The yak has long been a staple of the world’s highest and coldest climates. Their thick fur keeps them warm while their large hearts let them breathe in the thin air. Without yaks, humans could never have survived in these landscapes.
The Hindu Kush Himalayan region is demarcated by eight countries, many of which didn’t exist more than a century ago. As wars, agreements and geopolitics tore up the landscape, manmade borders have severely restricted the yak’s ability to breed. What was once the flagship species of the world’s highest mountains is now a domesticated and often inbred beast of burden.
Mature wild yaks number less than 10,000 today according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In India, their population is fewer than 150 – concentrated in the Ladakh region. Meanwhile, domesticated yaks number around 15 million. The cruel and simple reason for this is that mankind has found a use for one, and none for the other.
Domesticating the yak has yielded many benefits for man. Its milk is highly nutritious and along with butter is the staple diet of the Tibetan region. Its fur is a vital source of woollen clothing. Its dung has been a source of fuel for the mountain folk for thousands of years – and may have been the reason the yak was domesticated in the first place.
But by domesticating the yak, we’ve linked their survival to the people who care for it. And though Yak herders have tended to and survived off their animals for centuries, such professions are difficult to sustain in a closed-off world.
In Mongolia, herders thrived as merchants were able to transport goods along the old Silk Road. But when the borders closed after 1960, they reverted to a pastoral lifestyle – sustaining themselves from milk and wool. Treating the yak as a factory for milk and meat (accounting for half of Mongolia’s supply) has stressed the population – with the emphasis on production leading to inbreeding, bringing their numbers down.
For wild yaks, they could hardly feel more marginalized. Their numbers saw a sharp fall thanks to commercial poaching. And the ban on it since being declared an endangered species hasn’t been received well by herders – who blame the wild yaks for impregnating their domesticated ones, resulting in untameable offspring.
Wild yaks are the ancestors of domesticated ones, who now outnumber them 3.5 to one. Bos Mutus are both taller and hardier than their tamed cousins and are better able to take care of themselves. The tendency of males to graze alone led to them becoming a ripe target for hunters – mitigated when China confiscated all the weapons in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Their biggest threat now is disappearing pastures – both from the domesticated yaks and from intensive agriculture. But climate change is also changing their ways.
During winter, female yaks often seek out and drink melted snow in order to produce their milk. But climate change has been driving them to climb steeper – as the Tibetan plateau heats up at double the rate of the rest of the world. The reason might also have to do with the yak – the burning of its dung has been linked to global warming. And while this isn’t the yak’s fault, higher temperatures would lead to more grasslands appearing in their habitats, increasing the range they have to graze on.
The truth is, saving the yak and saving the planet are both only possible if nations can work together.
A 2016 report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development brought the yak issue to the eight countries that can save it. It’s a comprehensive report, and one of its recommendations it to take a transboundary approach to conservation. From improving cross-border pastoral practices to sharing breeding and genetic know-how – If nations like India, China, Pakistan and Nepal can work together, both yak and man would see a brighter future.
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