Tradition of Nomadic Pastoralism: The Kyrgyz Herder

This paper reviews the history and transformation of nomadic herding practices of the Kyrgyz people in Central Asia. Specifically, it aims to provide a historical and cultural framework to examine the political, economic and social forces that have shaped the Kyrgyz herder.

The practice of semi-nomadic pastoralism is strongly rooted in Kyrgyz cultural identity as the practice extends regionally back thousands of years. Despite drastic political transformations over the past two centuries, livestock has remained the most important component of rural livelihoods in Kyrgyzstan. Today, pastoralism continues to be the main livelihood for many rural Kyrgyz as topographic and climatic constraints limit crop cultivation. The arid mountainous landscape of Kyrgyzstan is best suited for migrational grazing. Of the roughly 20 million ha of Kyrgyz territory, more than 9 million are pastures, but only 1.4 million can be used for crop production (Ludi, 2003).

Demise of widespread pastoral nomadism in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia was a result of radical transformation and forced sedentarization under the Soviet Union.  Since independence in 1991 there has been a widespread resurgence of herding practices as rural people attempt to maintain self-sufficiency through a combination of agriculture practices and animal husbandry. A variety of tactics are being utilized by families and groups without fully reverting to true pastoral nomadism. However a substantial number of people are utilizing semi-nomadic practices characterized by seasonal mobility and elevational movement of livestock and people to spring and summer pastures.  Traditional pastoralism and subsistence living can be difficult to incorporate within a contemporary economical framework that has strong commercial demands for increases in productivity. The livelihood difficulties faced by rural residents, especially herders, may only be intensified by current political instability and future environmental changes. Despite these challenges, most Kyrgyz perceive livestock to represent a stable investment with an optimistic future.


Nomadic pastoralism is a unique livelihood utilizing deliberate movements of people and animals to different areas, often taking advantage of seasonal appearances of vegetation. The movement associated with a nomadic life allows for many more animals to be maintained within herds than could be supported on a single fixed pasture. True pastoral nomadism is defined as participation in herding by all of a majority of the population, maintaining mobility in agreement with requirements of their free-ranging animal herds throughout the year. The orientation of production is towards subsistence. Nomadic pastoralism has existed for several thousand years in many regions throughout the world and still continues today, although much more limited in scope (Khazanov, 1994).

Across the huge expanses of Central Asia’s steppe pastoral nomadism has been a dominant way of life for thousands of years as the land and climate are poorly suited for agriculture. The region is characterized by an extreme continental climate with low precipitation, extreme summer heat, and severely cold winters resulting in huge expanses of grassland and semi-desert areas. The high mountain ranges, the Tien Shan, Pamir and Altai ranges, interspersed within the region are even less suited for agriculture (Barfield, 1993).  Nomadic pastoralism is a more efficient way to utilize the environment than sedentary practices or hunting and gathering (Bacon, 1954). If humans attempted to remain fixed in a location all year their animals would run out of pasture and in many locations people and animals would be subject to climatic extremes, either of extreme cold and snow high in the mountains or that of extreme heat in lowlands. Sedentary pastoralism would require growing animal fodder in an environment mostly incapable of agricultural production without irrigation. In select locations, such as river bottoms where agriculture would be feasible, sedentary pastoralism is an inefficient practice as more people can be supported on the feed grown than the meat produced by feed animals.

Central Asian pastoralism including Kyrgyz nomadic tribes were derived from a Siberian woodland culture. This linkage is supported by the presence of shamanism, hearths, tailored clothing and yurts (Bacon, 1954). Evidence of domesticated animals first appears in Siberia in around 2000 B.C. However the nomadic complex did not fully develop until horseback riding first appeared on the western steppe of Central Asia sometime around 1000 B.C (Bacon, 1954).

Nomadic pastoralism came to be the predominate way of life in Central Asia with nomadic family clans becoming incorporated into tribes. Over time complex political relationships framed the formation of empires at times encompassing millions of nomadic people (Barfield, 1993).  The nomadic people of Central Asia were self sufficient economically and mostly did not practice agriculture, subsisting on milk products and meat and obtaining clothing, shelter, and equipment from animal products (Bacon, 1954). The yurt was ubiquitous to the nomadic life on the steppe. With climatic extremes the yurt is prided for its insulation abilities: to retain warmth in the bitter cold and to remain cool in hot summer heat (Bacon, 1954)

Within tribes, kinship was the most important factor of social organization. The majority of pastoral nomads, including those of Central Asia, have patrilineal kinship relations for descent, residence and inheritance (Barfield, 1993). Pastures use and migrations routes were generally passed down from generation to generation.  Group size was determined by season and available resources. Winter camps were often substantially larger due to limited winter pasture. These camps might be composed of large extended family groups as opposed to summer camps of small family units in just a few yurts.  Social organization at the tribal level and above was more political in nature. Large scale movement and the challenging physical environment facilitated groups to create alliances with other groups (Barfield, 1993).

The centerpiece of nomadic life was the animals. Central Asia nomads were multi-animal herders breeding horses, sheep and depending on the tribe goats, cattle, camels and yaks. Two general distinctions are made: animals used for transport (horses, donkeys, yaks, camels) and animals used for meat, milk, wool or hides (sheep, goats, cattle). Central Asian nomads often took advantage of multiple uses of their animals more than any other groups utilizing horses for transport, food and products (Barfield, 1993).

A symbol of wealth and power, horses played a very important role among steppe nomads facilitating long distance travel and military endeavors. Beyond serving as the primary transport animal, horsemeat is a delicacy used to mark occasions such as weddings and funerals and mare’s milk is fermented to produce koomuz, a mildly alcoholic beverage that is prided for its health benefits. Despite the honor bestowed upon horse, sheep are the most important subsistence animal, serving as the main source of meat and wool (Bacon, 1954; Barfield, 1993). Sheep have a wider tolerance for many plant species than other livestock and do well in extreme climates (Khazanov, 1994). Other animals, such as goats and cattle diversified herds and were secondary sources of products. Herd sizes were kept in check by severe winters (Wilson, 1997).

Migration distance and frequency were determined the severity of climate, the quality of pasture, availability of water and the type of animals (Barfield, 1993). The migratory cycle across Central Asia took two main forms: horizontal or vertical movement. Nomads, such as those on the Kazakh steppe migrated horizontally for long distances from north to south, sometimes traveling more than 500 kilometers round trip.  Turks sometimes utilized radial migration patterns (Khazanov, 1994). In mountain areas, such as the Tien Shan, much shorter vertical migrations occurred across elevation gradients (Barfield, 1993).


Kyrgyz nomadic tribes are considered to be a Turkic people, who share the regional ancestral original of Siberia’s upper Yenisey River basin. Specifics of early Kyrgyz history are slim, as they did not have any written history. The first information about them is found in ancient Chinese writings (Tchoroev, 2002). It is know that from 840 to 925 AD Kyrgyz ruled present day Mongolia before being  pushed west by the invasion of the Mongols. Islam was brought to Kyrgyz tribes in the 10th century, although it is practiced lightly by the nomadic peoples that adopted it. The Kyrgyz were incorporated into Genghis Khan’s army and the Mongol dynasty in the 13th century. By the 16th century they had moved further west and came to occupy the western Tien Shan Mountain (Soucek 2000).

The nomadic practices of Kyrgyz tribes followed general regional principals. The Kyrgyz nomadic tribe was divided among clans composed of related family units. Sheep and horses were the most important animals. Animals did not belong individuals but to clan units and pasture use based on kinship.  Men took main responsibility for herding, hunting and warfare while women tended to camp chores, dairying and making felt. Their diet was composed of milk and meat products (Khazanov, 1994). The Kyrgyz had no permanent settlements, living in yurts year round.  At the beginning of the 19th century as many as 100 families might move together as a clan unit for protection from other raiding clans and tribes. However nomadic camps, especially in the summer usually consisted of five to ten yurts (Farrington, 2005a)

Kyrgyz herders (chaban) utilized a three-pasture, four season cycle that was vertical in nature. Migration distances varied from 20 to 200 km between ancestral encampments (ata-konush).  During winter, from November to April, large groups would gather in winter pastures of lowland valleys. In the spring, groups would split into smaller family units and move to higher elevation spring pastures before moving to high altitude summer alpine pastures (jailoo), occupying them from June to August. In the autumn herds would slowly move back to mid-elevation pastures before returning to winter camps (van Veen, 1995; Farrington, 2005). The limiting factor of herd sizes was availability of winter pasture and fodder (van Veen, 1995)


The traditional way of life and herding practices initially underwent change with the arrival of the Russian army in Bishkek in 1860. Thousand of Russian and Ukrainian settlers followed, creating permanent settlements in fertile lowland valleys, converting large areas into agricultural land on areas that served as winter pasture for many Kyrgyz families and clans. The reduction in winter pasture and reduced water access forced families with small herds to settle. These were the first permanent Kyrgyz settlements (Bacon 1954, Popova 1994, Schillhom van Veen 1995, Wilson 1997). It is estimated that by 1914, twenty-two percent of the Kyrgyz population had settled (Popova 1994).

The Kyrgyz were incorporated into the Soviet Union along with the Kazak and Turkmen nomadic groups. The impact did not become direct until the 1930’s when Joseph Stalin implemented sedentarization and collectivization project. From 1928 to 1932, permanent settlements were built throughout Kyrgyzstan and nomadic peoples were forced to settle and give up their livestock (Popova 1994, Soucek 2000, Farrington, 2005). Reports vary, but not all nomads settled voluntarily (Tchoroev, 2002). All farmers and pastoralists were forced into centralized collectives or state farms surrendering their animals and property to state control and management. Many nomads slaughtered their animals in opposition to surrendering them (Barfield, 1993).

Within Kyrgyzstan, 275 state farms (sovkhoz) and 195 collective farms (kolkhoz) were organized (Wilson, 1997), specializing either in crop or livestock production replacing all traditional units based on kinship (Ludi, 2003). Personal ownership of animals or land was prohibited. At the same time, customary practices, traditions and ways of dress were forbidden. Many traditional elites were imprisoned, deported or killed for supposedly being state enemies. Russian peasants were the primary target of the forced collectivization. However the forced sedentarization of nomadic people was a secondary benefit.

Large scale mortality occurred among the animals incorporated into the state collectives from neglect and cold exposure. In 1932 of an estimated original 18.5 million sheep only 1.3 million sheep remained in all of Soviet Central Asia. This drastic reduction is attributed to the widespread famine and the deaths of one million people from 1931-1933. Thousands of additional people across Soviet Central Asia fled (Popova 1994, Soucek 2000, Farrington, 2005).  Within Kyrgyzstan the number of sheep and goats was reduced from 3.1 million to 950,000 from 1930-1932.  Recovery from these livestock losses did not occur until the 1960’s (Barfield, 1993). The Kazaks suffered the worst, from 1929 to 1933 the number of livestock dropped from 36 million to 4 million resulting in over 25 percent of Kazaks humans dying from famine and typhoid (Naumova, 1991).

In 1936, Kyrgyzstan was declared a Soviet Socialist Republic, the Kirghiz SSR. By this time the traditional nomadic way of life had ceased.  However, vertical migration of animals and selected Soviet herds still occurred to utilize productive summer pastures.  Grazing allocation was managed by Soviet councils and of the estimated 60,000 Soviet herders, 75 percent of them were still operating on a transhumance migration under collectivization. However, the basic practices of seasonal migration underwent significant changes. Movement of livestock often occurred through the use of trucks to transport livestock to summer pastures. State farms would sometimes move animals up to 200 kilometers and herds were occasionally moved to winter pastures in Kazakhstan by train (van Veen, 1995). An extensive network of infrastructure and villages was built to support these endeavors. Small villages were built in high mountain valleys to support herders (Farrington, 2005a).

Under collectivization, many changes were brought to animal husbandry and agriculture. Mechanization for transportation, production and processing of agricultural products greatly was one of the greatest changes (Farrington, 2005a). Wool production became atop priority, shifting livestock production from horses and traditional breeds of sheep to the introduction of the Kyrgyz Fine Wool Merino Sheep. Replacing traditional breeds valued for their fat, meat and ability to survive the harsh climate; these new breed required winter sheds for warmth and required supplemental feed (Van Leuwenn 1994, Farrington, 2005a). Herders became heavily dependent on both locally grown fodder and imported grain feed (van Veen, 1995).

The sheep population within Kyrgyzstan slowly rose following the devastating losses of the 1930’s. By 1940 there were 3 million sheep and about 10 million in the 1980’s (van Veen, 1995).  Agriculture was the leading export during Soviet period, accounting for over half of the exports and one third of the gross product (Bloch et al., 1996). Among the Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan was the third most important wool and meat producing republic, following only much larger Russia and Kazakhstan (Wilson, 1997).

With growing herds, the Soviet emphasis on productivity led to strong dependency on imported fodder, overgrazing and unsustainable land use (Barfield, 1993). Agricultural practices reflected this ideology and were heavily reliant on fertilizers, machinery, and subsidies (Ludi, 2003).

By 1989, livestock numbers were estimated to be at least twice the capacity of winter pastures resulting in widespread erosion and pasture degradation. Within Kyrgyzstan, there was a livestock population of 17.8 million sheep equivalents (1 sheep eq. = 5 cows or horses). Kyrgyzstan had a density of 90 sheep equivalent per km2. The number of sheep (10.8 million) was four times higher than in 1941.  Herd sizes were limited by availability of fodder. Local pastures were being converted to agricultural lands to grow additional feed, increasing animal density on existing pastures furthering impact and degradation. In 1987 it was estimated that the grain used for animal feed was twice that consumed by the human population of 4 million people within the Kyrgyz Republic (Wilson 1997, Farrington, 2005a).


The Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic became the first of the Central Asian republic to declare independence in 1991. Although Soviet rule had been oppressive, the Soviet state had provided jobs, education and medical care while providing subsidies to maintain many unsustainable and unprofitable ventures.  Being one of the poorest republics, independence and a transition to a free market economy led to an economic collapse and a drastic social breakdown leaving industries without support or access to markets (Duncan 1994, van Veen, 1995, Ludi, 2003). Privatization and restructuring began in 1991 by dismantling all of the collective farms and was finished in 1994 when almost of all Kyrgyzstan’s arable land was transferred to small land holders (Bloch et al., 1996). Assets, such as cropland and animals of state farms, were divided among households of the area. Allocation was based on the number of family members. Many households were forced to sell livestock to purchase other goods, while others were unable to maintain herd sizes (Ludi, 2003).

Livestock numbers plummeted due to forced reduction in herd sizes, the end of imported fodder and drastic declines in the prices for livestock products (Bloch et al., 1996). Overuse of land in close proximity to settled areas occurred as most households did not have large enough herds to justify lengthy migrations. This resulted in great environmental degradation of low and middle pastures with the complete abandonment of high summer pastures. (Babu et al., 2000, Farrington, 2005). Additionally, accessibility to mountain pastures became increasingly difficult due to deteriorating road conditions and high transport costs (Ludi, 2003).  Greater risk of disease also resulted from crowding of herds at close pastures (van Veen, 1995). The breakdown of organized herding caused other problems such as mineral deficiency from lack of a varied diet and the increases in mortality due to lack of disease prevention and vaccination programs. In Kyrgyzstan, the sheep population decreased from 11 to 3 million animals.

There was a drastic increase in poverty following independence due to economic factors and changes in livelihood (UNDP, 2002). Within Kyrgyzstan the number of people living in poverty rose from half a million (12 percent) in 1987 to 4 million (88 percent) in 1995 (Babu et al., 2000). Despite the fact that Kyrgyzstan was one of the more progressive former republics to attempt to embrace market-based economies, economic hardships resulted in food insecurity throughout the country (Babu et al., 2000).

With the dire economy and food insecurity in rural areas self sufficiency became crucial.  Many herders reverted to use of traditional breeds, such as the Kyrgyz Fat tailed sheep valued for their fat and meat, which were maintained in households illegally throughout the Soviet regime (Farrington, 2005a). Additionally most families became highly dependent on subsistence farming (Schmidt, 2001). While the number of sheep dramatically fell between 1989 and 1999, the number of horses in Kyrgyzstan grew slightly from 300,000 to 350,000 as people became reliant on them for transportation (Farrington, 2005a). Although many of these survival tactics meant reverting to traditional ways, many individuals had been specialized employees during the Soviet era and lacked agricultural knowledge (Ludi, 2003).

Following the initial shock of independence most rural people became self-sufficient through a combination of agriculture and animal husbandry (Schmidt, 2001). With increasing private herds, many herders started to migrate elevationally to access better pasture. Many individuals and families adapted semi-nomadic practices, moving to high altitude summer pastures for the summer. Different tactics are being undertaken, such as herds moving to pastures as individual family units, within extended families, in partnerships or herding cooperatives (Farrington, 2005a). Beyond logistical benefits of these relationships, communities comprised of extended families and clans have been long been central to Kyrgyz individual and group identity. No notable population has reverted to true nomadic pastoralism, as all herders return to settlements in the winter.

However, the semi-nomadic livelihood highlights many traditional ways of life that were muted during the Soviet era. Most families moving to high elevation pastures live in traditional wooden frame and felt yurts. Other herders utilize large tents, small permanent huts, or even metal framed Chinese-made yurts.  Migration patterns and transportation vary, but most animals are moved on land while yurts and goods are transported via trucks. The migration of animals depends on the distance between winter residence and summer pasture. In certain areas the movement can occur in a few days, while in other more remote areas migration can take over a month. Regardless of the length of the transition migration, herding families set up one primary summer residence that is not moved in the prime grazing months. Animals are grazed in surrounding pastures, with men tending to herding duties. Many family units move to pasture together and women tend to domestic duties with responsibilities encompassing cooking, cleaning, childcare, milking and dairy product production.

Movement to pastures is often dictated by which village a herder is from, but knowledge of government regulations seems to be unclear. Since independence, pasture use is available via leases. The Pasture Lease Law of 1991 designated 5-25 year leases for mountain pastures with supervision given to local governments. Unfortunately, guidelines were not consistently implemented. The new constitution of 1993 defined all pasture land as property of the state but allowed for grazing leases up to 49 years. Fees and taxes were collected by local rayon governments and incomes were split between local and oblast governments (van Veen, 1995). Pasture management is a focus of ongoing work and is currently under reform. Numerous local nongovernmental organizations and international development agencies are working to develop animal husbandry practices and sustainable grazing practices.

Today, many herders struggle to make a living and elders often reflect on the security of the Soviet era with nostalgia (Farrington, 2005a). However, animals represent a stable economic investment. Animal ownership tends to be a main indicator of wealth in rural areas. Most livestock owners are embracing the free market and are highly optimistic about the future. Given the potential for increasing herd sizes rural residents, such as in the Naryn Oblast, remain confident about the future of livestock herding given the limited agricultural capacity of most land area and the presence of interested young people. The economic and cultural ties are clearly reflected in a strong cultural pride associated with livestock. Despite the optimism, future concerns exist include the underutilization of many remote pastures and a loss of habitat and species diversity due to overgrazing (Farrington, 2005). However, environmental issues remain secondary to political and economic concerns. Monetary motivation will continue to drive the growth of livestock numbers as people seek to increase their self sufficiency and financial autonomy. While economic priorities may be the primary factor shaping the future and adaptation of herding practices, it is clear through systematic interviews, focus groups, conversations, and observations (Piersall, 2010) that livestock remain central to Kyrgyz historical and cultural identity. Despite the drastic political, social and economic changes over the past 200 years, herding practices, notable semi-nomadic pastoralism and its associated traditional ways of life, will continue to shape the economic, environmental and cultural landscape of rural Kyrgyzstan.

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