Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC

Grasslands

Over thousands of years, humans have learned to dominate and domesticate not just the creatures of the grasslands, but even the grass itself. Grasslands now feed more people than any other habitat on Earth but life here is not exactly a walk in the park. Suri stick fighters, Mongolian horseback riders, and Australian ranchers all face their own challenges.


Photo from Human Planet
Suri herders gather in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia for a donga, a stick fighting competition which tests their strength.

Introduction

Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC Grasslands

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About Grasslands

The fact that grasslands such as the African savannahs, the American prairies, and the Mongolian steppe make up almost a quarter of the land on Earth shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when you consider the size of the grass family: there are around 10,000 species of grass alive today. And yet just seven of those 10,000 species feed around six billion people around the world.

The grasslands are where modern humans (Homo sapiens) grew up and made their home. Without our exploitation of the grasslands - from the prairies of America to the rice terraces of China – this world would be a very different place.

Wheat, a man-made grass, has spread across the world, multiplied faster, and evolved more rapidly without extinction than any other species on the planet. Wheat now covers 600 million acres of land around the world, an area twice the size of Alaska. But wheat is not alone - rice, barley and corn are also popular grasses that don’t just feed us but also feed our animals.

In the pampas of Argentina, the number of traditional gauchos is dwindling as the men now prefer to work in the cities than on the land. But farming the grasslands doesn’t have to mean giving up one’s nomadic roots. Movement for pasture is still very important in many countries including Mongolia where the special design of their yurts – a type of portable home - makes it easy to take down, transport and repitch wherever there is better grazing.

The horses of the Mongolian steppe are a key part of nomadic life there and a main feature of the annual autumn Nadaam festival in which children as young as six ride bareback in a gruelling fifteen kilometre horse race.

As their herds are central to their existence, people of the plains can be fiercely protective of them even if they are relatively small. In Ethiopia, for example, Suri stick-fighters thrash each other to within an inch of their lives to show how good they might be at protecting their herd.

In Queensland, Australia, there are cattle herders with 90,000 head of cattle to their name. When the rains come the fields are covered in grass and wild flowers, but it’s now been seven years since there was significant rainfall and the cattle are starving. If some of the experts are to be believed, this may be the first time in history that climate change has had a serious impact on a developed country.

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