Maintaining the health and productivity of rangelands by controlling the livestock stocking rate to remain within carrying capacity is of significance to ensure sustainable management of rangeland ecosystems. But we know little about the safe carrying capacity in particular rangeland landscapes. This has hampered efforts to use rangelands in a risk-averse manner in fluctuating rainfall environments, and especially in arid and semiarid areas. To address this lack of information, we took Kailash Sacred Landscape in China (KSL-China) as our study site and used remote sensing data, meteorological data and statistical data from 2000 to 2015 to analyze rangeland carrying capacity, stocking rate, and major influencing factors. Rangeland carrying capacity presented an increasing trend, while stocking rate was gradually decreasing, resulting in an increase of carrying rate in the study area. The increased carrying capacity was closely related to increased rainfall. Stocking rate declined owing to government regulations, particularly implementation in 2004 of the national policy of Returning Grazing Land to Grassland. There was a sharp reduction of livestock number below 200 000 standard sheep units (SU) after 2005. The decrease of stocking rate had a stronger effect on rangeland carrying rate than did the increase of carrying capacity. Ecosystem restoration programs have provided subsidies to pastoralists to encourage them to reduce livestock numbers. Our findings suggest that a safe rangeland carrying capacity is ca. 170 000 SU in KSL-China. There is a carrying capacity surplus of ca. 50 000 SU for safe animal husbandry development in the study area. More importantly, future climate warming and increases in grazing may jointly play a key role in affecting rangeland carrying capacity.
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