locally and regionally) than an outside researcher or government department. Furthermore, in order for policy changes to be accepted by livestock keepers it is highly likely such policies would have to stabilise or reduce the severity of these problems.

With a lack of national policy governing rural grazing activity we are interested in identifying any local social policies that may exist to limit overgrazing impacts. We also want to understand how Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in relation to livestock management has evolved alongside the rapid development of the region. We are interested in what knowledge is still used or has been lost, or indeed, if there is particular traditional knowledge that could be utilised to encourage more sustainable grazing regimes.

2. What is the spatio-temporal arrangement of grazing activity?

wpid-wp-1398972514917.jpegThe grazing regimes of Dhofar pastoralists have been generalized in Birks (1978) and discussed for goats in Zaibet et al (2004). This study will be the first to provide a detailed spatial analysis of grazing activity in the region.

By carrying out detailed participatory mapping exercises with livestock keepers we will be able to identify the where, who, what, when and why of grazing activity. In a given area (where), who grazes their livestock, what livestock species, when do they graze there (historically/seasonally), and most importantly why? Amazingly, all this information can be compiled onto a very large map, digitized using ArcGIS software on an iPad, and fed into a GIS system for analysis and modelling.

3. How does habitat health and grazing resource change with varying grazing activity?

bulbulOn-the-ground ecological surveys will take place over a 4 month period to quantify the health and grazing resource availability of habitats at selected survey sites across the mountains. Combined with on-the-ground habitat mapping, and GIS and remote sensing modelling techniques we aim to better understand the impacts of overgrazing on Dhofar’s mountain habitats.

Throughout the 11 month research period, observations of livestock (and their signs) will be accurately mapped onto a GIS to develop occupancy models for the different livestock species. These models can then be used to ground-truth the participatory grazing data.

4. Using accumulated evidence on the dynamics of overgrazing can we make suggestions for more sustainable grazing management practices?

wadi sayq cliffsThe current sustainability of grazing activitywill be explored within the disciplines of resource availability, ecological resilience and recovery, plant physiology, soil processes and biodiversity conservation.

Our accumulated evidence on both the social and ecological dynamics of overgrazing will be treated in depth, exclusive of each other. Then the two systems will be combined to develop robust and conclusive outputs grounded in both the data and real-world phenomena. These outputs will then be used to evaluate options for improved grazing management practices.


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