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Coping with Borders: Yak raising in tansboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region


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Yak rearing in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is practised over a wide geographical area involving diverse groups of people, cultures, indigenous knowledge, ecological zones, migration patterns, crops, genetic resources, and socio-ecological interactions. The major yak distribution areas in the HKH lie in the high mountains in the border areas between China and neighbouring countries. In these places, yak rearing is still an important livelihood strategy for the local communities even though there has been a decline in the total yak population in some countries like India, Nepal, and particularly Bhutan. As in other places, yak rearing in the high mountains of the HKH is facing challenges and issues that vary from country to country and from case to case. The challenges posed by a shortage of winter fodder, a decline in the number of yaks as well as young herders, restrictions on mobility and exchange, and climate change are shared by all the landscapes identified by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) for transboundary conservation and development initiatives that have yaks. All these issues are crossborder in nature, and the strategies needed to address the challenges often go beyond local and national levels and can only be successful with regional cooperation. Meanwhile, yak rearing should be managed through a holistic, landscape approach integrating social, economic and cultural factors with the ecological aspects
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Yak on the Move
Transboundary Challenges and
Opportunities for Yak Raising in a
Changing Hindu Kush Himalayan Region
Special Publication
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, ICIMOD, is a regional
knowledge development and learning centre serving the eight regional member countries
of the Hindu Kush Himalayas – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India,
Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan – and based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Globalization and
climate change have an increasing influence on the stability of fragile mountain
ecosystems and the livelihoods of mountain people. ICIMOD aims to assist mountain
people to understand these changes, adapt to them, and make the most of new
opportunities, while addressing upstream-downstream issues. We support regional
transboundary programmes through partnership with regional partner institutions,
facilitate the exchange of experience, and serve as a regional knowledge hub. We
strengthen networking among regional and global centres of excellence. Overall, we are
working to develop an economically and environmentally sound mountain ecosystem to
improve the living standards of mountain populations and to sustain vital ecosystem
services for the billions of people living downstream – now, and for the future.
ICIMOD gratefully acknowledges the support of its core donors: the Governments of
Afghanistan, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal,
Norway, Pakistan, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Yak on the Move
Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities
for Yak Raising in a Changing Hindu Kush
Himalayan Region
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Nepal, May 2016
Special Publication
Wu Ning
Yi Shaoliang
Srijana Joshi
Neha Bisht
Copyright © 2016
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)
All rights reserved, published 2016
Published by
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, GPO Box 3226, Kathmandu, Nepal
ISBN 978 92 9115 373 2 (printed)
978 92 9115 374 9 (electronic)
Library of Congress Control Number 2016–310003
Production team
A Beatrice Murray (Consultant editor)
Amy Sellmyer (Editor)
Dharma R Maharjan (Graphic designer)
Asha Kaji Thaku (Editorial assistant)
Photos: Yi Shaoliang – cover, pp 2, 10, 64, 70, 73, 74, 90, 104, 133, 148, 164, 165, 166, 190;
Wu Ning – pp 29, 113, 124, 163, 195, 198; Marc Foggin – pp xii, 1, 36, 114, 180;
Babar Khan – pp 40, 168, 179; Nabin Baral – pp 76, 90; Celine Curi – p 52;
Pema Wangda – p 69; Jitendra Bajracharya – pp 92, 136
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The views and interpretations in this publication are those of the author(s). They are not attributable to
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This publication is available in electronic form at
Citation: Wu, N; Yi, S; Joshi, S; Bisht, N (eds) (2016) Yak on the move: Transboundary challenges and
opportunities for yak raising in a changing Hindu Kush Himalayan region. Kathmandu: ICIMOD
Foreword v
Preface vii
Acronyms and Abbreviations x
Acknowledgements xi
Section 1 – Yak Herding and Challenges in the
Hindu Kush Himalayas 1
Coping with Borders: Yak raising in tansboundary landscapes of the
Hindu Kush Himalayan region 3
Wu Ning, Muhammad Ismail, Yi Shaoliang, Srijana Joshi, Faisal Mueen Qamer, and Neha Bisht
Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir
region of Afghanistan 23
Aziz Ali, Yi Shaoliang, Aslisho Nazarbekov, and Srijana Joshi
Traditional Yak Herding in High-Altitude Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan:
Transboundary and biodiversity conservation challenges 41
Abdul Wahid Jasra, Maaz Maqsood Hashmi, Kanwal Waqar, and Mastan Ali
Yak Raising Challenges: Transboundary issues in Far Eastern Nepal 53
Wu Ning, Krishna P Oli, Hammad Gilani, Srijana Joshi, and Neha Bisht
Yaks and Yak Herding: Challenges and opportunities in the Bhutanese Himalayas 65
Pema Wangda
Recent Changes in Yak Herding Practices in Eastern Ladakh and Implications
for Local Livelihoods 77
Kunzes Angmo, Maheshwar Singh Kanwar, Rukhsar Ahamad Dar, and Gopal Singh Rawat
Yak Herding and Associated Transboundary Issues in the Sikkim Himalayas, India 93
Ghanashyam Sharma, Sandeep Tambe, Gopal Singh Rawat, and Murari Lal Arrawatia
Section 2 – Policy and Institutional Arrangements 113
Open the ‘Closed Frontier’: Managing animal disease and fodder shortage
in the Afghan Pamir through crossborder collaboration 115
Aslisho Nazarbekov, Yi Shaoliang, Aziz Ali, and Neha Bisht
Institutionalizing Transboundary Grassland Resource Management for
Sustainable Yak Production in the Border Areas between China and Nepal 123
Shikui Dong and Yan Zhaoli
Yak Husbandry and Rangeland Management in Nepal 137
Lok Nath Paudel and Dinesh Prasad Parajuli
Yak Herding in Bhutan: Policy and Practice 147
Karma Phuntsho and Tashi Dorji
Section 3 – Hybridization and Crossbreeding of Yak 165
Indigenous Practices of Yak Breeding in Gilgit-Baltistan: Current status and future
prospects for transboundary yak husbandry in the Karakoram-Pamir mountain area 167
Babar Khan, Saeed Abbas, Muhammad Zafar Khan, Garee Khan, Muhammad Anjum,
Sumaira Baig, and Shoukat Jamal
Advances in Yak Molecular Biology Technologies 181
Wu Xiaoyun, Chu Min, Liang Chunnian, and Yan Ping
The Production and Utilization of Yak in China 191
Yan Ping and Ding Xuezhi
Yak is specially adapted to a high-altitude environment and is a flagship species for the Hindu
Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. It plays a key role not only in agrobiodiversity conservation
and maintaining the high rangeland ecosystem, but also in cultural traditions, livelihood
strategies, and all aspects of socioeconomic development in the high mountain areas from
the Hindu Kush Himalayas to the Tien Shan and Altay mountains. But yak are increasingly
coming under pressure with closed borders and restrictions on grazing and movement.
Furthermore, yak herders are facing immense livelihood challenges, not least due to climate
change, and the younger generation is unwilling to continue with traditional yak herding,
which poses a severe threat to this traditional occupation. Maintaining the number of yak,
improving the condition of the pastures, and raising the living standards of the local yak
herders is a growing challenge in the region.
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), as a regional
knowledge-based institution with a programmatic emphasis on transboundary landscape
management, has a long history of working on rangeland ecosystem management and
pastoral development in the extended HKH region. Recognizing the importance of yak,
ICIMOD has been co-organizing the International Conference on Yak since 1997, and has
helped a large number of professionals, policy makers, and rangeland managers from the
region to participate and share their knowledge and experience on yak husbandry and
rangeland management with others. Recently, ICIMOD has been focusing on the conservation
of transboundary landscapes through livelihood improvement, with a view of identifying
equitable development strategies for people dependent on high-altitude ecosystems. Yak as a
critical species for remote pastoral areas links the topics of conservation and development,
and ICIMOD worked with the organizing committee of the 5th International Conference held
in Lanzhou, China in the summer of 2014, to offer a special session on transboundary issues
in yak husbandry. The main aim was to provide a platform for the exchange of experience and
knowledge among scientists, policy makers, and local practitioners on the sustainable
development of yak husbandry in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan
region and other areas of yak distribution. Specifically, the session provided a forum for
participants, especially those from ICIMOD member countries, to share knowledge and
exchange views on such topics as the sustainable management of rangeland resources and
yak husbandry in a transboundary context; traditional knowledge and practices on yak
husbandry and related migratory grazing systems; traditional and innovative adaptations of
yak-raising communities in response to change; conflicts between biodiversity conservation
and socioeconomic development in yak-raising communities living in areas adjoining
protected areas and along national borders; and options and opportunities to improve
crossborder cooperation for the improved welfare of the yak-raising communities through
enhancement of the value chains for yak products.
This special volume provides a selection of the presentations made by participants during the
session, and provides some reviews of yak husbandry and genetic conservation in the high-
altitude areas of the HKH region. The articles clearly indicate the need to develop a
comprehensive understanding of the ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural role of yak, and
its implications for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development at a local, regional,
and even global scale.
My thanks and gratitude go to all the regional member country partners and other experts
who contributed to this session and manuscript preparation. I hope that the volume will prove
to be a valuable addition to the literature on yak and help in updating our knowledge of the
conservation biology and ecology of this iconic animal.
David Molden, PhD
Director General
The yak is a multipurpose semi-domesticated species raised by the people living at the limits
in the high elevation areas of the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. The major distribution
of yak lies in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in China, with relatively small populations present in
the HKH countries of Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, and a few other places
like the neighouring southern Altay region. During the last few decades, yak husbandry and
the related traditional grazing systems – sedentary, semi-nomadic, and nomadic – have been
facing a range of challenges and risks.
From very early times, yak herding, breeding, and management have formed an important
part of traditional cultures, religions, and social life in the HKH region, with several ethnic
communities and tribes highly dependent on yak for their day-to-day activities, livelihood
options, and tourism. Yak production, we believe, will continue to be one of the major means
of supporting pastoralists in the high-altitude areas of the HKH region in the future. Thus,
there is a need to improve yak production, conserve yak genetic diversity and traditional
breed selection systems, and improve the livelihoods of yak herders. Recognizing the
importance of yak, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)
assembled partners and experts from its regional member countries to participate in the 5th
International Conference on Yak in Lanzhou, China on 27–31 August 2014, and shared their
ideas at a special session on ‘Transboundary Issues in Yak Husbandry in the HKH Region’. The
participants included a diverse array of professionals, policy makers, and rangeland
managers; contributions from the conference are presented to a wider audience in this book.
This is the second publication on yak produced by ICIMOD, with the first one on
‘Conservation and Management of Yak Genetic Diversity’, jointly edited by ICIMOD and
FAO, published 20 years ago in 1996.
Yak is a relatively insignificant species in national terms within the countries of the HKH region
even in China (and perhaps except for Bhutan), but it is a critical livestock to the livelihood
security of herders in the difficult environment of the high mountains. Compared to other
livestock, relatively little attention has been given to yak by researchers and decision makers,
but there have been a few reports from a number of the HKH countries. China has the largest
yak population in the world and has also been the source of more scientific studies, with
reports since the 1960s on topics such as yak biology, ecology, and management. The first
book dedicated entirely to yaks was ‘Sichuan Yak’ by Cai Li, a small masterpiece published in
1989 in Chinese. This was followed by a second book – ‘China Yak’ – by the same author
published in 1992, which was translated into English and published by FAO in 1995 as ‘The
Yak’. In 2003, a second extensively revised edition of this book was published. The discussion
of yak in different regions was greatly enlarged and much more information was included on
yak rearing and yak research in different countries in the HKH region, although information for
remote areas is still limited. The milestone work in Nepal was ‘Yak and Chauri Husbandry in
Nepal’ by Durga Datt Joshi published in 1982, following publication of a few articles on yak
in Nepal in scientific journals and reports. India established the National Research Centre for
Yak in 1989, and the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (Karnal, Haryana) carried
out a pilot study in yak-raising areas. There have been only occasional scattered publications
on yak in India, although a few articles on yak distribution and production systems can be
traced back to the 1960s or earlier. Overall the scientific community has paid more attention
to studies of reproduction and hybridization in yak compared to other topics, and there are
many publications in this area in Asia and beyond. As early as 1946, Phillips et al. reported
on yaks and yak-cattle hybrids in Asia in the Journal of Heredity (37: 163-170, 207-483).
However, systematic work on breed selection and yak hybridization only started after the
1960s in China. The book on ‘Heredity and Breeding of Yak’, published in 1996, introduced
up-to-date advances in breeding and crossbreeding of yak in China. A few years later (2004),
another book on ‘Yak Production in Central Asian Highlands’ provided a broader introduction
to the production and reproduction status of yak, not only in China but also in neighbouring
countries. Only very limited information was available before the 1990s for the other yak
raising countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan) in the HKH region, with the exception of a
few papers with brief introductions to yak distribution and management systems.
Yak production will continue to be one of the major means of supporting pastoralists in the
high elevation environments of the HKH region, as few other domestic animals can survive in
these areas. However, yak herders are among the poorest of people and are marginalized
from policies, access to services, and information. They face immense challenges from
climatic and other changes and remain on the fringes of development. Notwithstanding the
importance and significance of yak in the high-altitudes of the HKH region, there is a lack of
up-to-date, empirical, and adequately documented scientific knowledge regarding the current
status and management practices of yaks. This volume aims to enhance our understanding of
yak in the region; it brings together 14 articles from the HKH regional countries of
Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan covering a wide range of subjects. It
is divided into three sections. The first, with seven chapters, focuses on yak herding and
challenges in the HKH region. It provides an overview of yak distribution together with reviews
on yak husbandry in the high-altitude areas of the HKH region outside of China, with a focus
on transboundary issues and the challenges of yak grazing along the high mountain ranges.
The second is devoted to a discussion on policy and institutional arrangements related to yak
grazing and breeding issues in the HKH countries. The papers mainly highlight policies on yak
farming, integrated approaches to institutionalizing transboundary rangeland resource
management, and management of animal disease and fodder shortages. The final section
focuses on hybridization and crossbreeding of yak. Following an introduction to the
indigenous system of yak selection in Pakistan, two papers describe the advances in yak
breeding, and the use of molecular technology in China, where biological technologies
applied to yak breed selection have greatly developed over the last two decades. The
successful experience and advanced knowledge can be shared with other yak raising areas to
help alleviate the heavy pressures faced by yak herding dependent communities.
We are confident that this volume will provide valuable insights that will help in developing
plans for yak genetic conservation, pastoral development, and management measures to
enhance system resilience and the adaptive capacity of local communities to ongoing and
potential changes.
Eklabya Sharma, PhD
Director of Programme Operations
Acronyms and Abbreviations
AHD Animal Husbandry Department
AFLP amplified fragment length polymorphism
AKF Aga Khan Foundation
AKRSP Aga Khan Rural Support Programme
APP Agriculture Perspective Plan
CBD Convention on Biological Diversity
DoLP Department of Livestock Production
DLS Department of Livestock Services
EnS environmental stratification
FAO Food and Agriculture Organization
GB Gilgit Baltistan
GDP gross domestic product
GIS geographical information system
GPS global positioning system
HAADP High-altitude Area Development Project
HLDP Highland Livestock Development Project
HKH Hindu Kush Himalayas/n
ICIMOD International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development
KL Kanchenjunga Landscape
KPL Karakoram-Pamir Landscape
KSL Kailash Sacred Landscape
masl metres above sea level
NDVI Normalized Difference Vegetation Index
NTFP non-timber forest product
PRA participatory rural appraisal
QTP Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau
RAPD random amplified polymorphic DNA
RCF regional cooperation framework
RCP representative concentration pathways
RRA rapid rural appraisal
SAARC South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation
SNP single nucleotide polymorphisms
SRAP sequence-related amplified polymorphism
SSR simple sequence repeat
TAR Tibet Autonomous Region
TMI The Mountain Institute
UNEP United Nations Environment Programme
WCS Wildlife Conservation Society
WWF World Wide Fund for Nature
This book is a synthesis of existing knowledge and ongoing research work on yaks being done
in the HKH region. The authors have developed their papers based on their research and the
projects that they have been involved in with their respective organizations. We would like to
acknowledge and thank those participants and presenters from the Hindu Kush Himalayan
region who provided invaluable information on yaks during the conference held in 2014.
First and foremost we would like to extend our gratitude to the Lanzhou Institute of Husbandry
and Pharmaceutical Sciences (CAAS) for organizing the 5th International Conference on Yaks
in Lanzhou, China, from 27 to 31 August, 2014; co-organizers Yak and Camel Foundation of
Germany. We would like to appreciate the support provided by David Molden, Director
General of ICIMOD, for his encourgement and motivation to organize the special session in
the International Conference on Yaks; Eklabya Sharma, Director of Programme Operations,
ICIMOD, for his contributions and inputs during the special session and also giving key
recommendations; Farid Ahmad, Ritu Meher Shrestha and Wang Jinniu for their support
during the conference. We are thankful to Rajan Kotru, Regional Programme Manager,
Transboundary Landscapes, ICIMOD, for his continuous support in organizing the special
session and editing this book. The editors would also like to convey thanks to ICIMOD
initiatives – Kangchenjunga Landscape, Karakoram-Pamir Landscape (now called Hindu Kush
Karakoram Pamir Landscape), and Wakhan Landscape – for their support and providing a
platform to the participants from the different landscape working areas to present their work.
We would like to extend our thanks to the external reviewers, Long Ruijun and Gopal Singh
Rawat, for their valuable support and contribution, which substantially increased the value of
this publication as well as A Beatrice Murray for editing the entire text. Special thanks goes to
our colleagues in ICIMOD for making this publication possible: Faisal Mueen Qamer and
Gauri Dangol for providing us with the maps and graphics being used throughout the book;
Amy Sellmyer for her editorial inputs; Dharma R Maharjan for assisting and providing design
and layout support; Nakul Chettri and Muhammad Ismail for providing data and references
and Li Wei for her support is data collection and review.
The book has been produced with financial support from Deutsche Gesellschaft für
Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)/Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and
Development (BMZ), Germany, and the Austrian Development Agency (ADA), which is
gratefully acknowledged.
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
Yak Herding and
Challenges in the
Hindu Kush Himalayas
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
Coping with Borders: Yak raising in
transboundary landscapes of the
Hindu Kush Himalayan region
Wu Ning, Muhammad Ismail, Yi Shaoliang, Srijana Joshi, Faisal Mueen Qamer, and
Neha Bisht
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Nepal
Yak rearing in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is practised over a wide geographical
area involving diverse groups of people, cultures, indigenous knowledge, ecological zones,
migration patterns, crops, genetic resources, and socio-ecological interactions. The major
yak distribution areas in the HKH lie in the high mountains in the border areas between China
and neighbouring countries. In these places, yak rearing is still an important livelihood strategy
for the local communities even though there has been a decline in the total yak population in
some countries like India, Nepal, and particularly Bhutan. As in other places, yak rearing in
the high mountains of the HKH is facing challenges and issues that vary from country to
country and from case to case. The challenges posed by a shortage of winter fodder, a decline
in the number of yaks as well as young herders, restrictions on mobility and exchange, and
climate change are shared by all the landscapes identified by the International Centre for
Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) for transboundary conservation and development
initiatives that have yaks. All these issues are crossborder in nature, and the strategies
needed to address the challenges often go beyond local and national levels and can only be
successful with regional cooperation. Meanwhile, yak rearing should be managed through a
holistic, landscape approach integrating social, economic and cultural factors with the
Keywords: crossborder, Hindu Kush Himalayan region, pastoral development,
transboundary landscape, yak
The extensive rangelands that occupy roughly 60% of the total land surface of the Hindu Kush
Himalayan (HKH) region (Joshi et al. 2014) have been used for livestock grazing by pastoral
societies for hundreds or even thousands of years. Even today over half of the regional
population still lives directly or indirectly under nomadic or semi-nomadic livestock production
systems (Miller and Craig 1997; Wu and Yan 2002). Most of the rangelands in this region lie
in high-altitude areas, and people associate these high-cold pastures with yak (Bos
grunniens), a well-adapted high-altitude multipurpose large mammal belonging to the
Bovidae family (Wiener et al. 2003). In these harsh and remote high mountains, where other
land uses are close to impossible without external input, rearing and breeding yaks together
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
with small ruminants such as sheep and goats is almost the only way for the diverse ethnic
groups who live in the region to utilize the rangeland resources. As a flagship species of the
HKH region, highly adapted to the high-altitude environment (cold winter, low oxygen content,
high solar radiation, and cyclical nutrition with short growing seasons), yaks are inextricably
linked to the local livelihood and socio-culture, playing a key role not only in conservation of
agrobiodiversity but also in cultural heritage (e.g. Tibetan culture), livelihood strategies (e.g.
yak products and value chains), and almost all aspects of socioeconomic development in the
high mountain areas (Wu 2003).
Since ancient times, the transboundary frontiers in the high HKH region have been meeting
places for different military, political, and cultural forces that have had multi-dimensional
impacts on yak-raising communities and the rangeland resources they rely on. Many mountain
passes or trading ports in the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Pamir became important
channels through which yak-related knowledge, practices, and culture and yak breeds spread
from their place of origin – the eastern Tibetan Plateau – to peripheral areas. In the last few
decades, yak husbandry and the related traditional grazing system, including sedentary,
semi-nomadic, and nomadic systems, have been facing various challenges due to climate
change, population increase, socioeconomic reforms, geo-political dynamics, and the
ubiquitous globalization occurring in all the HKH countries. Meanwhile new opportunities are
unfolding for these previously remote yak-raising communities due to the rapid advancement
of biotechnologies (e.g. molecular breeding), information technologies (i.e., increasing
accessibility of information and creating new electronic business), and globalized markets
(i.e., shortening the distance to markets and diversifying demands such as organic foods).
Learning from the successful experiences of transboundary approaches towards ecosystem
management in several continents (UNEP 2011), the authors suggest that similar approaches
should be adopted in the HKH region to address transboundary issues related to yak
husbandry, such as genetic exchange, product trading, sustaining value chains, and cultural
conservation. In the last 30 years, a lot of attention has been paid to the central area of yak
rearing, i.e. the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau region (or in short ‘Tibetan Plateau’) in China, home
to over 90% of the world’s yak population. But in the neighbouring regions where yaks are
grazed in the high mountains following a migratory pattern (e.g. transhumance), studies on
yak raising are still very limited, and the yak herding groups and yak-raising areas are often
marginalized in national development plans. This paper focuses on the issues and challenges
of yak raising along the high-altitude HKH crest outside China. We suggest that sustainable
yak raising and rangeland ecosystem management can only be achieved through an
integrated approach that takes full account of the transboundary nature of the issue and
challenges and allows the free flow of services beyond the administrative boundaries.
Yak in the HKH region outside the Tibetan Plateau
Within the HKH region outside the Tibetan Plateau, yaks are found extensively in the alpine
and subalpine belts and occasionally the temperate belt, at altitudes from 2,000 masl (e.g. in
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
Nepal) to over 5,000 masl (e.g. in the Karakoram-Pamir Landscape). Yak-raising areas
outside of China lie along a narrow belt along the Himalayan arc from the Hindu Kush and
Pamir in the west (Afghanistan and Pakistan), through the central Himalayan range, (India,
Nepal, and Bhutan), to the southern end of the Hengduan Mountains where they meet with
the eastern Himalayas in the transboundary landscape between China and Myanmar. The
westernmost region of yak rearing within this belt is reported to be on the northeastern face of
Tirich Mir (the main peak of the Hindu Kush) where about 500 yak and yak hybrids were
found (Kreutzmann 2003). To the east, yak rearing (including hybrids) is practised all the way
from Sikkim and Bhutan to the easternmost area where China and Myanmar meet. The
southern border of this belt almost aligns with the contour of the southern slopes of the
Himalayan range, clearly indicating the linkage between yak distribution and temperature.
According to Cai (1989), yaks are distributed naturally in the area with the warmest monthly
mean temperature below 13°C, but their hybrids can be found at much lower elevations.
Roughly estimated, there are about 206,000–210,000 yaks and yak hybrids in the HKH
region outside of China.
The western part of this arc is a contiguous region dominated by high mountain ranges,
including the eastern Hindu Kush, Karakoram, the eastern Pamir, and the western Kunlun
Shan mountains. This immense landscape is characterized by enormous levels of glaciation at
high-altitudes contrasted with extremely arid valley systems, and provides substantial grazing
grounds at high elevations, where yak still form a prominent part of animal husbandry
alongside herds of sheep and goats. Although formal transborder trade of yaks may have
ceased in the last few decades (Kreutzmann 2003), the yaks in the Pamir and its surrounding
mountainous areas were believed to have dispersed from the Tibetan Plateau in ancient times
(Wiener 2013).
In Afghanistan, yak keeping is restricted to Badakhshan province, i.e. Zebak and Wakhan,
where Wakhi and Kyrgyz herders utilize the natural grazing area of the Pamir at 3,600–
4,500 masl during the summer (Kreutzmann 2003). Wakhi people mostly inhabit the lowland
areas but send their yaks to the pastures of Big Pamir. The Kyrgyz people live in the Pamir and
graze their animals in both the Big Pamir and Little Pamir. According to recent studies by the
Wildlife Conservation Society and Aga Khan Foundation, around 4,600 yaks use the Big
Pamir and Little Pamir (see article by Ali et al. in this book).
In Pakistan, yaks are mainly distributed in the northern mountain ranges from the Hindu Kush
through the Karakoram into the west Himalaya, i.e. from Chitral to Gilgit-Baltistan province,
where mountain pastoralists dwelling at the upper limit of settlements are engaged in yak
raising and breeding. A recent census indicated that there were 7,875 yaks in Chitral in 2014
(Livestock Department Chitral; Table 1) and that there had been a rapid increase in the yak
population between 2010 and 2014. The exact number of yaks in Gilgit-Baltistan is still hard
to establish. The statistics vary considerably across different reports (Cai and Wiener 1995;
Khan 1997; Kreutzmann 2003; see Khan et al. in this book). The Provincial Livestock
Department survey in 2006 reported that there were 16,319 yak in five districts (Figure 1)
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
(Livestock Census Department 2006). A World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) document from
2012 reported 35,430 yak and yak hybrids in the buffer zone of Central Karakoram National
Park, which only involves four of the seven districts in Gilgit-Baltistan (WWF-Pakistan 2012).
Thus, the total number of yaks in Pakistan still warrants a good study.
In India, yaks are mainly distributed in the mid-Himalayan zone at elevations below
5,000 masl, which extends from the bend in the Brahmaputra River to the east to the bend in
the Indus River to the west (Pal and Madan 1997). Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal
0Skardu Ghanche Diamer
Figure 1: Yak population in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
Source: Livestock Census Department (2006)
Table 1: Yak population in Chitral District, Pakistan
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Laspur valley 2,000 2,500 2,900 3,500 3,580
Yarkhoon valley 1,500 2300 3,000 NA 4,000
Torkhow valley 150 150 NA 210 230
Terich valley 35 40 50 50 65
Goboor valley 15 10 8 0 0
Total 3,700 5,000 5,958 3,760 7,875
NA = data not available
Source: Livestock Department Chitral, Pakistan
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
Pradesh, where the dominant vegetation is alpine steppe or desert due to the arid and cold
climate, account for about 72% of the total yak population in India. The remaining yak areas
in India are mostly located on the southern slopes of the central and eastern Himalayas and
are characterized by a cold but humid climate. The yak population in these areas is very small
and scattered over very isolated mountain pockets. During the cold season from October to
May, yaks (including hybrids) may be driven downward to winter grazing areas in the forest
belts. According to the government livestock census, the total number of yaks in India was
59,000 in 1997, 83,370 in 2007, and 76,662 in 2012 (GOI 1997, 2007, 2012). There
was a significant increase in the yak population from 1997 to 2007 and a slight decrease
after 2007 with a negative growth rate of 7.6%. The changes in the numbers of yak over the
years seems to differ among the states, with some maintaining a constant number.
Nepal and Bhutan in the central Himalayas have relatively large yak populations. In Nepal,
yak and its hybrids (chauri) are distributed in 28 northern districts. A survey conducted in
2009/10 by the Department of Livestock Services of Nepal reported 68,097 yaks and yak
hybrids in 26 districts with an increase over the previous ten years. A recent survey by the
Ministry of Agriculture Development (MOAD 2013) in all 28 districts with yak populations,
reported a total of 65,980 yaks and their hybrids, with a slight decrease over the last three
years (Table 2). Yak herding is transhumant in Nepal with a seasonal migration between
elevations of 3,000 and 5,000 masl. Many Nepali pastoralists and agropastoralists raise yaks
for crossbreeding purposes, and a large portion of the hybrid population (over two-thirds of
the total) can be found in the temperate belt where better feed is available. Yaks are bred with
hump cattle (Bos indicus) and humpless cattle (Bos raurus) to produce crossbreeds (chauri) for
milk production, draught power, and transportation (Pal and Madan 1997).
Table 2: Yak and yak hybrid population in Nepal (1999–2013)
District 1999 2009/10 2012/13 District 1999 2009/10 2012/13
Bajhang 120 134 Manang 4,709 4,549 3,811
Bajura 67 80 Mugu 2,250 2,250 1,782
Bhojpur 648 854 Mustang 5,037 4,077 4,422
Darchula 660 697 Myagdi 287 228
Dhading 69 66 Nuwakot 768 903
Dolakha 4,470 4,470 3,551 Panchthar 1086 1092
Dolpa 6,605 10,168 7,450 Ramechhap 1,229 1,872 2,034
Gorkha 3,641 1,366 1,655 Rasuwa 5,027 2,493 3,007
Humla 2,029 11,999 12,747 Rukum 10
Ilam 162 180 Shankhuwasabha 3,024 3,945 3,950
Jumla 2,051 558 592 Sindhupalchok 321 1,032 1,032
Kalikot 47 55 Solukhumbu 12,059 12,097 12,033
Kaski 129 Taplejung 4,036 2,845 3,017
Khotang 123 150 Total 56,488 67,758 65,661
Source: DLSO 1999; DL 2012; MOAD 2013
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
In Bhutan, yak rearing is the main source of livelihood for those living at high-altitudes.
According to the livestock census in 2013, there were 39,543 yaks (including hybrids) in 11
districts (dzongkhags) across the country’s northern belt, which extends from Haa district in the
northwest to Merak Sakten in the extreme northeast of Trashigang district (Table 3). In 2008,
around 2.2% of Bhutan’s population was involved in yak herding with the herders distributed
over 34 subdistricts in ten districts (Dorji et al. 2003; DOL 2008). Thus the yak production
system has considerable national importance, unlike in many other yak-rearing countries. The
western region has the highest density, with more than 50% of the total yak in Bhutan.
Bhutan’s climate is characterized by short wet summers and cold dry winters. Semi-nomadic
yak herders graze their yaks on the high-altitude summer pastures but also have permanent
settlements at lower belts in the form of village clusters which serve as the base of operations
for yak rearing and other socioeconomic activities (Tshering et al. 1997). Over the last seven
years there has been a marked decline in the yak population in Bhutan, which is believed to
be due to the lack of quality pasture, limited access to social services, and outmigration of
labourers seeking alternative economic opportunities (Derville and Bonnemaire 2010;
Wangchuk et al 2013).
Yak raising in selected transboundary landscapes
Although the composition of livestock herds varies in different ecological regions, yaks are an
important means of subsistence and productivity in all high-altitude pastoral societies in the
HKH region, and contribute more than simply meat, milk, and clothing materials. Along the
HKH range, local herders traditionally shared the summer pastures on the mountain crests,
and it was very common for grazing yaks to cross the present-day administrative borders in
the alpine belts. Such mobility was essential for the sustainable use of the rangeland resources
Table 3: Yak population in Bhutan (2006–2013)
District 2006 2008 2010 2013
Bumthang 3,487 3,984 3,360 2,974
Gasa 11,910 9,511 7,545 5,787
Haa 7,520 3,583 4,895 5,857
Lhuentse 456 454 223 234
Paro 4,823 4,314 3,290 2,632
Samdrupjongkhar 0 0 0 28
Thimphu 9,645 11,073 10,223 10,984
Trashigang 11,863 11,093 7,094 7,153
TrashiYangtse 595 622 588 541
Trongsa 979 58 80
Wangdue Phodrang 2,612 2,787 3,098 3,273
Total 52,911 48,400 40,374 39,543
Source: DOL 2013
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
as well as for the survival of the livestock management system. Moreover, it created
opportunities for communication and exchange among different ethnic groups. Thus, trading
yaks for genetic improvement, exchanging animal products between herders and farmers, and
using yaks to transport goods across Himalayan passes are traditional practices in the remote
high mountains. The crossborder trade was accompanied by the exchange and sharing of
different cultures, practices, and knowledge, which was the basis for traditionally diversifying
livelihoods and enabling mountain communities to adapt to change.
Similarly, in the HKH region, the success of conservation measures in one country often
depends heavily on what is happening across the political border. Biodiversity conservation
approaches in transboundary areas need to be able to address the common concerns of all
the related countries if they are to be effective. Over the last few years, ICIMOD and its
partners have identified some specific transboundary landscapes of regional or global
significance for programmatic cooperation. These landscapes are subsets of larger trans-
Himalayan transects, where ICIMOD and its partner institutions plan to gather scientific
information and strengthen interventions to promote conservation and management of
landscapes with ecological and socio-cultural significance (Sharma et al. 2007; Chettri et al.
2009). Three of the identified transboundary landscapes have yak rearing (Figure 2) and are
implementing ecosystem-based management to improve the livelihoods of the local
communities and enhance the ecological integrity and socio-cultural resilience to
environmental change.
Figure 2: Three of the transboundary landscapes in the HKH region that have yak rearing
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Hindu Kush Karakoram Pamir Landscape (HKPL)
The Hindu Kush Karakoram Pamir region links Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China. It
lies at the convergence of several important bio-geographical regions and possesses a unique
and rich assemblage of biodiversity. The region is also the source area or contains upper
streams of three important international rivers – the Amu Darya, Tarim, and Indus – and thus
has great conservation value. For millennia, the region has been an important corridor
through which influential ethnic groups migrated across Eurasia, from east to west and north
to south. It is a key link in the well-known Ancient Silk Road as well as an important arena for
geopolitical struggle (Wu et al. 2014a). All of these have resulted in an extremely diverse
cultural and regional history.
To conserve the biological diversity, preserve its ethnically traditional cultures, and promote
sustainable socioeconomic development, the respective countries and governments have
established protected areas in various categories (nature reserves, national parks, sanctuaries,
and others) across the region. In March 2014, Wakhan District was officially declared by the
Government of Afghanistan as Wakhan National Park. As a result, at least six protected areas
in the region are now physically connected with each other. This connected complex of
protected areas covers an area of over 33,000 km2 with more than one million people within
or in its adjacent watersheds.
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
The biggest population of yaks within this landscape is found on the China side. There were
over 15,000 yaks in 2013 in Taxkorgan County (China), most of which are grazed
nomadically by Tajik herders in the western part of the county among the Karakoram peaks
with elevations above 4,200 masl. Many rangelands within the Taxkorgan Nature Reserve are
important summer pastures for yak rearing, e.g. those near the Khunjerab Pass on the
Pakistan-China border. Khan (1997) estimated that there were 6,000 yaks in Khunjerab
National Park (KNP) on the Pakistan side in the area along the Pakistan-China border in the
country’s extreme north. There is one major distinction in yak breeding in northern Pakistan.
Hybridization is practised more in eastern parts such as Baltistan (Kreutzmann 2003),
however, a pure breed of yak is kept by herders in upper Hunza in Gilgit district, where there
is no tradition of crossbreeding yak with local cows (Rasool et al. 2002). The trend in the
eastern areas indicates the traditional influence on crossbreeding practices from the original
area where yak were raised, in China; hybridization is practised by local communities to adapt
the animals to lower elevations where local cattle are available and hybrids can provide more
services and goods. Qi et al. (2008) used molecular genetic data to study the routes by which
domesticated yaks dispersed from the original centre in the eastern Tibetan Plateau in ancient
times, and concluded that one of the two dispersal routes was over the various passes in the
Himalayan and Kunlun Mountains through which yaks and breeding practices spread
westward into the Pamir Knot.
Many of the protected areas within the Hindu Kush Karakoram Pamir Landscape are adjacent
to each other and have common protected species and ecosystems; while historically many of
the high passes between different countries have been important biological corridors for the
migration of animals, both important wildlife species and domesticated animals Thus, one of
the key issues frequently mentioned by conservation managers and policy makers regarding
protected area management in the region is human-wildlife conflict, especially the competitive
use of domestic animals and wildlife on the same rangeland resources (Wu et al. 2014b).
Rangelands in the protected areas are traditionally used by the local inhabitants and adjacent
communities as summer or winter pastures. However, they are also important habitats for
wildlife. To effectively manage this competitive use of rangeland resources by domestic
animals and wildlife, we need to fully understand the seasonal demand for forage by the
animals and the seasonal overlap of habitats.
Kangchenjunga Landscape (KL)
The Kangchenjunga Landscape (KL), shared by Bhutan, India, and Nepal, covers a vast area
around the southern part of Mount Kangchenjunga. It is one of the richest of the HKH
landscapes in terms of cultural and biological diversity and lies within one of the 34 global
Biodiversity Hotspots (Mittermeier et al. 2004). The landscape has 15 protected areas,
together covering an area of more than 15,000 km2. Land cover data from 2010 indicate
that about 20% of the KL is rangeland, and animal husbandry is an integral part of the whole
farming system (Gurung et al. 2015). Yak rearing is the main source of livelihoods for local
communities in the high elevation belts of the landscape in Bhutan, Sikkim in India, and
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
eastern Nepal. Local communities at high elevation practice transhumance, moving with their
livestock between higher pastures in summer and lower valleys in winter. Movements of people
and yak herds mixed with sheep and goats proceeds between previously used sites, which
become more or less regular seasonal encampments or bases (Chettri 2008).
In KL-Bhutan, yak plays an important role not only in the livelihoods of the Bhutanese but also
in their religious and cultural life. In 1997, Pal and Madan reported about 5,346 yaks in
KL-India (Sikkim) with 46% lactating females and 19% calves, of which 90% were in the
northern district (Pal and Madan 1997). Trading between Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and
Sikkim is one of the main off-farm activities of the people in the high altitudinal belt (above
2,500 masl). A national survey in 2013 reported 4,289 yaks and yak hybrids in KL-Nepal
distributed across Taplejung, Panchthar, and Ilam districts (MOAD 2013). Here, too,
crossborder trade with TAR is an important factor in sustaining livelihoods, especially in the
Upper Tamor area (mainly the upper parts of Taplejung district) (Gurung et al. 2015).
Although there are several trading points in summer between TAR and KL-Nepal, in winter
trade only takes place through Taplejung (Paudel 2010). Yaks and yak products are the main
goods traded.
There are many factors impacting yak herding in the KL. Government restrictions on livestock
numbers in the KL region and on movement in national parks were identified recently as a new
challenge for pastoral development, which would inevitably lead to a change in livestock
structure and migration routes (Gurung et al. 2015; see also the Border Closing section
below). Although the development of community forestry in Nepal has resulted in the
restoration of forests, it has also led to a shrinkage of winter grazing lands for livestock, and
some forest owners have rejected yak grazing on their lands. Some traditional migration routes
and trading routes for pastoral communities have been closed. The fragmentation of
landscape has exacerbated the inbreeding of yak and other livestock, leading to further
genetic degradation and poor performance. Recently, the impact of tourism and the attractions
of other income-generating activities (e.g. medicinal plant collection, cardamom cultivation,
and tea gardening) have also reduced the incentive for local people to pursue yak herding.
Kailash Sacred Landscape (KSL)
The Kailash Sacred Landscape (KSL) spreads over an area of about 31,000 km2 in the remote
southwestern portion of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, adjacent districts in the Far
Western region of Nepal, and the northeastern flank of Uttarakhand State in northern India,
and represents a diverse, multi-cultural, and fragile landscape (Zomer and Oli 2011). The
landscape is characterized by numerous sacred sites, including high-altitude lakes, snow
peaks, and a fine network of religious places across the three countries. The local communities
from the three countries have maintained cultural and socioeconomic linkages with one
another, but the landscape is facing accelerated environmental changes due to drivers such as
population increase, globalization, and outmigration, as well climate change. Livelihood
options are limited, which adds to the harmful nexus of resource degradation and poverty.
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
The bioclimatic zone in the landscape ranges from 500 masl in the lower areas to 7,694 masl
– the peak of Mount Kailash (known in different places as Gangrenboqi or Khang Rinpoche).
The landscape includes hot and semi-arid regions in the southwest, as well as mountain
forests, moist alpine meadows, high-altitude steppe, and extensive areas of permanent snow
and ice. About 27% of the KSL area is classified as rangeland, i.e. various types of grasslands
and open shrub (Zomer et al. 2013). Livestock rearing is one of the main land uses, especially
in the higher altitude areas. In KSL-China the landscape is dominated by high-altitude steppe
and meadows, which supported a yak population of about 4,600 in Burang (Pulan) County
of TAR in 2013. The traditional trade between Burang and Khojamath in Nepal, which has
operated for over 500 years, delivers the goods and products flowing from the pastoral area
of TAR to downstream areas and vice versa. KSL-Nepal has a yak/yak hybrid population of
13,578 (mostly hybrids) located in Humla, Bhajang, and Darchula districts (MOAD 2013).
The yak population in KSL-India is very limited (only about 200) due to the lower elevation
(Pal and Madan 1997). Pal and Madan (1997) also attributed this low yak population to the
fact that the inhabitants of the lower hill regions are ethnic Hindus who do not know about,
or care to know about, yak husbandry techniques, as this animal does not fit into their
social structure.
Trends towards degradation were reported in the whole landscape, with factors including
1) an increasing number of less productive livestock; 2) increasing demand for fodder and
consequent seasonal shortage of green fodder; and 3) a decrease in available grazing land
(Zomer and Oli 2011). Overgrazing in high-altitude areas has led to grassland degradation,
soil erosion, water loss, and loss of biodiversity. The increase in goat rearing for cashmere
production poses another severe threat to the alpine ecosystem, especially for steppe and
sparse meadow types. In addition to human disturbance, climate change was considered as a
new challenge for the vulnerable communities and fragile ecosystem in high-altitude areas.
To better understand the potential impacts of projected climate change in the KSL region, an
environmental stratification based on geospatial tools was used by ICIMOD to simulate future
trends (Zomer et al. 2013, 2014). The results showed that the projected mean annual
temperature will increase from 2.2 to 3.3°C by 2050; while the average representative
concentration pathways (RCP) predicted increases in precipitation ranging from 7.1 to 11.1%.
Climate change will inevitably lead to boundary changes for the ecosystems. The study
predicted that both the distribution and extent of bioclimatic zones will shift substantially by the
year 2050 for all the RCP scenarios. Based on their average elevation, each of the bioclimatic
zones will migrate upwards on average from 188 to 467 masl along the elevation gradient.
At the eco-regional level, a large expansion will take place in the middle altitude classes
(e.g., subalpine coniferous forests and alpine meadow), and a decrease in the highest altitude
classes (nival zone, alpine tundra, and alpine steppe). However, the implications of climate
change for pastoral livelihoods as a whole has yet to be fully understood (Zomer et al. 2013;
see also Climate Change section below).
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Common issues concerning yak grazing across the
transboundary landscapes
Yak grazing remains an important livelihood strategy for rural inhabitants in the high elevation
areas of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. However, as in China, the main centre for yaks,
yak rearing is facing a multitude of challenges and issues that vary from country to country
and from case to case. In the following, we discuss some of the common issues faced by the
yak-raising communities in the selected transboundary landscapes, with a special focus on the
transboundary nature of these issues.
Insufficient feedstuff in winter
Yak production systems are often constrained by inadequate forage, especially in winter, and
this leads to poor nutrition, slow growth, health-related problems, and reduced fertility. In
many yak-raising areas, these problems are exacerbated by increasing livestock numbers
which places greater pressure on rangelands and leads to overgrazing. In the high-altitude
belts of the HKH region, the yak can gain substantial weight in the summer season grazing the
rich and fertile pastures. However, lack of forage during the cold winter and early spring is a
common issue impacting pastoral production. Livestock inevitably suffer hunger and cold on
snowy and windy days and have a negative energy balance; many lose weight, emaciate, and
die. Heavy snows are always followed by grievous losses among livestock and can even cause
mass mortality as high as 50% percent (Wu and Yan 2002). The cycle of storing energy during
the summer in preparation for the harsh winter conditions applies to all animals in the herds
of pastoralists.
The cold winters in these high mountain ranges impact the production of alpine vegetation
and thus the dependent livestock. The winter pastures in the pastoral areas of the HKH region
are mainly located in the lower valleys; they account for around one-third of the total
rangeland area but support two-thirds of the year’s grazing time. This imbalance prevails from
Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west to Nepal, Bhutan, and the Hengduan Mountains in the
east. In the west, such as in the Pamir, Karakoram, and Kashmir, the extremely dry conditions
mean that livestock cannot get sufficient extra feedstuff in winter, and yaks and sheep routinely
lose up to 30% of their bodyweight. Fortunately, in the central Himalayan region (e.g. in
Nepal) the situation is alleviated to a certain extent as yak herds can receive some
supplementary feed (e.g. crop residues) as they are driven down to lower forests and even to
villages during the winter period. However, this benefit is being reduced due to the conflicts
between herders and farmers on land tenure following the development of community forestry
(Chaudhary et al. 2014; Gurung et al. 2015).
Decline in yak populations and yak herders
The yak population in Bhutan, India, and Nepal has shown a declining trend in recent years.
Pal (2003) reported a marked decline in the yak population in India from 132,000 in 1977 to
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
51,000 in 1997 (or 59,000 according to the Livestock Census of India, see above). In Nepal,
the total number of yak and yak hybrids in 2013 was 65,980 (MOAD 2013), a marked
decline from the estimated 200,000 yak and yak hybrids in 1961 (Joshi 2003).
The decline in yak populations is caused by complicated socioeconomic factors. In Nepal, the
decline is at least partially related to government restrictions on livestock numbers and
movement in Nepal’s national parks, threats from predators and disease, and the reduction in
availability of fodder (Pandey and Chettri 2005). The impact of tourism and the attraction of
alternative opportunities have also reduced the incentive to pursue yak herding (Sherchand
and Karki 1997; Joshi, 2003). More educated youth in the Sherpa community, for example,
are unwilling to remain in traditional yak husbandry and have shifted their profession from yak
husbandry to other types of employment (Shaha 2002).
The article by Wangda in this book describes the situation in Bhutan, where yaks and yak
herding have been losing their importance as an important source of livelihood for the
transhumant pastoralists in the high mountains. This trend is more evident in areas where
there are other economic opportunities, such as collection of medicinal plants, small-scale
tourism development, and cash crop cultivation. More and more yak herders have moved
down to lower areas, and the seasonal migration routes have become shorter, which means a
change from nomadic to more sedentary pastoralism.
Pal (1993) discussed the socioeconomic causes of yak decline in India, and suggested that
the desire of the younger generation for an easier and more comfortable lifestyle is one of
the major factors. The increasing outmigration in recent years from the HKH countries may
indicate a change in mountain areas, where young people migrate to urban areas or even
the Gulf countries for labour (Wu et al. 2014b). Outmigration is used by mountain
pastoralists to mitigate economic hardship and deal with the seasonal constraints imposed by
the harsh climate. Outmigration from pastoral to urban areas can not only provide financial
assets for promoting livelihood diversification (Hoermann et al. 2010) but also reduce
pressures on rangelands to some extent. With the impacts of globalization reaching previously
remote yak-raising areas, people have begun to question whether this traditional lifestyle
can be maintained.
Restricted mobility
Spatial mobility is the key feature of, and an adaptive strategy for, yak husbandry. The closure
of political borders and establishment of protected areas over the past decades have greatly
hampered yak mobility and weakened the adaptive capacities of yak-raising communities, as
well as having a negative impact on the rangeland ecosystems across the region.
In the yak raising areas of the HKH region adjoining China, the yak population is thought to
be suffering from inbreeding due to the lack of availability of new yak germplasm from the
original yak area, the Tibetan Plateau, during the past few decades, and the resultant practice
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
of prolonged use of the same bull within herds (Miller et al. 1997). Current yak breeding
practices in these countries have led to inbreeding, which lowers rates of survival and yak
performance. Although access to many yak raising areas is improving with modernization, yak
herders are often still marginalized. Social services are inadequate and outlets to markets for
their animal products are limited. Crossborder access has not become any easier with the
rapid globalization of the last few decades.
Looking back, it is clear that lack of new yak germplasm and reduced or ceased crossborder
trade for yak and its products have become the norm not only between China and its
adjoining countries, but also among other countries in the HKH region, since the 1950s.
Over the past century, for example, yak herders in Little Pamir have been subjected to
continuous spates of geopolitical changes that are completely beyond their control. In the
1890s, Badakhshan was divided into two by Russia and Great Britain, and the Kyrgyz people
in Little Pamir were separated. This border was then strictly restricted after the 1930s by the
Soviet Union. After the 1950s, the border between Afghanistan and China in the Wahkan
Corridor was closed, leaving no possibility for the Wahki and Kyrgyz herders to get new yak
germplasm from outside. The limited trade between Pakistan and Afghani Wakhan was also
blocked after the 1990s due to terrorism concerns. The Wakhan corridor and the Afghan
Pamir have thus become an isolated ‘island’ in terms of the exchange of yak genetic resources
and the yak husbandry economy (see article by Ali et al. in this book).
As traditional exchange lines have been interrupted due to adverse political conditions on
the Pakistan side, all forms of animal husbandry have been limited to subsistence survival
strategies in recent years. Kreutzmann (2003) reported that the Kyrgyz in Afghanistan are
engaged in yak breeding and limited barter trade with entrepreneurs from neighbouring
Hunza in Pakistan. Between China and Pakistan, itinerant traders supply basic necessities in
exchange for yak and yak products through the Sino-Pakistan Highway. However, in recent
years this transborder trade has also ceased to exist due to terrorism concerns and frequent
mountain hazards. In the western Himalayas, the disputed situation in Kashmir since the
1950s has also blocked most of the traditional crossborder trade routes across this yak
raising plateau.
In the central Himalayan region, the livelihoods of pastoralists in the Kangchenjunga
Landscape are threatened by various external forces from modernization to policy imperatives.
Following the establishment of protected areas in the transborder areas between KL-Nepal
and KL-India, livestock herders from both countries are facing problems in moving their herds
to the traditional grazing sites (Chaudhary et al. 2014). In the northern transborder areas of
Nepal, alpine pastures are traditionally opened (at least there is no strict control) to yak
herders from both China and Nepal. After implementation of the agreement banning
transborder use of pastureland in the 1980s, the previously accessible high mountains across
the borders cannot be used as pasture (for more details see other article by Wu et al. in this
book). This has led to overgrazing in the lower altitude rangelands due to the shortened
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
migration routes. Closing of the borders between China and Bhutan, and China and India
after the 1960s also led to a shortage of the pure yak bulls needed for genetic improvement.
Climate change
Climate change, land use change, and population dynamics are the main drivers of
environmental change in the HKH region (Singh et. al. 2011; Sharma 2012). Climate data
available from the region suggest an increase in temperature which is greater at higher
elevations. Climate change is known to have a significant impact on species distribution and
diversity patterns. Warming temperatures in the high elevation region can have a negative
impact on yak populations because of their lack of tolerance for heat, the reduction in
habitat, and associated decline in yak survival and/or reproduction (Haynes et al. 2014).
Maximum entropy studies have shown that an estimated average of 30–50% of the ungulates
on the Tibetan Plateau may lose their distribution area, and may become endangered locally
and globally (Luo et al. 2015).
Research also shows that climate change may increase the risk of occurrence of disease in
yaks (Wangchuk et al. 2013). According to studies conducted in different parts of the
Himalayan region, climate change is forcing communities to migrate to higher elevations in
search of productive grazing lands, with an early start in the upward migration due to
shortening of the winter period. Climate change is known to have a synergistic effect on the
already existing challenges of dwindling yak populations, yak husbandry, degradation of
high-altitude pastures, and shortage of feed and fodder, and even on changing social norms
(Gyamtsho 2000; Maiti et al. 2014).
At the same time, a projection study in the KSL indicated that climate change could also lead
to an increase in grass productivity and increase in pasture area. Considering the mobility of
yak pastoralism and its ability to adapt to scarce and variable natural resources in a harsh
environment, mobile pastoralism could show comparative advantages. With the upward
encroachment of forests due to the warming effect, alpine pasture would also extend to
up-slopes. However, the limitations posed by borders are a barrier to such adaptation, and
increasing climatic variability means that we need to provide more space for mobility. Thus, it
is not yet possible to reach a conclusion on whether the impacts of projected climate change
on the pastoral system as a whole will be negative or positive. In the future, it will be essential
to recognize and identify the impacts of climate change on yak species and their habitats
scientifically in order to provide support for sustainable yak rearing in the region. Monitoring
of yak habitats and associated species can also provide a good indication of the health of the
ecosystem and of the dependent yak species.
Conclusion: Towards a transboundary landscape approach
The conservation of yak genetic resources, sustainable use of high-altitude rangelands, and
development of yak-based food industry in the HKH region need regional cooperation based
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
on a transboundary landscape approach. This approach, as defined in CBD (2004),
represents an important means for coordinating the efforts of countries that share important
transborder ecosystems It is an evolving concept in the conservation of biological diversity, in
which conservation means much more than simply protecting a species or an ecosystem
within a confined area (Hamilton and McMillan 2004). The transboundary landscape
approach implies using a landscape approach to conservation, with coordinated planning for
a whole landscape rather than for a limited area defined in terms of political or other
boundaries. It takes into account both the ecological interdependence across the international
boundary, and the interdependence of the communities located along or close to the border.
On the other hand, landscape management implies using an integrated approach in the
management of extended landscapes, defined by ecosystems rather than political boundaries,
in which both conservation and sustainable use of the components of biological diversity are
considered, and in which people and their socio-cultural resources are placed at the centre of
the conservation framework.
It has become increasingly clear over the years that in order to conserve yak genetic
resources, conservation activities must look beyond protecting a particular population or a
delimited area. The yak population is decreasing at an alarming rate, partly due to the low
economic benefits derived from yak husbandry. Conservation and sustainable use of yak
resources in the high mountains of the HKH region must thus take a holistic view, using a
comprehensive and multi-scaled approach that not only considers a whole range of
interlinked grassland, yak, and other animals, both wild and domesticated, but also includes
both pastoral and farming areas, considers the needs and interests of the people who rely on
these areas for their livelihoods, and even takes into account the entire global market and
human demands outside this region.
The general belief that traditional pastoral practices need to be improved has largely shaped
pasture development policy throughout the world. However, in the HKH countries, planners
have generally ignored the role of livestock in development and failed to appreciate the
efficacy of traditional pastoral systems In view of the adaptation of local communities to
climate change, the advantages of seasonal pastoral migration should be integrated into
development plans. There is an urgent need to develop policies and programmes that are
sensitively attuned to and supportive of local people who are the prime actors at the interface
of the man-nature relationship. Good progress can be seen in the development by Nepal and
Pakistan, with the support of ICIMOD, of national or provincial rangeland policies that
promote integrated approaches to rangeland ecosystem management. Sustainable
innovations for economic enhancement or environmental improvement can only be
introduced if there is a high degree of relevance to prevailing local cultural and production
practices and traditions. Yak production systems, and especially their socioeconomic and
cultural characteristics, are still poorly understood by researchers and livestock development
planners due to the extreme marginalization of these groups. This lack of understanding often
results in inappropriate yak development projects at a regional scale. All of these issues
together combine to create considerable challenges to improving yak productivity and
1 Coping with Borders: Yak raising in transboundary landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region
enhancing the adaptation capacity of yak herders to change. Many of the challenges faced by
yak raising in the transboundary landscapes are of crossborder nature. The strategies needed
to address these challenges go beyond the local and national levels; they can only be
successful with regional cooperation.
The authors would like to express their gratitude to Rajan Kotru, Nakul Chettri, Muhammad
Ismail for their support in partners’ participation and providing information in transboundary
landscapes. The financial support received from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale
Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Austrian Development Agency (ADA), and UK Department for
International Development (DFID) to conduct this study is highly acknowledged and
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2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry
of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir
region of Afghanistan
Aziz Ali1, Yi Shaoliang2, Aslisho Nazarbekov1, and Srijana Joshi2
1 Aga Khan Foundation, Afghanistan
2 International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Nepal
In 2012, the Afghan Pamir had 331 Kyrgyz households with 1,545 people and 3,220 yaks.
Yak husbandry is one of the pillars for the subsistence of these Kyrgyz communities who live in
environmental extremes between geopolitical frontiers. Yaks are raised for meat, milk, fibre,
and fuel and are also barter-traded for essential commodities, mostly with seasonal and
occasional traders from distant lowland Wakhan and other places in Afghanistan, as well as
from Tajikistan and Pakistan. The key issues faced by yak husbandry and the yak raising
Kyrgyz communities in the Afghan Pamir are low productivity, shortage of energy, lack of
veterinary services, lack of markets, low overall adaptability, and high social vulnerability.
Increasing the energy supply and improving energy use efficiency will be a key entry point for
any development intervention in the Afghan Pamir. Other recommended measures include
promoting sustainable rangeland management technologies and practices, improving
marketing conditions, strengthening veterinary services, improving breeds, setting up
innovative insurance systems, and building the awareness and capacity of the herders. Closer
collaboration between Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries, especially Tajikistan, to
promote crossborder linkages between the confined Kyrgyz communities and the nearby
communities across the border can create opportunities for the communities to change. If
policy makers have the political will to put humanity before geopolitics, the remote communities
in all the countries in the region can be turned into a frontier of economic cooperation for
common prosperity.
Keywords: Afghan Pamir, crossborder collaboration, Kyrgyz, Wakhan Corridor, yak
The Afghan Pamir is located in the south of the Pamir Mountains and includes part of both the
so-called Big Pamir (Pamir-e-Khurd) and Little Pamir (Pamir-e-Buzorg) (Figure 3). The Big
Pamir comprises the main block of high mountains and the plateau at the western end of the
Pamir Knot, while the Little Pamir consists of two main mountain ranges at the eastern end of
the Pamir Knot. The overall terrain of the Afghan Pamir lies above 4,000 masl, with ridges
and peaks rising between 6,500 and 7,000 masl. This area constitutes the eastern part of the
Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of northeast Afghanistan wedged between Pakistan and
Tajikistan that stretches about 350 km from the Afghanistan town of Ishkashim to the China-
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Afghanistan border. The area borders Tajikistan to the north, China to the east, and Pakistan
to the south.
There are no climate data available specifically for the Afghan Pamir since there are no
weather stations dedicated primarily to this area. People have to rely on surrounding stations
in Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan for estimations of climatic data. However, the great
variability of micro-climates across the region in both temperature and rainfall makes such
estimations difficult and not very accurate. According to the synthesis made by Vanselow
(2011) using weather station data from the Tajik Pamir, the annual rainfall in the eastern Pamir
mountains is generally less than 100 mm, and the annual average temperature is below
0°C. In July, the average temperature rises to between 8 and 12°C. There is an extremely
short frost-free period of around 10 to 30 nights per year. Potential evaporation is estimated
to be about 1,000 mm/yr and the relative humidity is 50 to 70% in winter and approximately
20% in summer.
The Afghan Pamir is the main pasture area for the Wakhi and Kyrgyz people. Wakhi people
inhabit the lowlands and are engaged in both farming and pastoralism. They mainly graze on
the Big Pamir and western end of the Little Pamir, while the Kyrgyz communities are pure
pastoralists; they inhabit the Pamir Plateau and graze their animals, mainly yaks, sheep, and
goats in both the Big Pamir and Little Pamir.
The Afghan Wakhi and Kyrgyz communities as victims of the erstwhile imperial geopolitical
structure have been extensively studied by scholars at different times from different
Figure 3: The Wakhan Corridor, Big Pamir, and Little Pamir
2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
perspectives (Shahrani 1979; Kreutzmann 2003). Shahrani (1979) used the term ‘closed
frontier nomadism’ to describe the Kyrgyz pastoralism in the Afghan Pamir and describes the
cultural and ecological adaptation of the nomadic Kyrgyz and agricultural Wakhi to high-
altitudes and a frigid climate. A high degree of uncertainty of all types including geopolitical,
ecological, and environmental variables is ‘normal’ for areas like the Afghan Pamir and is
constantly testing the adaptive capacity of the inhabitants. Kreutzmann (2003) analysed the
evolution of the survival strategies of the Kyrgyz and Wakhi communities and aptly concluded
that “adapting to a changing social-political framework has affected the strategy of nomads
and mountain farmers alike”.
Recently the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) studied the socioeconomics and range use
of the Wakhi households using the Afghan Pamir and generated very good information, but
they deliberately paid little attention to the Kyrgyz communities (Mock et al. 2007).
With the objective of improving project intervention, the Aga Khan Foundation (Afghanistan)
surveyed the pastoral economy and range use of the Kyrgyz households on the Afghan Pamirs
in 2012 to collect information on range use and yak raising by these communities to provide
a scientific and knowledge base for programme design. The aim was to use the results of the
survey to help the Kyrgyz communities improve their livelihood. One of the major components
of the study was yak husbandry, and this is the focus of this paper.
The survey was conducted in July–August 2012 in the Afghan Pamir; it covered 29 settlements
with 36 households sampled for household interview. Semi-structured household interviews, key
informant interviews, village meetings, and field observations were designed and used to
collect information on per-household yak numbers, the prevailing grazing system, the
contribution of yak raising to livelihoods, and major yak husbandry products and their
marketing. Key problems and issues regarding yak rearing were also discussed with the herders
during the survey. The questionnaires aimed to collect basic information on yak husbandry and
livelihoods of the communities. A technical team composed of an agriculturist, veterinary
doctors, and women officers were trained to conduct the field survey. The team also visited the
key pasture areas in the surveyed area. This paper presents the key findings of the survey and
aims to highlight the key issues and challenges faced by the Kyrgyz communities in yak
husbandry and to identify potential areas for interventions. The section on rangelands and
pastures is mainly based on a separate survey conducted in the same area by WCS and others.
Rangelands and pastures in the Afghan Pamir
The rangelands in the Afghan Pamir are an extension of the Central Highland rangelands of
Afghanistan that extend all the way from Ghazni to the Little Pamir (Ali et al. 2013). They have
formed over time under the influence of geology, soil, climate, animal use, and anthropogenic
impacts. The potential value of the different rangelands is largely associated with their plant
communities; at the same time, the productivity of the rangelands is often limited by water,
cold temperature, and soil depth.
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
The most recent and detailed study on rangeland resources and its uses in the Afghan Pamir
was carried out by WCS in 2006 and 2007 (Bedunah 2008). Using satellite images from late
July and mid-August 1999, they analysed the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI)
of the rangelands used by the Kyrgyz communities in both the Big Pamir and Little Pamir
(Table 4).
According to the analysis, only 52.4% of the total area is suitable for grazing, including about
16.8% of medium to high productivity sedge meadow, 16.7% of sagebrush steppe, 16.5% of
cold desert low shrub, and 0.2% salt flat.
WCS further delineated the rangelands into six vegetation cover types, one further subdivided
into four, using a systematically designed field survey and predominant vegetation
characteristics, and measured the standing crop productivity of these types (Bedunah 2008).
The results are summarized in Table 5.
In comparison to the vast areas covered by different types of dwarf shrub vegetation,
meadows that offer high yield and quality forage are scarce and are limited to areas with
good water conditions. However, these meadows are major grazing areas for yaks.
In another detailed study carried out in the nearby Tajikistan Pamir, Vanselow (2011)
classified the rangelands into seven types/classes: desert, dwarf shrub desert, dwarf shrub
cushion steppe (teresken type), dwarf shrub cushion steppe (wormwood type), spring turf,
alpine mats, and screes. The overall phytomass (not forage) for all investigated plots was
Table 4: Land cover in the Afghan Pamirs as defined by NDVI
Land cover Area
Snow/glacier 36,161 Areas of ‘clean’ snow and ice
Glacier ice 42,491 Areas of snow/rock mix
Rock 108,644 Scree slopes, rock cliffs, non-vegetated mountainsides
Water (high sediment) 19,073 Mostly streams and some small ponds with high sediment;
melting snow and ice around glaciers in the August image
also show in this class
Carex meadow/alpine meadow
(high productivity)
41,453 Areas of highest productivity; difficult to discern some types
as often mixed; Carex meadows most common where site
receives additional water
Carex and grassland
(moderate productivity)
33,557 Areas of moderate productivity. Difficult to discern as some
types are often mixed
Cold desert low shrub 73,549 Difficult to discern as mostly bare ground and low biomass
Sagebrush steppe 74,351 Includes a number of ‘tall’ Artemisia types
Salt flats 9,937 Areas of high salts with low vegetation cover
Water 5,080 Water, predominately lakes
Total 444,272
Source: Bedunah (2008)
2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
1,023.5 ± 128.8 kg/ha in summer and 953.1 ± 228.6 kg/ha in winter. The seasonal
difference in the total forage supply is not very significant. Sedge-dominated meadows offer
high quality and productive forage for yaks but are small in area. Shrub-dominated areas
have low fodder quality and productivity, but due to their large area they are very important
for pastoralism in the Pamir, especially in the winter months.
Yak population in the Pamir region
The Kyrgyz area in the Big Pamir includes the Bai Tibat, Tila Bai, Ilgonak, Beshkunak, Shaur,
and Shaur Maqur watersheds and all watersheds south of Lake Zorkol (including the streams
Table 5: Rangeland community types and total standing crop in the Afghan Pamir
Vegetation cover and
community type
Key species Standing crop
Artemisia Steppe
1.1 Artemisia/Festuca-
Stipa community
Artemisia rutaefolia, Festuca spp., Poa spp., Koeleria
cristata., Potentila sp., Neptea sp., Astragalus sp.
Total: 475
Shrub: 228
Forb: 150
Grass: 120
1.2 Artemisia/
Acantholimon community
Acantholimon erythraeum, Acantholimon gili,
Acantholimon pamiricum, Ephedra sp., Artemisia
rutaefolia, Stipa sp., Festuca sp.
Total: 207
Shrub: 119
Forb: 29
Dryland sedge: 8
Grass: 50
1.3 Festuca community Festuca alaica, Festuca pamirica, Festuca rubra, and/or
Festuca valesiaca, Poa sp., Elymus nutans, Koeleria
Total: 330
Grass: 321
1.4 Stipa community Stipa caucasica, Stipa trichoides, Pipthatherum sp. Total: 177
Low Artemisia Shrub Artemisia leucotricha, Artemisia vachanica; Stipa sp.,
Hordeum sp., Leymus sp., Krascheninnikovia lanata
Total: 202
Shrubs: 131;
Grass: 54;
Forbs: 7
Dryland sedge: 11
Krascheninnikovia Shrub Krascheninnikovia lanata; Leymus sp., Stipa sp. Total: 189
Shrub: 153
Grass: 35
Salt Grass Puccinellia sp., Leymus sp., and Hordeum sp., Chenopods
sp., Achnatherumsplendens, Juncus sp., Carex sp.
Total: 836
Sedge Wetlands Meadow Carex sp., Kobresia spp Total: 1,226
Grass: 46
Forb: 52
Alpine Grassland Trisetumspp., Agrostisspp., Poa spp., Festucaspp., Phleum
spp., Aloepecurus spp., Ranunculus spp., Delphinium
spp., Anemone spp., Potentilla spp., spp. Pedicularis spp.,
Oxytropis spp., Gentiana spp., Primula spp., Allium spp.,
Waldhemia spp., Taraxacum spp., Polygonum spp.,
Papaver spp., Nepeta spp., Sedum spp., Primula spp.,
spp. Saxifraga spp., Geranium spp., several Asteraceae,
Brassicaceae, and Neptea spp., Potentilla sp.
600 (guesstimate)
Source: Summarized from Bedunah 2008
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Qara Jilga, Istiq, Maqur, and several smaller streams), while the Kyrgyz area in the Little Pamir
includes the areas east of the Warm Zherav and Bai Qara watersheds. The total area for both
is around 4,500 km2.
There are altogether 14 Kyrgyz settlements in the Big Pamir and Little Pamir (eight in the Little
Pamir and six in the Big Pamir) with 331 households (162 in the Little Pamir and 169 in the
Big Pamir) and 1,545 people (743 males and 802 females). The households reported having
a total of 3,220 yaks, just under 10 yaks per household (range 5.4 –18.5, with a median
around 10.0). The yak number per household was 12.5 in the Little Pamir but only 7.0 in the
Big Pamir (Table 6).
Two factors contributed to the big difference in yak numbers per household in the Big Pamir
and Little Pamir. Firstly, the Little Pamir has more rangeland resources and the Kyrgyz
pastoralists in the Little Pamir are wealthier with more animals; secondly, an ‘amanat’ (an
Arabic word used in reference to any item/thing given to another person to use for a fixed
period of time and then to be returned to the owner undamaged) system exists in the Big
Pamir where Wakhi people with access to the Big Pamir ‘lend’ their animals, mostly yaks, to
the Kyrgyz people to raise for them, especially during the winter months. In return, the Kyrgyz
are paid in kind in calves or milk products. This system helps the poor Kyrgyz pastoralists who
have no or few yaks to meet the livelihood needs of their families.
Table 6: Yaks owned by the Kyrgyz households in the Afghan Pamir
Settlement Area Total no. of
Total no. of yaks Yaks per
Bazaygumbez Little Pamir 28 300 10.7
Oqjilgha Little Pamir 18 227 12.6
Uchjilgha Little Pamir 15 166 11.1
Erghail Little Pamir 25 270 10.8
Seki Little Pamir 19 279 14.7
Qarajulghay Little Pamir 19 154 8.1
Kokturuq Little Pamir 13 171 13.2
Karademir Little Pamir 25 463 18.5
Subtotal 162 2,030 12.5
Muguly Baytibut Big Pamir 19 102 5.4
Saratosh Big Pamir 29 164 5.7
Arghanak Big Pamir 30 223 7.4
Dashti Mula Big Pamir 24 241 10.0
Shawer Big Pamir 28 250 8.9
Istiq Big Pamir 39 210 5.4
Subtotal 169 1,190 7.0
Total 331 3,220 9.8
2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
Mock et al. (2007) reported 1,380 yaks from Wakhi families using the Big Pamir and Little
Pamir rangelands. This makes the total number of yaks in the Afghan Pamir to be around
4,600. Shahrani (1979) reported that 8% (3,360) of the 42,000 animals identified in 1979
were yaks, indicating that there has been a significant increase in the number of yaks using
the pastures of the Afghan Pamir over the past decades.
The Krygyz people also keep sheep and goats. The WCS survey recorded a total of 10,607
sheep and goats owned by the Kyrgyz households with 44 per household in the Little Pamir
and 20 per household in the Big Pamir. The Wakhi people sent more than 10,100 sheep and
goats to graze in the Big Pamir and considerably fewer to the Little Pamir each year (Mock et
al. 2007). Thus the total number of sheep and goats grazing the Afghan Pamir could be
around 21,000.
Pastures and yak grazing patterns
As in many other places, the rangelands are divided into different seasons, mostly summer
and winter pastures (called ‘shiber’ in Kyrgyz), based on the terrain and climatic conditions
and availability of herbage for the animals. The summer pastures are extensive and the
pastoralists use their traditional knowledge and experience to move the herds from one
locality to another together with their family and belongings, including the local woollen tents
(yurts). The winter pastures are mostly near the pastoralists’ permanent settlements; the
animals are allowed to graze freely and are cared for by the pastoralists’ families. Table 7
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Table 7: Seasonal pastures and grazing period in selected surveyed villages
Village/settlement Summer and autumn pastures
(used early June to late October)
Winter and spring pastures
(used late October to early June)
Name Length of use
Name Length of use
Bozoygumbez Qurshi 5–6 Bozoygumbez 6–7
Qurshi bolo 5–6 Khashguz 6–7
Qurshi poyon 5–6
Bog 5–6
Oqjilga Birgutya 5–6 Oqjilga 6–7
Ochiktash 5–6
Ukchuray 5–6
Sarchitaq 5–6
Uchjulga Uchjuljayi bolo 5–6 Uchjulgay 6–7
Uchjulgayi poyon 5–6 Chilop 6–7
Okhsoy 6–7
Ergayl Koshotuk 5–6 Ergayl 6–7
Karatushutak 5–6
Muqir 5–6
Andemin Jarturuk 5–6 Andemini poyon 6–7
Mechitutuk 5–6 Andemini bolo 6–7
Chuqurturuk 5–6 Seki 6–7
Garturuk 5–6
Chuqurutuk 5–6
Otoq 5–6
Qarajulga Qarasel 5–6 Qizilkurum 6–7
Qarajulgay 5–6
Qaragarum 5–6
Kokturuq Kokturuk 5–6 Ermitak 6–7
Saiting 5–6 Karatash 6–7
Jergopchol 5–6
Zharguruk 5–6
Karademir Karademir 5–6 Ortobel 6–7
Kalamazar 5–6 Tassery 6–7
Mukul 5–6
Toshpuly 5–6
Sirt 5–6
2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
shows the number of pastures associated with some selected settlements. There are many
more summer and autumn pastures than winter and spring pastures. Each group of
households has specific areas for yak grazing. The time for grazing in each shiber is normally
fixed; however, there is a flexibility in the timing and date depending upon fodder plant
phenology and climatic conditions.
Yaks and other domestic animals range freely on the pastures for most of the year, although
they are brought back to enclosures near the camping ground or settlement in the evening. In
late winter to early spring, or when there is heavy snow or extreme weather conditions, they
are stall fed with hay collected in summer. Late winter to early spring is often the most critical
period in the year for the yaks. If a family fails to prepare enough hay or dry fodder, they may
lose some yaks or be compelled to sell some at a low price. There is a social system among
the surveyed communities, which ensures that families help each other by sharing the stored
animal feed, but it works only if the adverse conditions do not last long.
Production and marketing of yak products
Milk is an important source of nutrition for the pastoralists of Pamir, and yaks are the major
source of milk production and an important component of the pastoralist’s livelihood system.
Sixty per cent of the yaks are milk producing. In the surveyed villages, the average daily milk
production for a female yak was 2–4 litres, but this can reach 10–15 litres immediately after
calving in April to May. Milk production can last till late winter, but the peak is usually during
July and August when the pastures are lush with grasses and forbs. Yaks are milked twice a
day: once in the morning before they set out for the pastures and once in the evening when
they return to the cattle sheds or enclosures near the yurts.
The common local milk products prepared by pastoralists are qurut, yogurt, sour cream,
butter, and panir (paneer, a type of cheese). Shir rovoghan (milk and butter boiled together),
shir chai (milk tea), and shir brinj (milk with rice) are common local dishes and drinks. Milk
processing is mainly done by women.
Meat production is only a secondary objective for yak rearing in the Afghan Pamir and yak
slaughtering is not very common. If slaughtered, a 5–6 year old yak produces an average of
250 kg of meat. Live animals are traded for essential commodities. According to the survey,
around 500 head of yak are sold each year from the Big and Little Pamir. Yaks from the Little
Pamir are mostly sold to Pakistan and Afghanistan, while those from the Big Pamir are sold
only to Afghanistan.
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Yak skins/hides
Yak skins/hides are used locally for flooring in the yurts after some local treatment. Some use
the skin to cover and support yurts against wind and snow. Some Kyrgyz people make bridles
for horses and maghsi – very soft socks made from yak skin after proper treatment (dehairing,
felting, and rubbing).
Yak cashmere
Yak cashmere is usually collected in May and June. The fibres are often collected in a mixed
manner and used mainly for rugs, yurts, and rope making. On average 500–600 g of
cashmere is collected from a mature yak per season. There is no market for the fine
cashmere, thus the combed fibre is not further sorted or processed for marketing.
Yak dung
Like pastoralists in other high-elevation areas, shortage of energy is a major concern for the
Kyrgyz herders in the Afghan Pamir. Energy is needed all year round for cooking, water and
space heating, and processing dairy products. Yak dung is collected, dried, and stored by the
pastoralists for use during the year, especially in the long winter months. Collecting yak dung
is quite a daunting job in summer as the yaks often range into far-flung areas of the plateau.
Yak dung is also used as an alternative to stones or wood to make pens and winter enclosures
for yaks and other animals and fresh dung is used for pasting fencing walls to stop wind from
entering the houses.
There is no regular, local market place for any products in either the Big Pamir or the Little
Pamir. There is no road to the Pamir region from Afghan Badakhshan. Flour, rice, and other
edible items are transported from Gazkhan in the Wakhan to Big Pamir on horseback or by
donkey, a journey of seven days. Goods and edibles are transported to the Little Pamir on
horses, yaks, and donkeys from Sarhad-e-Boroghil, a journey of eight days.
In theory, the nearest markets for Kyrgyz pastoralists would be Murgab in the Tajik Pamir and
Khorog in Tajik Badakhshan as both are connected to the Little Pamir by metalled roads.
However, border restrictions make this almost impossible. As a result, the Afghan Kyrgyz
communities have to depend on seasonal or occasional traders from other parts of
Afghanistan, or (illegal) traders from Pakistan and Tajikistan to sell their dairy products and
exchange for commodities they need.
Live yaks are occasionally sold to traders from lowland Wakhan, Ishkashim, Takhar, Panjshir in
Afghanistan, and Chipursan and Boroghil in Pakistan, often to the disadvantage of the local
herders. Qurut, maska (butter), and paneer are also marketed. The field survey showed that
29 households in the Little Pamir were engaged in selling these products to traders from
lowland Wakhi in Afghanistan, Chipursan in Gilgit (via the Ershad Pass), and Broghil in
2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
Chitral, the latter both in northern Pakistan (Figure 4). Some local traders also take the local
milk products to Chirpursan for sale or exchange for other essential household commodities,
mainly wheat flour, rice, tea, sugar, and salt. Some households mentioned that some Tajik
Pamiri traders visited them to exchange household commodities with local livestock products.
There is a crude traditional system for pricing yaks in the Pamir plateau. For example, a male
yak (6–7 years) is considered to be equal to 9–10 fat-tailed sheep, while a female yak of the
same age is equal to 5–6 fat-tailed sheep. Animals are bartered locally using this system.
However, the price for outside traders is negotiated, with prices ranging from 25,000–
40,000 AFN (400–600 USD at 2012 exchange rate) depending on the size of yak. (The price
in 2014 had already increased to 35,000–45,000 AFN or 600–750 USD.) However, even
then, the outside traders would insist on trading their commodities in kind using local animals
or animal products so as to get maximum profit from the transaction. The survey found that
many pastoralists had bartered their large animals for just two bags of wheat flour
(approximately 100 kg, with each bag 50 kg). But 100 kg of flour cost only 48 USD in
Faizabad market in 2012.
Yak breeding
There is no scientifically-designed scheme for yak breeding in this remote plateau. Awareness,
information, and know-how on yak breeding are lacking among the Kyrgyz pastoralists, who
depend totally on indigenous knowledge and practices. Free mating is common, but in some
instances the pastoralists select the best vigorous bull for breeding and others are castrated.
Little effort has been made to introduce new or improved breeds to the surveyed region.
Figure 4: Origin of traders visiting the Little Pamir (borders approximate)
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Key issues and challenges faced by yak husbandry and the
Kyrgyz communities
Low productivity
Yak productivity is naturally low due to the low primary productivity of the rangeland resources
in high elevation areas. However, in the Afghan Pamir the following factors have particularly
limited the productivity of yak husbandry.
Insufficient fodder supply especially during winter
The fodder supply for yak grazing in the Afghan Pamir is inadequate in both quality and
quantity. Only around 53% of the total area can be grazed to some degree; the remainder is
unusable due to a complete lack of fodder, difficult terrain, water bodies, snow cover, and so
on. Fodder production in the part that can be grazed is generally very low. The high-quality
sedge meadow that is suitable for yak grazing (with more than 1,000 kg/ha standing crop
fodder production) only accounts for 9% of the total area; the bulk of the area is low-quality
and low productivity desert or low-shrub desert dominated by Stipa sp., Artemisia spp., and
Krascheninnikovia spp. with a fodder productivity barely reaching above 500 kg/ha.
According to the survey, the total number of livestock (yaks, goats, and sheep) in the surveyed
area had increased rapidly. The increasing demand for forage from domestic livestock has put
a great pressure on the wildlife that shares the rangeland resources. Rangeland degradation,
manifested as increasing bare ground and decreasing fodder productivity, has increased. The
situation has been made worse by the droughts in recent years. Late winter and early spring is
the most vulnerable period for yaks, particularly young animals, and the pastoralists lose
many yaks every year during spring because of the scarcity of fodder and lack of alternatives
or supplementary animal feed.
Poor breed of animals
The yaks in the Afghan Pamir have little genetic communication with yak populations in
Tajikistan, China, or Pakistan due to the closed borders and natural barriers, and there is no
local scientific breeding scheme either. As a result, the yak breeds in the Afghan Pamir are
highly degraded with a small body size and slow growth rate.
High mortality rate due to disease and adverse weather conditions
The yaks have a high mortality rate (6–20%) due to disease, environmental adversity, and the
lack of easily accessible services.
Because of isolation, lack of infrastructure, and poor accessibility, only very limited extension
services have reached the pastoralists in the Afghan Pamir. Before the Aga Khan Foundation’s
programme intervention in 2010, there was no vaccination system for yaks or other animals
and no paravet or extension services were available from the relevant government
2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
departments or any NGOs. Kyrgyz pastoralists do not have access to, and could not afford to
pay for, vaccination services for large flocks of animals.
Yaks in the Afghan Pamir are particularly vulnerable to foot and mouth disease (FMD, locally
called oqsil), brucellosis, and anthrax. The calves frequently contract contagious bovine
pleura-pneumonia disease. Another main cause for the high mortality rate is the lack of
enough winter fodder, which makes the animals very weak in late winter and early spring and
extremely vulnerable to cold weather events.
During the survey, local herders reported that in 2011, 106 yaks died in the Big Pamir and
22 in the Little Pamir because of disease, heavy snowfall, shortage of feed, and low
temperatures. This high rate of mortality often causes big economic losses to the already
impoverished pastoralists.
Energy shortage
Due to the cold weather in the Pamir, the energy demand of the Kyrgyz communities is very
high. They need energy for cooking, processing milk products, preparing hot water, and even
lighting. And they need energy for space heating all year round. There are no exact data
available on the energy demand of Afghan Kyrgyz families. However, studies carried out by
the Aga Khan Foundation in the Tajik Pamir indicated that on average each household
annually consumes about 3,331 kg of cow dung, 3,462 kg of fuelwood (mainly bushes
collected by uprooting from the pastures), and 1,300 kg of coal. In the Afghan Pamir, there is
no access to coal and this part has to be made up through the use of vegetation phytomass
or cow dung. The negative environmental consequences of this heavy dependence on animal
dung and phytomass for energy is apparent. Uprooting of woody plants has reduced the
vegetation cover of the rangelands and decreased the supply of forage for the animals (both
wildlife and domestic animals). Teresken shrubs are the main fodder sources for goats and
sheep in winter, but they are also the major shrubs collected for use as fuelwood. The
excessive collection of animal dung for energy has also depleted the rangelands of its fertility,
making it more difficult to recover from heavy use. The Tajik Pamir survey estimated that the
animal dung used by each household annually could cause a loss of 440 USD (2012
exchange rate) worth of fertility to the pastures. Furthermore, each household must spend 4–8
labourer/hours per day collecting fuelwood, and poor hygienic conditions related to the use
of animal dung and fuelwood pose a great hazard to people’s health. Energy shortage is
becoming a key factor in the sustainable use of rangeland resources as well as the quality of
life of the Kyrgyz communities in the Afghan Pamir.
Distance from service centres and markets
People suffer enormously from the lack of a proper health care system. The communities
reported high mortality rates related to giving birth, malnutrition, cold weather, and other
factors. During the survey, people clearly mentioned that there was a high mortality rate
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
among women and children, particularly during pregnancy and in the neonatal period,
because of the lack of medical health facilities, poor nutrition, and harsh climate. This was
reflected in the average family size of only 4.8 in the Kyrgyz communities, compared to 11.3
for the whole of Wakhan District and 7.3 in Afghanistan overall.
Lack of proper markets and information makes it hard for the Kyrgyz pastoralists in the Afghan
Pamir to sell their pastoral products such as yak meat, milk, and milk products on a regular
basis and at the right prices, and meanwhile they are forced by circumstances to purchase
essential commodities from outside traders at exploitative prices. Having to transport goods
from far distances by horses adds to the huge cost of essential commodities such as wheat
flour and oil. Poor accessibility and lack of regular markets and information makes it difficult
for local herders to organize their pastoral activities according to external market demand,
while they have to depend on external market goods for their livelihoods. This renders them
prey to unfair trading leading to further poverty.
High social vulnerability
The yak-raising Kyrgyz communities in the Afghan Pamir are highly exposed and sensitive to a
multitude of shocks and disruptions including unexpected climate extremes, animal and
2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
human disease, food insecurity, domestic politics, and regional instability. At the same time,
economic poverty, insufficient external inputs, poor education, lack of alternative livelihoods,
opportunities and a social insurance system, and lack of social networks means that the
adaptability and transformability of the communities are very low. All these have resulted in
high social vulnerability.
Recommended areas of intervention
The following recommendations are made for practical interventions through development
programmes based on the analysis of key issues and challenges.
Increasing the energy supply and improving energy use efficiency
Energy will be an important entry point for any conservation and development initiative in the
Afghan Pamir; the aim should be to increase the supply of alternative energy sources and
increase energy use efficiency in order to reduce dependence on phytomass and dung for
fuel. This can result in multiple benefits of leaving more fodder for animals, reducing the
exploitative use of rangeland resources, and improving the quality of life of the households.
The energy supply can be increased through the promotion of alternative energy sources such
as solar and wind energy, which have great potential in the Pamir. Importing energy such as
electricity or coal from Tajikistan through bilateral cooperation is another option. This is not
unlikely; during the Soviet Union time, electricity was supplied to Little Pamir communities from
Tajikistan. Coal is not an ideal choice, but could definitely help to ease the energy crisis. At
the same time, more efficient stoves and passive solar-heating house construction
technologies can be introduced into the Pamir to increase energy use efficiency and reduce
energy demand.
Promoting sustainable grazing management
Existing data such as the latest rangeland assessment data from Bedunah (2008) or data from
an additional survey should be used to calculate the seasonal carrying capacities of different
rangeland types and determine the proper stocking rate. Such calculations can be used to
guide local pastoral development and design proper grazing schemes. Since the per capita
holdings of livestock are already low, it seems very hard to reduce the number of animals
owned by each household. External inputs in the form of hay or supplementary feed are
needed, and this will only be economically viable if the nearby border trade between Tajikistan
and Afghanistan is allowed.
Improving marketing conditions
Improving marketing conditions means both increasing the access of the pastoral products to
markets and enhancing the capacity of herders to benefit from market exchange.
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
To the extent possible, regular crossborder trade between Afghanistan and Tajikistan should
be facilitated at points nearest to the communities on both sides. With the facilitation of the
Aga Khan Foundation, crossborder trade ports have already been established in many places
like Ishkashim, Nusai, and Mai Mai/Vanji to facilitate trade between Afghanistan and Tajik
communities with the consent of the governments of both countries. Therefore, having similar
arrangements in the Pamir is also feasible.
Providing market information to the herders, helping them to improve the quality of yak
products, introducing collective bargaining systems, and setting up mutual-help institutions to
prevent herders from despair selling, can enhance the capacity of herders to benefit from
market exchange.
Strengthening veterinary services and improving yak breeds
The Aga Khan Foundation (Afghanistan) is already working to provide veterinary services to
the Kyrgyz communities in the Afghan Pamir from the Tajik side by engaging Tajik veterinarians
(see Nazarbekov et al. in this book). This model should be institutionalized through bilateral
arrangements between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. At the same time, capacities within the
Kyrgyz communities should be developed to carry out vaccination campaigns, monitoring and
reporting of epidemic outbreaks, and emergency treatment of animal diseases. Activities are
also needed to raise the awareness of pastoralists on the importance of vaccination. Efforts
should be made to introduce new breeds or good-performance yak individuals (or sperm)
from neighbouring areas such as Tajikistan or China to improve the quality of the local yak
Establishing fodder reserves and an animal insurance mechanism
A community-based self-sustaining system like fodder banks needs to be established in each
settlement/shura. Linking Afghani communities with the nearby Tajik communities can help
them cope with emergencies such as extreme climatic events. An innovative livestock
insurance system can also help the farmers to buffer losses from animal mortality.
Capacity and awareness building
In the short term, capacity building should focus on areas like pasture management, livestock
product processing, storage and marketing, animal health and nutrition, disease control and
treatment, and the adoption of new technologies such as alternative energy products. In the
long run, capacity building should aim at increasing the capacity of the local people in taking
up alternative livelihoods so as to increase their overall adaptive capacity. Awareness building
efforts are often needed for local people to accept new technologies and approaches such as
new grazing schemes, animal vaccination, artificial insemination, alternative energy products,
and new ways of dairy product processing.
2 – Survival in the Frontiers: Yak husbandry of Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir region of Afghanistan
Yaks are extremely important for the subsistence of the Kyrgyz communities of the Afghan
Pamir. Both yak raising and the Kyrgyz communities are faced with many challenges and are
highly vulnerable to both environmental and socio-political shocks. The development of the
Kyrgyz communities in the Afghan Pamir cannot be achieved without the overall development
of Afghanistan. However, since many of the problems and challenges faced by the local
communities are the result of geopolitics, the true solution to these problems also lies in
political cooperation to re-link these Kyrgyz communities with nearby communities and service
centres across the political border. If the policy makers have the political will to put humanity
before geopolitics, the remote communities in all the countries in the region can be turned
into a frontier of economic cooperation for common prosperity.
This paper is based on a study carried out in 2012 by the Aga Khan Foundation (Afghanistan)
in the Big Pamir and Little Pamir of Afghanistan.
Ali, Z; Yi, S (2013) Highland rangelands of Afghanistan: Significance, management issues, and
strategies. In Ning, W; Rawat, GS; Joshi, S; Ismail, M; Sharma, E (eds), High-altitude
rangelands and their interfaces in the Hindu Kush Himalayas: Special Publication on the
occasion of ICIMOD’s 30th anniversary. Kathmandu, Nepal: ICIMOD
Bedunah DJ (2008) Rangeland assessment of the Wakhan Corridor study areas: results from the
2007 field season. Consultancy report for the Wildlife Conservation Society http://
Kreutzmann, H (2003) Ethnic minorities and marginality in the Pamirian Knot: Survival of Wakhi
and Kyrgyz in a harsh environment and global contexts. The Geographical Journal 169(3):
Mock, J; O’Neil, K; Ali, I (2007) Socioeconomic survey and range use survey of Wakhi households
using the Afghan Pamir, Wakhan District, Badakshan Province, Afghanistan. Consultancy report
for the Wildlife Conservation Society
Publications/tabid/3570/Categoryid/387/Default.aspx (accessed 7 January 2016)
Shahrani, MN (1979) The Kyrgyz and Wakhi of Afghanistan. Adaptation to closed frontiers.
Seattle, USA: University of Washington Press
Vanselow, KA (2011) The high-mountain pastures of the Eastern Pamirs (Tajikistan) – an evaluation
of the ecological basis and the pasture potential.
index/index/docId/1603 (accessed 10 August 2015)
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
3 – Traditional Yak Herding in High-Altitude Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
Traditional Yak Herding in High-Altitude
Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan:
Transboundary and biodiversity
conservation challenges
Abdul Wahid Jasra1, Maaz Maqsood Hashmi1, Kanwal Waqar1, and Mastan Ali2
1 ICIMOD Pakistan Office, Islamabad, Pakistan.
2 Livestock and Dairy Development Board, Provincial Office, Gilgit, Pakistan.
Yak pastoralism in Pakistan is confined to the higher elevations (3,500–4,500 masl) of
Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, extending over parts of the Karakoram-Pamir Landscape (KPL). It is
practised in six of the seven districts in Gilgit-Baltistan, where yaks occupy an important
cultural and livelihood niche. Yak benefits include dairy products, meat, and wool, as well as
their use as pack animals. There is considerable variation in the reports of the number of yak
in Gilgit-Baltistan, from an estimate of 25,000 yak and 100,000 yak-cattle hybrids in 1995 to
one of only 6,000 yak in 1996. Transhumance based on seasonal migration of herds across
the KPL has been a strategic herding practice in the Upper Indus basin. The migration routes
have been disrupted by the demarcation and closure of international borders, and this has
closed the access to traditional summer pastures and increased the grazing pressure on land
within Gilgit-Baltistan. It has also resulted in increased inbreeding and a decline in the genetic
health of the yak population. Social and infrastructure development supported by the Aga
Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) has attracted local people (Passu, Shimshal, Sost, and
others) away from yak pastoralism towards other forms of community development. The
increased movement of people facilitated by the improved road network is also having a
pronounced negative impact on traditional yak herding practices, which have become less
attractive to the youth. Biodiversity conservation through protected areas needs to be re-
assessed and transboundary collaboration explored for the conservation and development of
yak in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Keywords: Karakoram-Pamir Landscape, Pakistan, transboundary collaboration, yak
Gilgit-Baltistan covers an area of 725,000 km2 in Pakistan. It is surrounded by Afghanistan
and China to the north and east, and India to the southeast and south (Jianlin et al. 2002;
Ochiai 2009). This area is one of the most mountainous regions in the world, with more than
half lying above 4,500 masl (Rasool et al. 2000). In the valley bottoms, temperatures range
from +45°C in summer to -10°C in winter. Annual rainfall rarely exceeds 200 mm in areas
below 3,000 masl, but at higher elevations, where most of the mountain slopes are without
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
vegetation, precipitation in the form of snow can reach levels as high as 2,000 mm water
equivalent per annum (Kreutzmann 1986).
The Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) and Pamir mountains are key yak habitat. FAO (2003)
reported a global yak population of 14.2 million, of which 93% was in China. In Pakistan, yak
herding is confined to the higher elevations (3,500–4,500 masl) in the high mountain ranges
of the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Hamadans, and Karakoram – the Karakoram-Pamir Landscape
(KPL) – in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral (Ali 2013). Yak is locally called ‘dong’ in Baltistan,
‘bapoo’ in Gilgit, Astore, Hunza, and Nagar, and ‘terminy’ in Gojal (Rasool et al. 2000). In
Baltistan, part of Gilgit-Baltistan, the male is popularly known as yak and the female as
yakmo. The word yak is of Tibetan origin and word mo is used to indicate feminine in the
language of Baltistan (Shafiullah 2012).
Yak products make a significant contribution to the household diet as well as having a cash
value in the markets of Hunza and Gilgit (Ali 2013). Despite accessibility issues, livestock,
including yak, are sold to other parts of the Hunza valley where livestock rearing has been
reduced as a result of the diversification of sources of local livelihoods (Ali 2013). Yak herding
can potentially fulfil the regional meat demand (Khan and Rahman 2010). Yak milk can be
used for dairy products such as butter, cheese, and yogurt; yak blood can be used to produce
high quality plasma and insulin; and yak horns, hooves, and internal organs can be used to
produce various medicines (Jianlin et al. 2002). Handmade Sharma carpets woven from goat
and yak hair with attractive indigenous designs are a cultural pride in most parts of the KPL.
Yak safaris are key cultural attractions for tourists (Ali 2013). Mules, horses, and pack yak
were major means of transportation along the historically famous Silk Road trade route, which
originated in Kashmir and passed through Gilgit-Baltistan towards Kashgar in China.
Following the implementation of international boundaries, the Silk Road trade was closed and
the pack yak, indispensable for high-altitude trade, were confined to pastures and specific
mountain ranges in individual territories like Gilgit-Baltistan (Ali 2013).
There is a considerable lack of clarity on the number of yak in Pakistan, with few and differing
estimates. Cai and Wiener (1995) reported a total of 25,000 yak and 100,000 yak-cattle
hybrids in Gilgit-Baltistan, but Khan (1996) estimated only 6,000 yak in all of Pakistan, and
later reports are similarly variable (Table 8). These big differences indicate the lack of reliable
baseline data on yak in Pakistan
and the need for a detailed survey
of the yak population. Overall,
yaks have received little research
and development attention from
either the private or public sector,
and this lack is one reason for the
low level of local interest in
improved yak production.
Table 8: Yak population reported by different authors
Year Yak number Reference
1995 25,000 Cai and Wiener (1995)
1996 6,000 Khan (1996)
1998 14,900 Agricultural Census Organization (1998)
2000 16,300 Rasool et al. (2000)
2006 16,320 Livestock Census Department (2006)
2013 25,900 Ali (2013)
3 – Traditional Yak Herding in High-Altitude Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
Table 9: Surveyed villages and number
of respondents
Village District No. of
Bubin Astore 1
Chongra Astore 1
Parishnug Astore 1
Golmagoh Ghizer 2
Tero Ghizer 3
Thalay Ghanche 2
Bagrote Gilgit 1
Hanuchal Gilgit 1
Kaltaro Gilgit 5
Hispur Hunza Nagar 5
Hoper Hunza Nagar 2
Shimshal Hunza Nagar 5
Basho Skardu 2
Ganokh Skardu 2
Giltari Skardu 3
Gharis Skardu 1
Ghirak Skardu 4
Kindrik Skardu 4
Sadpara Skardu 5
The aim of the present study was 1) to assess the current status of yak in Gilgit-Baltistan, 2) to
evaluate the implications of the current transboundary restrictions on the traditional migration
of yak herds, and 3) to identify issues/challenges which can be addressed to enhance the
livelihood role of yak at higher elevations.
Rapid rural appraisal (RRA) techniques were
used to make an informal and exploratory
survey of yak producers in Gilgit-Baltistan to
obtain information on the characteristics of
local yak production and husbandry.
Survey locations
In consultation with the Livestock and
Agriculture Department of Gilgit-Baltistan and
local veterinary service providers, a list of key
villages of yak producers in higher altitudes of
each district was prepared. A survey was
conducted in 19 villages in six of the seven
districts in Gilgit-Baltistan between March and
June 2014 (Table 9).
Data collection
Data was collected on various aspects of yak
husbandry, including population, pastures used,
breeding and inbreeding issues, disease, and
other farming practices, using a systematic,
semi-structured interview process as follows:
Interviews with key informants/yak herders in
each village; elites and livestock activists
were interviewed in villages with no yak herders
Some group interviews including focus group discussions
Wherever possible, cross-checking information with local veterinary service providers, i.e.
vet dispensary/hospital
Direct observation in the villages
Quantitative estimates of yak population in each village
Close to 50 yak herders and others were interviewed in 19 villages
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Results and discussion
Yak population in Gilgit-
The estimated yak population in the
selected villages is shown in Table 10.
The highest yak population was found
in the districts of Skardu and Hunza-
Nagar. Although yaks are found in
many villages in the Upper Indus
basin, the high numbers in some
villages indicate that in these high-
altitude areas it is a key livelihood
animal due to its better adaptation to
the harsh conditions.
Ali (2013) described the centuries old
practice of yak transhumance
originating from Gilgit-Baltistan. In
the past, the yak herders’ seasonal
migration extended to Srinagar/
Kashmir/Ladakh in the east, to the People’s Republic of China in the northeast, and Tajikistan
and Afghanistan in the KPL to the northwest. Khan and Rahman (2009) also mentioned that
traditionally the yak herders from Gilgit-Baltistan were able to graze their yaks in summer in
areas of Afghanistan, China, and India, where the herders would also sell dairy products like
qurut (similar to yogurt) and butter through barter trade. The annual transboundary migration
was also synchronized with the breeding cycle and facilitated crossbreeding among herds (Ali
and Butz 2003).
The pattern followed by herders from Gojal in the Shimshal valley illustrates the way in which
transhumance functioned (Khan and Rahman 2009). The yak producers in Shimshal were
largely dependent on summer pastures across the national border to feed their livestock,
especially due to the limited land resources in the Shimshal valley. The timing of movements
was determined by a village level decision. The group of herders, including women, left the
village by the 1st week in May moving first to Shujerab, the closest accessible summer pasture,
and then on to Sher Lakhsh, Furzin-i-Dasht, Gorjerav, Sher Bulak, Ghrsar, and Sher-a-lik, to
reach their final destination in the Pamir mountain range which extends across parts of
Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The length of grazing at each pasture site
depended on the weather conditions and availability of forage. The summer months were
peak milk processing days with plenty of forage available for the yaks. Milk was processed
into products like butter and cheese. The yak herders return to Gojal by mid-September
Table 10: Number of households and yak
population in selected villages in Gilgit-Baltistan
Village District Households Yak population
Bubin Astore 180 970
Chongra Astore 250 830
Parishnug Astore 180 430
Golmagoh Ghizer 220 660
Tero Ghizer 180 315
Thalay Ghanche 250 1,250
Bagrote Gilgit 180 590
Hanuchal Gilgit 100 650
Kaltaro Gilgit 200 250
Hispur Hunza Nagar 150 4,000
Hoper Hunza Nagar 450 2,650
Shimshal Hunza Nagar 150 2,513
Basho Skardu 1,200 3,000
Ganokh Skardu 350 4,981
Giltari Skardu 25 163
Gharis Skardu 170 1,190
Ghirak Skardu 200 300
Kindrik Skardu 120 580
Sadpara Skardu 80 480
Total 4,635 25,802
3 – Traditional Yak Herding in High-Altitude Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
Figure 5: Pre-partition transboundary yak herding corridors
Historical migration routes
Present migration routes
Yak locality
Indo-Pak disputed line
carrying milk products as winter supplies. The herders spent the winter around Gojal where
they could protect the livestock from predators like wolves and snow leopards using
indigenous herding practices to graze and feed the animals (Khan and Rahman 2010).
The international demarcation of borders together with closures and restrictions on
transboundary travel over the past six decades has led to a paradigm shift in yak herding
practices in Gilgit-Baltistan. The historical pre-partition yak herding corridors are shown in
Figure 5; the present day routes are primarily restricted to within Gilgit-Baltistan as shown in
Figure 6. The focus group discussions showed that this relocation of routes not only led to
drastic and adverse changes in the husbandry of yak, but also affected the whole role of yaks
in farmers’ livelihoods. The barter trade in yak dairy products ceased abruptly as soon as the
transboundary grazing corridors were blocked, while the role of yak as a pack animal was
reduced over time (Ali 2013).
Crossbreeding and inbreeding
Yak crossbreeding with local cattle has been popular in Pakistan since historic times.
Systematic crossing and backcrossing was introduced in Gilgit-Baltistan in the early nineties by
the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) and Gilgit-Baltistan Livestock and Dairy
Development Department (GBLDD) as shown in Table 11. Breeding yak-cow hybrids has
several advantages over maintaining pure yaks.
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Hybrids are docile, non-aggressive, and
easier to handle for use in farming practices
like ploughing and threshing.
Hybrids produce more milk than pure yak.
Meat from hybrids is preferred as it is more
tender and less fibrous.
Hybrids are more tolerant of warmer
conditions and can adapt better to lower
elevations and graze in areas near villages.
The yak farmers discussed the problems of
inbreeding in their yak herds. At present a
single breeding bull in a village or cluster of
yak households is used for at least eight years. In earlier times they had used breeding bulls
from other herds in the areas that they migrated to in summer. They suspected that this
inbreeding had led to their yaks becoming smaller than yaks in Chitral and that this had also
encouraged local farmers to focus on crossbreeding with cattle to transform yak herds into
hybrid offspring. Other authors have reported problems of yak inbreeding. Cai and Wiener
(1995) reported inbreeding as being a problem in Bhutan, India, and Nepal, but thought
herds were less inbred in Gilgit-Baltistan and remote areas of Afghanistan. Miller and Steane
(1997) recognized that inbreeding also existed in certain yak populations in Pakistan.
Figure 6: Post-partition migration routes of yak herders
Present migration routes
Yak locality
Table 11: Crossbreeding of yak
with cow in Gilgit-Baltistan
Sire Dam Male/Female Generations
Yak Cow Zo/Zomo F1
Yak Zomo Gar/Garmo F2
Yak Garmo Gir/Girmo F3
Yak Germo Bre/Bremo F4
Yak Gremo Hlok/Hlokmo F5
Yak Hlokmo Yak/Yakmo F6
Source: Shafiullah (2012)
Note: Male progeny of F1 to F5 are infertile;
F6 is considered 100% pure yak.
3 – Traditional Yak Herding in High Altitudes of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan: Transboundary and Biodiversity Conservation Challenges
Yak Zo/zomo Cattle Sheep/goat
Present (2014)10 years ago 20 years ago
Livestock classes
Average No. of animals per household
Figure 7: Estimated average livestock holdings of individual households
in Gilgit-Baltistan over the past two decades
Source: RRA survey
Livestock holdings
Figure 7 shows the trend in average number of different livestock kept by individual
households over the past 20 years as reported by the yak farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan. Although
the survey indicated that the total yak population had increased, the number of yaks per
household has declined, which may reflect an increase in the total number of yak households.
The population of small ruminants was reported to have drastically declined, but further
investigations need to be carried out in the yak areas to confirm this. The reduction in
numbers of animals per household indicates a big shift in farmers’ livelihood strategies.
Livelihood diversification
Commercial farming
The yak pastoralists need to adapt to the changes happening around them. While some
changes exacerbate the challenges they face, others provide opportunities. Increased access
to inland markets for agricultural produce is one such opportunity. Figure 8 shows the change
in crops cultivated by farmers in yak herding areas over the past 20 years. Wheat is still the
main cereal crop, although barley and maize are increasing. Ten years ago, farmers in this
single cropping high elevation area were testing various crops including various vegetables,
but potato has now emerged as the single most important cash crop in irrigated fields. The
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
survey showed that 80% of farmers were growing cash crops like potato and tomato in place
of staple crops, and it is possible that over the next ten years wheat fields will be replaced by
potato and tomato to increase cash income, while farmers purchase subsidized wheat from
the market (Ali 2014). Although the farmers benefit from the increased income, the loss of
traditional wheat cultivation poses a strategic challenge for local food security, both for
government agencies and for social organizations (Ali 2014).
At the same time, community-based value chain development for yak products like milk,
cheese, butter, and meat would help make yak-based livelihoods sustainable and help provide
alternative income opportunities.
Other opportunities
Various livelihood opportunities for yak farmers were discussed during the focus group
discussions. Although livestock and crop production remain the mainstay of local livelihoods,
other occupations have become more prominent over the past 20 years as shown in Figure 9.
Various factors are contributing to this change, including the impact of social organizations
like the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) and WWF-Pakistan, which is leading to
increased literacy and a shift in youth behaviour, and the low returns, lack of stability, and
insecurity associated with agropastoral livelihoods. The proclivity of youth is towards
employment opportunities instead of laborious farming. Increased infrastructure development,
particularly the improving road network, is creating business opportunities, and the creation of
jobs in the private/public sector has increased.
Figure 8: Trends in crop cultivation in the yak areas of Gilgit-Baltistan
Wheat Barley Maize Potato Other
Present (2014)10 years ago 20 years ago
Percent cultivation
3 – Traditional Yak Herding in High-Altitude Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
Figure 9: Livelihood opportunities in Gilgit-Baltistan
Livestock Crops Business Labour Jobs Other (tourism,
travel guide,
Livelihood sources
Percent livelihood source
Present (2014)20 years ago
Transboundary issues
One of the most severe consequences of the restrictions on transboundary migration has been
the degradation of high-altitude rangeland ecosystems because of overstocking as the yak
farmers redefined their summer pastures within Gilgit-Baltistan, where the yaks have to
compete for available forage with other livestock. The overgrazing in summer is also
increasing the forage stress in winter (Ali 2014). In Shimshal, for example, in northern
Pakistan, yaks are central to household survival, providing dairy products and meat as well as
income. The people of Shimshal – especially the poor – have limited landholdings and rely on
common lands as grazing pastures to feed their yaks and other livestock, which are under
severe pressure as a result (Habib 2007). Shafiullah (2010) has reported similar issues in
Gilgit-Baltistan with even further overstocking due to refugees from Afghanistan and
downstream areas moving in with their flocks.
The loss of access to a diversified yak population, and resultant inbreeding and weakening
of the yak herds, is a further result of the closures of international transhumance routes.
Wildlife management, for example of snow leopard, is another transboundary issue. Yak
pastoralists were very concerned about the loss of animals due to avalanches and predators
like snow leopard in winter, and noted that the state had not put any compensatory
mechanisms in place.
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Outmigration of youth from Gilgit-Baltistan
According to the population Census of Pakistan (1998), 53% of the total 1.3 million
population of Gilgit-Baltistan at the time of the census was aged 15–35, while the overall
literacy rate was 38%. The government has so far failed to attract the investments in natural
resource management that could generate employment opportunities for the young people in
the district. Youth migration out of the district to destinations in Pakistan and abroad is
becoming a challenge, both as a labour and as a brain drain.
There are a number of recommendations for action to address the issues related to the current
yak-herding scenario in Gilgit-Baltistan as indicated by the results of the survey and
There is huge gap in the availability of consistent data and information about the yak
population. The latest available livestock census in Gilgit-Baltistan is from 2006 and lacks
any information on the population of yak-cattle hybrids. The responsible government
departments should promote and conduct studies on the current status of yaks in the area
to provide clear information on the present situation and to serve as a baseline for future
research to assess changes resulting from management practices and socioeconomic and
environmental change.
The traditional approach to conserving mountain biodiversity by demarcating protected
areas restricts local yak herders in terms of resource use and is in direct conflict with
pastoral livelihoods. The approach should be re-examined to allow participation of local
communities in decision making and to integrate conservation with local livelihoods.
The negative impact of continued inbreeding of yak should be addressed through
transnational crossbreeding cooperation on yaks between China and Pakistan. The
national governments should establish rules, policies, and schemes that promote and
facilitate the exchange of yaks. Gilgit-Baltistan can benefit from the excellent research
being done at the yak breeding centres on the Tibetan Plateau (Ali 2014).
Proper planning is required for skills development amongst the local youth in the area.
Vocational training at community level for value chain development and transboundary
outreach could be tested as an innovative approach for involving youth in local social
development and increasing livelihood opportunities.
The potential for promoting yak ecotourism, for example yak safari, yak polo, and similar,
should be explored and built in through consultations with the local communities in various
transboundary corridors. Special markets for local value added yak products could be
established at centres like Khunjerab zero point and Attabad lake, and could have a very
positive commercial impact.
3 – Traditional Yak Herding in High-Altitude Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
Agricultural Census Organization (1998) Livestock census, Northern Areas. Lahore, Pakistan:
Statistics Division, Government of Pakistan
Ali, I; Butz, D (2003) ‘The Shimshal Governance Model – A community conserved area, a sense of
cultural identity, a way of life.’ Policy Matters 12: 111–120
Ali, M (2013) A survey of yak habitats in Gilgit Baltistan. Unpublished report for Livestock and
Dairy Development Board of Pakistan, Islamabad, Pakistan.
Ali, M (2014) Constraints to yak husbandry in northern high-altitudes of Pakistan. Livestock and
Dairy Development Board of Pakistan. Unpublished report for Livestock and Dairy Development
Board of Pakistan, Islamabad, Pakistan.
Cai, L; Wiener, G (1995)The yak. Bangkok, Thailand: Food and Agricultural Organization of the
United Nations, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
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Bangkok, Thailand: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
Habib, B (2007) Status of mammals in Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan Wildlife Survey Program
– Final Report.
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highlands. Proceedings of the 3rd International Congress on Yak, Lhasa, PR China, 4–9
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GM (eds),Proceedings of a Workshop on Conservation and Management of Yak Genetic
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Khan, RS; Rahman,SA (2009) ‘Integrating yak herding as a resource for community livelihood in
protected area management: A case study of Northern Pakistan.’ Global Journal of
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Khan, RS; Rahman, SA (2010) ‘Commons becoming non-commons in the efforts for reconciliation
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Research Center Journal International 1 (6): 344–353
Kreutzmann, H (1986) ‘A note on yak-keeping in Hunza (Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan).’Production
Pastoraleet Société 19: 99–106
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Agricultural Census Organization, Government of Pakistan
Miller, DJ; Steane, DE (1997) ‘Conclusions.’ In Miller, DG; Craig, SR; Rana, GM (eds),Proceedings
of a Workshop on Conservation and Management of Yak Genetic Diversity held at ICIMOD,
Kathmandu, Nepal, 29–31 October 1996, pp 191–209. Kathmandu, Nepal: ICIMOD
Ochiai, Y (2009) ‘Influences of the developments and issues related to the sustainability of
regionalism in Gojal, Northern Areas of Pakistan.’ Geographical Studies 84: 51–64
Rasool, G; Khan, BA; Jasra, AW (2000) ‘Yak pastoralism in Pakistan. Yak production in central
Asian highlands.’ In Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Yak, 4–9 September
2000, Lhasa, PR China
Shafiullah, M (2010) Status of Bos grunniens in Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan. Unpublished report for
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for Mountain Agricultural Research Centre, Jaglot, Gilgit, Pakistan
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
4 – Yak Raising Challenges: Transboundary issues in Far Eastern Nepal
Yak Raising Challenges: Transboundary
issues in Far Eastern Nepal
Wu Ning, Krishna P Oli, Hammad Gilani, Srijana Joshi, and Neha Bisht
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Nepal
Yakherding practices remain one of the most important livelihood options in the high-altitude
mountain region of Nepal. The study was conducted to assess the impacts of border closure or
movement restriction on traditional yak husbandry and the livelihoods of the yak herding
communities in the three easternmost districts of Nepal (Taplejung, Panchthar, and Ilam) and
neighbouring areas in India and China. The information was collected using rapid rural
appraisal (RRA) techniques, field visits, a key informant survey, and a literature review. The yak
population in the case study area shows a decreasing trend over recent decades. As a result of
loss of access to some seasonal pastures due to border closures and movement restriction,
local herders faced several problems and have had to adjust their livestock structure in order to
utilize the limited forage resources more intensively. The restrictions on grazing on the Tibetan
side and in Sikkim state of India have led to increased grazing competition which has become
a serious issue in eastern Nepal. Prolonged and heavy grazing of domestic animals is causing
substantial changes in wildlife habitats. The yak-raising system is ecologically, culturally, and
socioeconomically important in the high-altitude areas of the HKH region and the study
highlights the need for transborder cooperation for better management of pasture and
livestock and to accomplish mutual economic benefit for the yak herder communities in
the transborderregion.
Keywords: high-altitude, movement restriction, transboundary landscape, yak herding
During the last few decades, the fundamental problem reported for yak husbandry in the
Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region has been lack of fodder resources and grazing space
such as pasturelands leading to poor nutrition (Miller et al. 1997). Many studies have also
discussed the decline of pastoral migration and impact of pasture enclosure for restoration
and/or rotational pasture management (Scoones 1994; Wu and Richard 1999; Yan et al.
2005; Wu et al. 2012), but as yet there have been few studies focusing on transboundary
issues such as the impact on dependent societies of border restrictions and the legal
prevention of the natural seasonal movement of animals to their traditional (crossborder)
grazing lands.
The yak is a multipurpose animal raised by high-altitude mountain communities in the HKH
region. Yak husbandry following seasonal migratory patterns is a traditional, and one of the
most important, livelihoods in these harsh mountain regions. When winter snowfall begins,
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
yaks are brought down to lower winter pastures, as the weather grows warmer, yak herds
return to higher summer grasslands. This transhumant system can be found across the entire
high-altitude rangelands of the HKH region (Kreutzmann 2004, Dong et al. 2009). A wide
range of seasonal pastures along altitudinal belts is a fundamental primary requirement for
mobile yak grazing and traditionally these pastures have been distributed in a natural realm
beyond administrative borders. The closure and enforcing of national border laws due to
geopolitical changes since the 1950s among the Himalayan countries has had a huge impact
on yak grazing in the transboundary landscapes, as well as on the large number of pastoral
societies dependent upon it.
In this paper, the authors investigate this issue with a case study in the Himalayas in far eastern
Nepal. The study primarily assesses the impacts of movement restriction due to border closure
and grazing bans upon the traditional yak herding system and related livelihoods in three
eastern districts in Nepal (Taplejung, Panchthar, and Ilam) and their neighbouring areas.
Field survey
The study was carried out in three districts inside Nepal within 10 km of the international
border in the eastern hills using rapid rural appraisal (RRA) techniques, field visits, and a key
informant survey with structured and semi-structured interviews and group discussions, as well
as subjective assessment. Prior to the field visit, a checklist was prepared and discussed with
natural resource management personnel. District-level consultations were carried out with
government officials involved in the planning and management of natural resources,
facilitated by the district livestock/veterinary officer. Information on different aspects of
pasture/livestock management statistics was also collected through secondary sources. Along
with the discussions with local people, assessments were also made of the systems used for
management of pasture/animal fodder and animals. The field study was complemented with
a literature review.
Case study area
The three districts Taplejung, Panchthar, and Ilam (TPI) – the case-study area – are situated in
the eastern part of Nepal, bordering the western part of Darjeeling district and Sikkim state of
India to the east and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China to the north (Figure 10).
Administratively, TPI is situated in the hills of the Eastern Development Region of Nepal, the
total household number is 113,050. The transborder area within Nepal is a strip about 8 km
wide extending 135 km from west to east and then north to south along the international
border, with a total area of 2,892 km2, about 44% of the total area of the three districts.
The topography within the transborder area is quite diverse, from areas in the Ilam Siwaliks
that are almost level with the tropical plains to the world’s third highest peak – Mount
4 – Yak Raising Challenges: Transboundary issues in Far Eastern Nepal
Figure 10: Location of the transborder area in the far-eastern Himalayan region of Nepal
Kangchenjunga. The mountainous terrain is a continuum of the terrain of the Himalayas, with
diverse climates from sub-tropical and warm temperate in the lower elevations to alpine and
tundra in the upper mountain slopes determining overall biodiversity and development
activities. The temperature decreases with increasing elevation, resulting in different climatic
zones within a short vertical distance. The temperature recorded at Taplejung meteorological
station shows a variation from <0˚C minimum in winter to +30˚C in summer. The monsoon
wind causes rainfall from June to September. In some years, there is some scanty rainfall
during the mid-winter months. The annual precipitation varies from 1,440 mm to 2,660 mm
with average annual rainfall of 1,650 mm, almost 70% falling between June and September.
Usually, the southern facing slopes receive more rainfall than the northern ones.
Yak is confined to the northern and northeastern parts of this landscape at the higher
elevations. Many hybrids of yak with domestic cattle (Siri and Nepalese hill Zebu cattle) are
kept on neighbouring, somewhat lower, land and sometimes alongside the yak. The Ministry
of Agriculture Development reported 3,017 heads of yak and yak hybrids in Taplejung, 1,092
in Panchthar, and 180 in Ilam (MOAD 2013).
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Results and discussion
Yak husbandry
Yaks are found in all the northern districts of Nepal. According to recent estimates, there are
65,980 heads of yak and yak hybrids in Nepal, distributed across 28 northern districts
(MOAD 2013). The livestock trends in Taplejung district between 1992/93 and 2012/13 are
shown in Figure 11. Taplejung district is a typical pastoral area with most of the pastures in the
high mountains, and bordering both TAR, China, and Sikkim in India. The livestock
population that used to be grazed at higher elevation, like sheep, did not increase greatly, or
even decreased (cattle/yak), but the number of goats and buffalo, which are well adapted to
the temperate climate at lower elevations, increased significantly. The trends indicate a
change in the overall livestock structure. The number of yak went down from a reported 4,036
in 1999 (DLSO 1999) to 3,017 in 2013 (MOAD 2013), in line with the trend in Nepal
overall (Wiener et al. 2003). Sherchand and Karki (1997) reported that the yak population in
Taplejung decreased by about 60% from 1981 to 1991. In the other two districts of Panchthar
and Ilam, yak is not a dominant animal species in the domestic livestock, but yak hybrids still
play an important role in arable farming, animal husbandry, and trading of by-products. The
main reasons for the reduction in the yak/chauri population in Nepal are analysed in other
articles in this book.
Seasonal migration system
In eastern Nepal and the surrounding transboundary area, transhumance grazing of yak and
other domesticated animals has evolved over a long time. The most common form of
traditional pastoralism on the upper mountain slopes of the transborder area is extensive
rearing of sheep, yaks, chauris (yak hybrid with the native Zebu cattle), and hill cattle for wool,
Yak/yak hybrids
Buffaloes Sheep Goats
Figure 11: Livestock trends in Taplejung district in eastern Nepal
Source: DOL 2011; MOAD 2013
4 – Yak Raising Challenges: Transboundary issues in Far Eastern Nepal
meat, pack, and draught purposes, with the livestock often herded in mixed flocks. This system
covers much of the grazing land in the high-altitude areas of Taplejung and other districts and
is especially significant for nature conservation in the hill and mountain areas. In Taplejung,
transhumant systems follow a vertical pattern where stock overwinter in warmer zones in the
foothills, and move upwards as the weather warms reaching alpine pastures in the summer
(Figure 12). Between June and September, sheep, yaks, and chauris (and occasionally a few
goats) are grazed on the higher pastures (Himali kharka) and are then gradually brought
down from early October. Yaks are wintered in the temperate belt (Lekali kharka), while other
animals are driven down further to the subtropical areas where they have access to
supplementary feedstuffs such as crop stubble, crop residues, and shrubs.
Traditional transboundary grazing
The international border of Nepal with TAR, China to the north and Sikkim, India to the east is
located in the high mountains and along the mountain ridges where the traditional summer
pastures lie for all herders, regardless of their citizenship. The people living on different sides
Alt (m)
Village Village
Subtropical belt
Temperate belt
(Lekali Kharka
Alpine belt
(Himali Kharka
Camping site &
grazing area
Crop cultivation
Yak & Chauris
Sheep & Goat
Feb Mar Apr May Jun
Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Figure 12: Time-space diagram for yak migration in the
transboundary landscape of Taplejung, Nepal
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
of the border are often from the same clan, and transborder marriage plays a vital role in
establishing strong family bonds (Oli 2003). Due to dual citizenship, access permits for much
of the transborder population, and property ownership and transfer, are easy for many
people. The same person or family owns land on either side of the border and thus has access
and rights over the use of land resources and for yak grazing. Traditionally, herders from the
transborder areas were allowed to graze their animals within pasturelands of either country
within 10 km of the border. If animals from either country were lost and found within 20 km of
either country, they needed to be handed over to the owner. Transboundary cooperation is
therefore an established norm for the local communities. Although there are some local
conflicts, the system is practised everywhere except within protected areas, where modern
governance systems have impacted the traditional system.
Border closures and grazing restrictions
In the northern transborder areas of Nepal, alpine pastures were traditionally opened (at least
there was no strict control) to local herders from both sides. In 1978, an agreement banning
the transborder use of pastureland was reached between the Chinese and Nepalese
government. In 1988/89, a five-year grace period was given by the Chinese government for
pasturing animals from Nepal in high-altitude areas on the Chinese side. After
implementation of the agreement, the ban on pasturing animals on the Tibetan side forced
more high-altitude grazing sites to be opened for animal grazing in Nepali districts (Joshi
2000). This meant that the previously poorly accessible high mountains on the Nepalese side
had to absorb more domesticated animals and were subjected to overgrazing and over-
browsing (Suttie and Reynolds 2003). In the eastern transboundary region, animal grazing
was restricted within protected areas following the notification of Kangchenjunga Biosphere
Reserve at the end of the 1970s and Singhalila National Park in 1990 by the Indian
Government (Chaudhary et al. 2014). On the Nepalese side, this arrangement especially
impacted Taplejung district and some parts of Panchthar where, for example, Nepali people
had traditionally used Singhalila Park resources for grazing and these were now closed. With
the increase in conservation areas in Sikkim after the 1990s, the options for yak grazing
became even more limited. Herders used to make their migratory arrangements taking into
account the pasture situation on both sides of the border, or even rented pastureland from the
traditional pasture owners. After the demarcation and enforcement of the border of protected
areas, yaks and other domesticated animals were only brought for wintering to Lekali kharka
in Nepal (Oli 1985, 1986). The already over-stocked grazing sites between 2,000 and
4,000 masl received even more grazing pressure from both the Nepalese and Sikkimese
sides. The increase in livestock often leads to local conflicts, which are now heightened in the
transborder areas between Nepal and Sikkim (Tambe and Rawat 2009).
Impacts on transboundary movement
Traditionally, the eastern districts of Nepal bordering India and China also benefited from the
livestock development occurring in Sikkim and Tibet. Transborder herders and farmers sharing
4 – Yak Raising Challenges: Transboundary issues in Far Eastern Nepal
common grazing lands and visiting relatives across the borders brought improved yak bulls
back for breeding purposes. At the same time, pasture and forage seeds and saplings were
also introduced from early times in the border villages of Taplejung, Panchther, and Ilam
districts. These were farmer-to-farmer efforts in the exchange of genetic material for improving
the forage base and genetic improvement of their livestock, essentially ‘transborder
cooperation’. The local communities in the case study areas reported that after the restriction
of crossborder movement there was a reduction in the transfer of superior yak bulls from the
Tibetan side which has led to serious problems of inbreeding in the local yak population,
resulting in a decline in productivity and population due to the reduced hybrid vigour.
Transboundary movement between Nepal and India is an age-old practice that was important
for socioeconomic purposes (Chaudhary et al. 2014). Eastern Nepal (Taplejung, Panchthar,
and Ilam districts) is separated from India (Darjeeling and Sikkim) by a long stretch of the
Kangchenjunga-Singhalila complex. This is an open border crossed by people from both sides
as well as livestock. The people living on either side of this Nepal-India border are mostly
from the same families, and some even possess dual citizenship, as a result of which they own
land on both sides of the border while also enjoying rights over the use of natural resources,
including pasturelands. Thus if the use of a natural resource is regulated on one side of the
border, they are able to extract resources from the other side. Law enforcement in Singhalila
National Park in India is stringent, while there is weak law enforcement on the Nepal side of
the border (Chaudhary et al. 2014). As a result, the natural resources on the Nepal side are
more prone to unsustainable extraction and poaching.
Crossborder dissemination of yak herding practices
Tibetan people started to settle in the transboundary landscape in Nepal and neighbouring
Sikkim and Darjeeling from the late 1950s (Chettri 2008, 2009). Many of the early migrants
became mobile within the areas and large numbers were also involved in various other
businesses. With them, they brought Tibetan culture and a knowledge base on rearing yaks,
hunting of high-altitude wildlife, and collection of medicinal herbs. With the coming of new
migrants after the end of the 1960s, the earlier settlers invested in the newcomers for
settlement along the transborder areas, where they again started to rear yak. The increasing
population of Tibetan origin in the following decades also led to a growing demand for yak
butter, cheese, meat (including veal), and other body parts, which further promoted a stable
increase in the yak population in the Kanchenjunga transboundary area.
To ensure the continued flow of yak products, wealthy people from urban centres have
invested in yaks, while handing over the responsibility for rearing and breeding to an
intermediary person on fixed terms and conditions. The middlemen act as quasi hidden yak
herd owners; they make contracts with the traditional pasture owners along the transborder
areas between Nepal and Darjeeling and the western districts of Sikkim State, but the
arrangements are confidential and only known to the persons involved in the business.
Payment for the grazing rental is made in kind or in cash. In agreement between the two
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
parties, a reliable Nepali herder is hired who seems to be the owner of the yaks. He/she will
be given specific responsibilities for the supply of products, veal, and live animals to a fixed
destination. The middleman collects the products and hands them over to the owner, who
distributes them to a wide range of larger consumers including in TAR. The business of
transborder rearing of animals has been maintained continuously and has shown no decline
over the years.
The Tibetan migrants also introduced hybridization to the southern slopes of the Himalayas.
According to Chettri (2009), the number of yak and especially yak hybrids (locally called dzo)
increased very quickly in Sikkim after the new Tibetan settlers came. The mountaineering trails
which flourished in the Mount Kanchenjunga area after the 1960s provided livelihood options
for these new settlers. The people living in this isolated forested area brought a few yak
hybrids from Holung in Nepal in 1971 to cater to the needs of mountaineering agencies for
carrying goods and trekking equipment. Soon after, people started hybridizing their local cows
with yaks to produce their own hybrids. Yak hybrids are used as pack animals for tourism
purposes in most parts of Nepal, especially for mountaineering and trekking in the Himalayas.
Those mountain people who have very limited options for making a living can take advantage
of the economic benefits provided from tourism through increased yak raising or
crossbreeding (Watanbe and Ikeda 1999; Sherpa and Kayastha 2009).
Impact on conservation
Pastureland management is a major issue of concern in eastern Nepal and throughout the
Kangchenjunga Landscape (Chaudhary et al. 2014). Yaks are an integral part of the pastoral
system and domestic biodiversity in high-altitude pasturelands. In eastern Nepal, free range
grazing, where large numbers of livestock are left out in the forests and pastures to graze
freely, is practised in some places. Habitat degradation in pasture lands is common
throughout the Kangchenjunga Landscape (Chaudhary et al. 2014). In the case study area,
the problems associated with intensified pastoral activities in the landscape due to the
shortened migration include removal of trees to increase the grazing area, harvesting of trees
and scrub vegetation for fuelwood, depredation of ground-dwelling birds and their nests by
herders’ dogs and humans, and poaching of rangeland wildlife.
Many studies have highlighted the degradation of pastoral areas as a result of closure of the
transborder movement of animals (Bauer 2002). Following the closure to access some
summer pastures due to border closure or grazing restrictions, local herders adjusted their
livestock structure in order to utilize forage resources at lower elevations. The change in mix of
livestock breeds led to a further decline in traditional transhumance, with a transformation
from long-distance migration to a short-distance migration or even sedentary pastoralism,
which inevitably leads to overgrazing in the limited space. Furthermore, there is grazing
competition between wild herbivores (such as Himalayan tahr, blue sheep, musk deer, and
barking deer) and domestic livestock (Oli 1985, 1986). Herbivores are forced to survive in
areas grazed by livestock, negatively affecting their survival. One of the indicators of reduced
4 – Yak Raising Challenges: Transboundary issues in Far Eastern Nepal
wild ungulates as observed by the local people is that wildlife such as the leopard, fox, and
Jackal are predating more on yak calves, sheep, and goats for food. The off-take in this
pathway has increased by up to 12% causing economic loss to the local people (Oli 2003).
Around 65% of the respondents reported that domestic animal depredation has increased
compared to the previous two decades (Watanabe and Ikeda 1999). This has profoundly
increased human-wildlife conflict in the high-altitude region and is creating a serious threat to
mountain biodiversity.
Another major transboundary issue in this landscape is the illegal trade of wildlife and plants.
A lucrative market and insufficient patrolling are among the factors that promote illegal trade
in the crossborder areas (Chettri et al. 2011; Chaudhary et al. 2014). The porous borders in
eastern Nepal are transit routes for the illegal trade of forest products. Reports from eastern
Nepal include the collection of butterflies and rhino beetles from Ilam district, collection of
pangolin scale from Taplejung and Panchthar districts, trade of tiger skin, and arrest of
Tibetan poachers in Taplejung District (NCDC 2010). The formal institutions are unable to
deliver adequate services for conservation and development (Chaudhary et al. 2014). There is
inadequate infrastructure in some of the protected areas within the landscape, and lack of
adequate personnel, staff, gear, and insufficient capacity hampers the delivery of services and
coordination between conservation and pastoral development in the landscape.
The traditional transboundary resource sharing system which evolved in the transboundary
pastureland areas was an important management tool, but is currently weakened, leading to
demands for appropriate guidelines and awareness raising both in the community and among
the concerned authorities. For the sustainable development of yak husbandry, the
transboundary area needs to be brought under some form of pasture conservation with an
appropriate legislative framework. Under the present management regime, further erosion of
pasture biodiversity is a foregone conclusion. The fundamental starting point for
transboundary cooperation in yak husbandry and pasture management, including forage
supplements, will be the traditional local level institutions that have managed the resources
over centuries.
Since historic times, the transhumance yak rearing system (highland/lowland) has been part of
an ecosystem management tool in the high-altitude trans-Himalayan areas. The system plays
an important role in the transfer and spread of genetic resources from one place to another,
including various domesticated animals and pasture species, and converting them into
valuable meat, milk, and other products. This system is in decline, but the consequences for
the entire mountain ecosystem are not clearly understood. Yak pastoralism is a complex form
of natural resource management which maintains an ecological balance between pastures,
livestock, and people and is also an adaptive strategy for a stressful environment (Chettri
2008). The yak raising system has regional ecological, cultural, and socioeconomic
significance. An integrated transboundary yak herding management plan needs to be
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
introduced in the transboundary landscapes as one of most important components for
conservation and development strategies in the HKH region.
The authors would like to express their gratitude to the district based livestock/veterinary
offices for their support in collecting data and providing information. The financial support
received from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Austrian
Development Agency (ADA), and UK Department for International Development (DFID) to
conduct this study is highly acknowledged and appreciated.
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Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
5 – Yaks and Yak Herding: Challenges and opportunities in the Bhutanese Himalayas
Yaks and Yak Herding: Challenges and
opportunities in the Bhutanese Himalayas
Pema Wangda
National Center for Animal Nutrition, Department of Livestock, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Royal
Government of Bhutan, Bumthang, Bhutan
Yak rearing has been practised by the transhumant pastoralists of Bhutan for generations. Yaks
are found at elevations of 2,800 to 5,000 masl, and benefit approximately 1,100 nomadic
households in the high-altitude northern areas of the country. In recent years, yaks and yak
herding have become less important as the main source of livelihood for these nomadic
communities due to the numerous challenges they face. The challenges include inequitable
access to basic social amenities, shrinking grazing grounds, shortage of household labour,
unhygienic yak product processing practices, lack of facilities and technical capacity in yak
breeding, and poor yak health care coverage. The livestock census data for the past five years
do not show an alarming decrease in the yak population overall, nevertheless many yak
herding households appear to be giving up or reducing yak rearing. Notwithstanding the
numerous challenges, there are many opportunities available to support the yak herding
communities and ensure that a critical population of yaks is maintained. The opportunities fall
into three broad categories: policy innovations, technological interventions, and development
of cottage industry yak products. Immediate attention should be paid to strategic planning and
innovative interventions aimed at protecting and preserving yaks.
Keywords: livelihoods, rangelands, transhumant, yaks, yak husbandry
Bhutan is surrounded by China to the north and India to the west, south, and east. It is home
to about 39,500 yaks and 6,300 zo-zoms (a hybrid between yak and local cattle), which
together constitute 12.2% of the (non-poultry) livestock population in the country (DOL 2013).
Bhutan is mostly mountainous; yaks are found in the northern areas at elevations ranging
from 2,800 to 5,000 masl (Roder et al. 2001). Yak herding is one of the most important
activities for nomadic communities, who lead a transhumant lifestyle with yaks as their main
source of livelihood. The ethnic nomadic communities are known by different names such as
Brokpas in central and eastern Bhutan, Bjops in western Bhutan, and Lakhaps in west-central
region, all of which basically mean ‘pastoralists’ (Gyamtsho 2000).
Alpine meadows at an elevation of 4,000–5,000 masl, commonly known as tsamdro, provide
the main summer grazing grounds for the yaks (Roder et al. 2001). The winter grazing
grounds are located near villages, and the spring and autumn grazing areas lie along the
transit routes used for the seasonal movement of yaks, as well as sheep, cattle, and horses.
The tradition of yak rearing is an old practice in Bhutan. Yaks provide food and fabric, as well
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
as draught power for haulage in the high-altitude areas. The cold climatic conditions and
rugged terrain at high-altitude are only suited to yak rearing, which helps to optimize the use
of available land for animal-based food production in the mountain agricultural production
system through vertical zonation and exploitation of the seasonal supply of fodder. Yaks are
also closely associated with unique traditions and culture, which strengthens the social
bonding among communities. In addition to the yaks providing basic needs for the herders
and defining a distinct culture and tradition, the yak herders also serve as important
custodians of the rich natural resources in the remote high-altitude areas.
Yak rearing in Bhutan
Yaks are reared in 11 of Bhutan’s 20 dzongkhags (districts) (Figure 13). Table 12 shows the
yak population and number of yak rearing households in these dzongkhags from 2009 to
2013. In 2013, Thimphu had the highest yak population and Samdrupjongkhar Dzongkhag
the lowest.
Although overall numbers have not gone down drastically, there was a sharp decline in the
yak population in 2012 (Figure 14), which is attributed to the neglect of yak herding
communities in mainstream development plans and the meagre support for yak husbandry
provided by government agencies. Yaks and yak herding are losing their importance as the
main source of livelihood for transhumant pastoralists in high-altitude mountain areas. The
Figure 13: Yak rearing dzongkhags
5 – Yaks and Yak Herding: Challenges and opportunities in the Bhutanese Himalayas
Table 12: Yak population and number of yak rearing households in Bhutan
from 2009 to 2013
Dzongkhag Yak population No. of yak rearing households
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Bumthang 3,103 3,360 3,501 3,232 2,974 80 92 75 82 58
Gasa 6,590 7,545 7,640 6,313 5,787 192 233 229 223 216
Haa 5,552 4,895 4,763 5,226 5,857 104 89 80 82 99
Lhuentse 322 223 216 241 234 6 5 5 5 4
Paro 3,572 3,290 3,217 1,535 2,632 180 42 42 25 42
Samdrupjongkhar NA NA 50 25 28 NA NA 4 7 6
Thimphu 10,395 10,223 11,154 10,442 10,984 152 141 151 148 156
Trashigang 5,981 7,094 8,724 7,312 7,153 284 381 390 366 375
Tashiyangtse 572 588 591 589 541 6 6 6 6 9
Trongsa 72 58 73 71 80 3 3 3 3 3
Wangdue 2,531 3,098 3,215 3,025 3,273 97 117 111 103 114
Total 38,690 40,374 43,144 38,011 39,543 1,104 1,109 1,096 1,050 1,082
Source: DOL (2013)
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Yak population
Source: Livestock Statistics, Department of Livestock, MOAF, RGOB, 2013
Figure 14: Yak population (2009–2013)
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
trend is more evident in areas where there are alternative avenues for economic development,
such as tourism and the collection of Ophiocordyceps sinensis.
Challenges in yak husbandry
The yak herding communities in Bhutan face a number of challenges, and there are a number
of needs that require immediate attention to protect yaks and the interests of the yak herders.
Poor access to basic social amenities
The approximately 1,100 yak herder households (Table 12, DOL 2013) are scattered across
the northern parts of the country, which makes it difficult to implement a specific development
programme to support them. Planned economic development started in Bhutan about six
decades ago, but development interventions are limited in the remote and far flung high
elevation areas. The yak herding communities have benefited only minimally from the planned
development process compared to the downstream valleys. Some of the differences in access
to basic social amenities are shown in Table 13 in a comparison between a yak rearing
gewog (block) and a non-yak rearing gewog (Sakten Gewog in Trashigang Dzongkhag and
Mongar Gewog in Mongar Dzongkhag).
Unbalanced development activities have resulted in inequity in access to basic amenities for
high-altitude nomads, triggering a rural-urban migration in search of better livelihood
options. As elsewhere in the developing world, the impacts of modernization have not spared
these nomadic communities and the younger generation are unenthusiastic about yak herding
and the hardships of this way of life. The development interventions that have been carried out
to support enhancement of yak communities’ livelihoods, for example fodder development
and supply of inputs such as fencing materials and milking and milk processing equipment,
have been widely dispersed and unequally distributed and have had little or no impact.
Shrinkage of grazing areas
Rangelands are the main source of grazing for yaks, but they are subject to various forms of
degradation due to lack of management interventions. Rangelands are used on a free-for-all
Table 13: Access to basic social amenities in a yak rearing and a non-yak rearing gewog
Basic social amenities Sakten Gewog – yak rearinga Mongar Gewogb – non-yak rearingb
No. of households 336 617
Farm road connectivity (km) 0 79.5
Access to electricity 0% 100%
No. of high schools 0 4
No. of health facilities 3 7
Source: a Tashigang Dzongkhag (2014); b Mongar Dzongkhag (2014)
5 – Yaks and Yak Herding: Challenges and opportunities in the Bhutanese Himalayas
basis without any management practices or regulations (Roder et al. 2001). Moreover, the
strong environment conservation policies of the country have prohibited the traditional
management practice of rangeland burning since the 1970s. Prior to this, local yak herders
used rangeland burning as the main rangeland management tool, and cessation has resulted
in the proliferation of unpalatable shrub species over a considerable area, reducing the
amount of grazing land available for yaks (Chophyel 2009). The decrease in grazing area,
low productivity of the rangeland, and competition for the limited grazing resources from wild
ungulates – mainly takin (Budorcas taxicolor) and blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) (Gyamtsho
1996) – mean that availability of adequate grazing resources has become a serious challenge
for yak herding.
Changes in the educational system and seasonal shortage of household labour
In the past, yak herding practices and traditions were passed from generation to generation.
Now with the introduction of a western education system and modernization of the country,
yak herding families prefer to send their children to school, leaving only the elderly to tend the
yaks. Most young people are not willing to take up yak herding. The yak herders seem to be
giving up yak rearing faster in areas where the extended family have agricultural land, like
Bumthang or Haa; about 60% of the yak herders who reared yaks in the past have left yak
rearing over the past ten years (Dervillé 2010). A shortage of household labour at the time of
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
the Ophiocordyceps sinensis harvest in May, June, and July has also become a common
phenomenon. Most of the younger members of herders’ families devote their time to
collection of Ophiocordyceps sinensis because of the high income from its sale.
Unhygienic yak product processing practices and poor marketing
Herders still process yak milk and milk products using age-old traditional knowledge and
equipment. These are not only laborious and time consuming, they also lead to unhygienic
products, which poses difficulties in marketing. Yak meat and meat products are rarely
available in the market because of the difficulties in transporting them from the mountains to
the nearest markets. In the past, yak products such as butter and hardened cheese (locally
chugo) were bartered for food grain in the valleys, but now yak products are mostly sold for
cash. Challenges to the sale of yak products include the poor infrastructure, inefficient
traditional equipment for processing, unhygienic products, and lack of a proper marketing
strategy. Thus, yak herding is no longer attractive as a main source of income for herders.
Lack of facilities and technical capacity in yak breeding practices
Lack of facilities and technical capacity for yak breeding are also contributing to the decline in
yak herding. The most common breeding practice is the frequent exchange of male breeding
5 – Yaks and Yak Herding: Challenges and opportunities in the Bhutanese Himalayas
yaks with neighbouring herds to reduce inbreeding (Dorji 2002). However, the scattered
nature of the yak herds coupled with a lack of quality yak bulls are major constraints to
improving breeding quality.
Improving yak herds through artificial insemination on a large scale is impractical and difficult
to implement due to the rugged terrain, scattered nature of yak herds, and seasonal
movement of yaks (Tshering 2000). Yak breeding through artificial insemination with semen
imported from China did achieve limited success (Tshering et al. 2000), but the technology
remains to be tested in Bhutan on a larger scale.
Poor animal health care coverage
Gid is the most common disease causing high mortality among yaks (Dorji 2002); around
70% of cases are reported in young animals 1–2 years old (Tenzin 1979). Poisoning by plants
such as Senecio species, which contain the highly toxic chemical pyrrolizidine alkaloid (Dahal
2000), and by contaminated water (locally known as baduk and chuduk), is also reported to
be a major cause of yak mortality. There are no known successful treatments for such cases
and the yaks are left at the mercy of nature for a cure.
Veterinary health care services are provided free of cost by the government through the
dzongkhag and gewog clinics throughout the country. However, due to the remoteness and
scattered nature of yak herds, these animals rarely receive even the basic veterinary services
on time.
Livelihood opportunities from yak rearing
Enhance income from yak-based food products
There is a rising demand for animal-based food products in Bhutan and a deficit in the
supply of such products at the national level. Yak rearing and production can play a crucial
role in achieving national self-sufficiency in livestock-based food products. Yak rearing
offers a good opportunity to produce animal-based food products while enhancing the
livelihoods of nomadic communities. The yak products are primarily based on natural grasses
grown in a pristine environment, and fetch relatively high prices compared to other livestock
products. There are opportunities for marketing the yak products to high-end hotels as ‘niche
organic products’.
Yak based ecotourism activities
High-altitude landscapes, a pristine environment, and unique communities are key features
for tourism. Well-organized tourism in yak-based regions can offer an avenue to enhance
income generation in yak herding communities. Possibilities exist for building eco-lodges for
homestays and promoting ecotourism. Emphasis could also be given to riding and using pack
yaks for trekkers, because most of the trekking routes in the country pass through the yak
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
rearing areas in northern Bhutan. Moreover, yaks are emblematic animals and could attract
tourists who are interested in simply watching them. These initiatives, if well planned, can
bring more income, generate employment, and encourage the younger generation to
continue rearing yaks, in addition to preserving Bhutan’s culture and tradition.
Legalization of Ophiocordyceps sinensis harvest and trade
The harvest and trade of Ophiocordyceps sinensis was legalized in Bhutan in 2004 with the
aim of enhancing the living conditions of nomadic communities. The harvest permits are only
allotted to highlanders (Dervillé 2010), and with the huge demand and good prices in the
international market, this legalization has provided an important source of income for herders
and the herders’ communities. This income could be invested to support yak rearing and
increase its sustainability.
Future actions
Policy innovations for sustainability
Formulation and implementation of direct policies and innovations for sustainable yak rearing
will be crucial for maintaining a critical number of yaks and yak herders in Bhutan. There is a
need to contribute to the sustainable development of yak production through enhanced
development of basic amenities and improved service delivery to yak herding communities.
Although construction of roads to connect the remote highlands with the rest of the country is
underway, it is likely that some remote areas will still have no road network for some years to
come (DOA 2011). Therefore the issues faced by herding communities will still take some
time to improve. A shift in the development paradigm is needed to balance and develop basic
infrastructure and facilities in the highlands; this will be vital to curb rural-urban migration.
One of the reasons herders are giving up yak herding is the low production from yaks due to
poor breed quality, which is the result of the lack of a sound breeding policy and practice. The
Livestock Breeding Policy of Bhutan is still in the draft stage, and there are concerns about
whether the policy will mention yak breeding aspects. It is important to recognize the need to
improve yak breeds, as one of the main sources of ruminant-based animal foods in the
country. This can be achieved by providing free or highly subsidized yak breed improvement
schemes through selective breeding for a number of years. The technical capacity of the
technicians and the development of facilities for yak breeding need to be strengthened.
The ban on burning of rangelands as a management tool should be revisited because
prescribed burning is the most practical and cost-effective tool for reducing the invasion of
rangelands by unpalatable shrubs and bushy species (Wangchuk et al. 2013). Environmental
conservation policies should be reviewed with a view to lifting the ban on traditional burning of
rangelands and allowing prescribed burning on a limited scale as a major management tool.
5 – Yaks and Yak Herding: Challenges and opportunities in the Bhutanese Himalayas
Currently, there are no policy directives that require establishing a nodal agency responsible
for yaks and yak herders and their development, unlike other commodity programmes such as
dairy, poultry, and piggery. The responsibility for yaks and yak herders is shared among
different government ministries and departments, which means that there is limited or no
impact. Establishment of a nodal agency at national level is critical for ensuring reliable
support and implementation of planned activities for the sustainability of yak husbandry.
Technical interventions and capacity building
Sound rangeland management tools and practices need to be instituted by balancing and
blending policy directives, societal needs, and scientific rangeland management principles.
Yak grazing needs to be regulated by preparing and implementing grazing management
plans. At present, grazing in the rangelands is mostly unregulated and there are no
management practices in place, which not only leads to low productivity as a result of
overgrazing and encroachment by shrubs and bushes, but also leads to negative
environmental impacts such as losing species biodiversity and drying up of water sources,
which will ultimately expose the rangelands to further forms of degradation.
Other important activities include intensifying the production of fodder crops by introducing
high yielding fodder species, and developing pasture in high-altitude areas with appropriate
fodder species to supplement the nutritional requirement of yaks and enhance yak production.
During winter, initiatives focused on fodder conservation such as promotion of feed blocks
and urea molasses mineral blocks (UMMB) will also make yak herding more attractive.
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Initiation of free or highly subsidized yak breed improvement schemes through selective
breeding will be crucial to improve yak quality and contribute to sustaining yak husbandry.
Animal health care and veterinary services also need to be improved. Animal health outposts
should be established in strategic locations to help minimize the loss of animals from disease
and other health issues.
Subject matter specialists need to be trained in yak husbandry and rangeland management.
Small scale interventions for enhancing yak herders’ livelihoods, such as treatment of yaks
and development of pasture and fodder, are being undertaken by extension workers who have
little or no knowledge of either yak husbandry or rangeland management. Prioritizing the
training needs and capacity building for subject matter specialists will be the key to
rejuvenating recognition of the significance of yak populations and yak herding. Similarly,
capacity building of the herders in handling modern processing equipment and in rangeland
management will also have a positive impact on herders’ livelihoods and rangeland
Yak products cottage industry development
The recent advances in dairy development initiatives in Bhutan’s downstream valleys have
overtaken the markets for traditionally produced yak dairy products such as yak butter and
5 – Yaks and Yak Herding: Challenges and opportunities in the Bhutanese Himalayas
chogo (hardened cheese). Basic milk and meat product processing infrastructure needs to be
established in yak herding areas with modern yak product processing equipment to improve
the quality and hygiene of yak products.
Payment for environmental services
The yak herding communities act as custodians of the environmental services provided by the
challenging high-altitude terrain, while at the same time being deprived of developmental
incentives and benefits. The environmental services benefit communities in the lower lying
areas. Institutionalization of environmental incentive schemes such as payment for ecosystem
services (PES) for the highland communities is another as yet unexplored avenue for improving
yak herders’ livelihoods and yak herding in Bhutan.
Yaks and yak herding are important to Bhutan from a social, environmental, and economic
perspective, but they are facing numerous challenges. A holistic, well planned, and target-
oriented approach must be adopted to sustain yak herding in Bhutan and retain yak herding
as an important livelihood source for the herders’ communities. The relationship between
yaks, yak herders, and the rangelands is synergistic, and the importance of yaks and yak
husbandry needs to be more widely recognized. If the trend away from yak herding is not
reversed, yaks and yak herders will become a past memory, which will have serious long-term
negative social, environmental, and economic repercussions.
Chophyel, P (2009) Rangeland management in Bhutan (consultancy report). Thimphu, Bhutan:
Ministry of Agriculture and Forests.
Dahal, N (2000) ‘An investigation report on algae poisoning in yak.’ Journal of Renewable Natural
Resources of Bhutan 1(2): 65–77
Dervillé, M (2010) Assessment of the opportunity to develop specific quality schemes for yak
products in Bhutan. Thimphu, Bhutan: Department of Livestock, Ministry of Agriculture and
Forests (consultancy report)
DOA (2011) National inventory of farm roads as of 30 June 2011. Thimphu, Bhutan: Department
of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, RGoB
DOL (2013) Livestock statistics (Vol. I). Thimphu, Bhutan: Department of Livestock, Ministry of
Agriculture and Forests, Royal Government of Bhutan
Dorji, T (2002) Yak production systems in Bhutan. Proceedings of the 5th TAPAFON Meeting, Bajo,
Bhutan. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Gyamtsho, P (1996) Assessment of the condition and potential for improvement of high-altitude
rangeland of Bhutan. PhD thesis, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ),
Gyamtsho, P (2000) ‘Economy of yak herders.’ Journal of Bhutan Studies 2(1): 90–135
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Mongar Dzongkhag (2014) Mongar Gewog Profile. Mongar Dzongkhag.
(accessed 2 March 2015)
Roder, W; Wangdi, K; Gyamtsho, P; Dorji, K (2001) Feeding the herds: Improving fodder resources
in Bhutan. Kathmandu, Nepal: ICIMOD
Tashigang Dzongkhag (2014) Merak Gewog. (accessed 2 March 2015)
Tshering, L; Gurung, R; Chungsila (2000) ‘Artificial insemination trial of yaks in Bhutan.’ In
Proceedings of the 3rd International Congress on Yak, Lhasa, Tibet
Tenzin, D (1979) ‘Studies of gid disease in yak with special reference to control measures.’ Journal
of Animal Husbandry of Bhutan pp. 1-4
Wangchuk, K; Gyeltshen, T; Yonten, T; Nirola, H; Nidup, T (2013) ‘Shrubland or pasture?
Restoration of degraded meadows in the mountains of Bhutan.’ International Mountain Society
6 – Recent Changes in Yak Herding Practices in Eastern Ladakh and Implications for Local Livelihoods
Recent Changes in Yak Herding
Practices in Eastern Ladakh and
Implications for Local Livelihoods
Kunzes Angmo1, Maheshwar Singh Kanwar1, Rukhsar Ahamad Dar1, and Gopal Singh
1 Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Nyoma, SKUAST (K), India
2 Wildlife Institute of India, Uttarakhand, India
Yak have been an integral part of pastoral livelihoods in Ladakh and the adjacent areas in
Central Asia for centuries. Yaks not only provide pastoralists with their basic needs such as
food, transport, and clothing, they also help sustain the rural environment in the cold deserts
by leaving a low ecological footprint. In recent decades, the dependence on yaks has declined
as a result of several factors including lack of superior breeds, insufficient pastureland, and
socioeconomic development. In-depth information on these factors will help maximize the
benefits of yak rearing. This paper describes the historical and recent trends in yak husbandry
practices in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir state, India. The current status of yak
husbandry and factors leading to the decline of such practices in eastern Ladakh was assessed
using a semi-structured questionnaire. Nomadic herders, village heads, and local people in the
Changthang areas of Nyoma block were consulted. Strategies for the better management of
rangelands, improvement of the fodder supply chain during winter, improvement of breeds,
introduction of insurance policies, and value addition of yak products are discussed. Policy
level interventions to improve the livelihoods of pastoral communities are recommended.
Keywords: Changthang, livelihoods, pastoralists, rangelands, yak
Domestic livestock, especially yak (Bos grunniens), have been a vital resource for sustaining
the livelihoods of the people of Ladakh and adjoining areas in Central Asia. Yak has been
very closely associated with the culture, religion, and social fabric of the pastoral people in
these areas due to its ability to survive in extremely harsh climatic and resource scarce
conditions. Yak forms a major source of food (milk and meat), clothing (hair), shelter (hides),
and fuel (dung). As agriculture is unsustainable in the cold high deserts (above 4,000 masl),
people have adapted to a pastoral mode of life, rearing sheep, goats, and yaks for their
survival. Pastoralism has been the only means of subsistence for these people, who have been
managing the pastures by using defined movement, tracking spatio-temporal changes and
pasture quality, and predicting uncertainty and risks of drought, predation, and avalanches
(Hagalia 2004; Walker and Meyers 2004; Walker et al. 2004). Despite harsh climatic
conditions and scarcity of resources, pastoralists have been able to manage the environment
until recently (Miehe et al. 2009), but the scenario is now changing rapidly in response to
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
socioeconomic changes. For example, in Ladakh in the Indian trans-Himalaya, only 1,200
nomads in three distinct communities – Kharnak, Samad, and Korzok – remain in their
original habitat, around 1% of the total population in Leh district (Dollfus 2013).
A study of the literature on the recent changes in pastoral practices in the Ladakh region
reveals a drastic change in the mode of pastoral lifestyle from nomadic to sedentary, resulting
in increased grazing pressure on the available rangelands in the area surrounding the
settlements (Singh et al. 2013). Overgrazing has resulted in a change in the plant community
composition with reduced plant cover and threat of extinction to valuable fodder species
(Bagchi and Ritchie 2010a, b). With the degradation of pastureland, a decline in the survival
rate of calves has been reported in some areas (Dollfus 2013).
The eastern part of Ladakh, popularly known as Changthang, is undergoing rapid
socioeconomic change. With the increasing population of other livestock (sheep and goats)
and decrease in the area of available pasture due to border issues between India and China,
yak numbers have decreased considerably over the last few decades. The decreased
economic potential of yak and increasing competition for grazing land, coupled with the
increasing opportunity for employment especially in the tourism sector, has changed the
livelihood pattern of nomads. This, along with other anthropogenic pressures such as
population growth, increasing demands for goods and services, and education, has led to a
rapid change in the pastoralist lifestyle (Singh et al. 2013).
In this paper, we present the results of a rapid survey carried out in eastern Ladakh on the
current status of yak herding practices, recent trends in the yak population, and breeding and
pasture management. Future strategies to revive yak husbandry practices are discussed.
Study area and methodology
The study was conducted in Nyoma administrative block in Leh district in the Indian state
of Jammu and Kashmir. Nyoma block contains more than 80% of Indian Changthang,
which is well known for its extensive high-altitude rangelands, traditional use of the
rangelands by nomadic Changpa herders, and production of Pashmina wool. This area lies
in the Indian cold desert and has extremely harsh winters with temperatures reaching below
-30°C. There are 17 villages in Nyoma block, of which eight were selected for sampling
due to the remoteness.
The survey was conducted in autumn 2012 (September–October) when herders are preparing
to move to the winter pastures. We collected information on yak herding practices using
semi-structured questionnaires and personal interviews with nomads and village heads.
Representatives from 150 families (48 female and 102 male) were interviewed for information
on livestock holdings, demography, socioeconomic conditions (landholdings, income,
agricultural and animal husbandry practices). Census data collected from the Animal
Husbandry and Sheep Husbandry Departments in Nyoma and Leh were used to analyse
6 – Recent Changes in Yak Herding Practices in Eastern Ladakh and Implications for Local Livelihoods
temporal changes in the population. Data for land use and socioeconomic changes were
obtained from the District Statistical Department Leh, and were complemented by interviews
with elderly people in the villages. Information on available livelihood alternatives, causes of
changes in pastoral life, and problems associated with animal husbandry were collected by
interviewing people in the village, including the headmen, as well as migrants working in Leh,
using an open-ended questionnaire. Data were interpreted using qualitative analysis methods.
Changes in animal husbandry practices were compared with the change in socioeconomic
conditions and resource use patterns.
Results and discussion
Trends in the yak population
Data collected from the Animal
Husbandry Department (AHD),
Government of Jammu and Kashmir,
indicate a total yak population in Leh
district of 13,000 in 2010, compared to
132,000 in 1977, and 30,000 in 1991,
a reduction by more than 85% since
1977. According to official figures, there
were 18,877 yaks in the district in 2012,
of which 9,103 were in Nyoma block
(Table 14).
Official records show that the total livestock population in Leh district increased from 141,541
in 1972 to 360,314 in 2012. Between 1977 and 2012, the number of livestock (yak, sheep,
goat, and horses) in Samad-Rogchen increased from 14,700 to 28, 450, and in Korzok-
Chumur from 26,250 to 45,100 (data from AHD Nyoma).
Figure 15 shows the average number of yak, goats, and sheep per household in the selected
study villages in 2000 and 2012. Kharnak had the most yak, goats, and sheep on average
per household: 30, 242, and 166, respectively in 2000, and 14, 352, and 170, respectively
in 2012 (Figure 15). The herd size in the majority of households varied from 100 to 350 for
goats and 50 to 170 for sheep. The
number of goats increased in most of
the villages between 2000 and 2012.
Table 15 shows the number of goats
and sheep and household numbers in
the study villages of Kharnak and Korzok
in 1970 and 2010. According to the
Animal Husbandary Department (AHD)
Leh, the livestock population in eastern
Table 15: Livestock population in 1970 and
2010 in two villages in eastern Ladakh
Year Village Households
1970 Kharnak 70 5,200 10,500
Korzok 70 4,600 9,100
2010 Kharnak 30 5,500 2,000
Korzok 150 25,000 12,500
Source: AHD Ladakh
Table 14: Livestock population in different
administrative blocks in Leh district in 2012
Block Yak Sheep Goats
Nubra 2,351 7,723 15,104
Kharu 864 3,119 4,067
Khaltse 2,060 11,255 9,703
Nyoma 9,103 46,230 132,581
Durbuk 4,272 7,757 36,172
Leh 227 6,493 2,816
Total 18,877 82,577 200,443
Source: Animal Husbandry Department Leh
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Nidder Rongo Nyoma Muth Tsaga Korzok Samad Kharnak
2000 2012
Average no. of yak
Muth Nyoma Nidder Rongo Tsaga Samad Korzok Kharnak
2000 2012
Average no. of goats
Muth Nyoma Nidder Tsaga Rongo Samad Korzok Kharnak
2000 2012
Average no. of sheep
Figure 15: Average number of yak, goats, and sheep per household in
different villages in eastern Ladakh
6 – Recent Changes in Yak Herding Practices in Eastern Ladakh and Implications for Local Livelihoods
Ladakh has increased considerably, nearly doubling since 1970/80. The greatest increase has
been in goats, which could be due to the increasing demand for cashmere wool. A similar
trend has been found in other parts of Ladakh (Namgail et al. 2007b).
The yak population decreased from 25,662 in 1997 to only 18,877 in 2012, and the
remaining herds are suffering from inbreeding due to the absence of superior germplasm,
which has resulted in a decline in milk production. The increase in the number of Pashmina
goats has led to further degradation of the pastures.
Breeding status
The genetic diversity within the yak population in Ladakh has not yet been investigated.
However, there are major physical differences between the yaks of Kargil and those of eastern
Ladakh (Changthang) in terms of body size. The yaks from Kargil are larger and heavier
(500–600 kg) than the yaks from Leh district, but the difference is attributed to better quality
and quantity of forage in Kargil. All the respondents reported that they still follow natural
breeding; there has been no effort to improve the breed through selective breeding. Breeding
occurs from July to October when most of the nomads are away from the villages, where
breeding facilities would be available. Generally, the first calf is born when yaks are 5–6 years
old. The survival rate of yak is very low; only 1–2 calves survive more than 4–5 years out of
3–4 born. Males with the desired characteristics are kept for breeding. Most of the village
clusters maintain male yaks with different physical attributes, and they rarely exchange yaks
with villages at distant locations for breeding. Most of the nomads keep yak for milk and
carrying heavy loads; slaughtering of yak is very rare. There are two yak farms in Ladakh, one
in Nubra and the other in Budhkharboo, but there is no breeding farm in the Ladakh region.
There have also been no efforts to discover the actual extent of inbreeding in yak. However,
the National Research Centre for Yak (NRCY) in Arunachal Pradesh has provided frozen
semen for artificial insemination to the Department of Animal Husbandry Leh and has also
provided male yaks, one each in Nyoma, Hanley, and Samad (Rockchen) villages, on a
community basis to reduce inbreeding. The results of these efforts are still awaited.
Most of the respondents (68%) considered that yak productivity (both milk and meat
production) had declined considerably during recent years, which is attributed to inbreeding
within very small herds. While artificial insemination facilities are available for cows, yak
owners have difficulty in arranging breeding of yaks. None of the respondents had adopted
artificial insemination for yak.
The hybridization of yak with cattle, which is a common practice in different parts of India, is
not practised in Ladakh. According to the Animal Husbandry Department Nyoma, lack of
expertise and facilities are the major constraints for hybridization of yak with cattle. The hybrid
yak require more attention and resources (care for diseases and dietary requirements), and
most nomads think that hybrids may not be able to survive at the altitudes where they spend
the greater part of the year.
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Status of rangelands and their management
Eastern Ladakh (Changthang) has a total area of around 21,000 km2, of which less than
15% is under vegetation (Namgail et al. 2007b). Good pastures are restricted to those in
close proximity to the river; pastures at higher altitude are characterized by poor vegetative
cover. The pasturelands face immense pressure from a large population of livestock (more
than 200,000), most of which are Pashmina producing goats (Namgail et al. 2007a). In
2008, Nyoma block alone had more than 171,376 sheep and goats (Sheep Husbandry
Department Leh).
In recent years, reallocation of pastures for year-round use further reduced the area of
rangeland from 1,500 km2 to 500 km2 for Samad and from 2,000 km2 to 1,500 km2 for
Korzok groups (Singh et al. 2013). This decrease in the area of pasture and increase in the
number of livestock, coupled with the lack of separate pastures for different seasons (winter
and summer) has created immense grazing pressure (Table 16). Pastures have come to the
state of exhaustion in many areas such as Skagjung (AHD Leh).
Table 16: Grazing pressure by different livestock on the pasturelands of selected
villages in eastern Ladakh
Village Pasture Approx
Yak Sheep Goats Other Total
Sta-sa-Phuk, Thukjay,
Polokhangkha, Rokchen, Rina,
Nuruchen, Dipring, Bongkanu
1,500 1,052 8,597 9,649 121 19,419
Khaldo, Luplung,Paldoh, Phirtseri,
keyley, Yulungmarlung,
Labjo,Lamye, UngtiTekajong,
Aerong, Chumikshaltey,
Kiangdam, Jabjay
2,000 1,646 14,100 15,746 921 32,413
Kakjung, Thangka, Kyam-phu-tsuri
, Nyan-ru, Kung Tso, Takjung,
nebo-cheyspung, Tsegu-ringmo-
lungung, Takpochey, Bowolay,
Sagra, Khargay, Lewochey,
RichikPhiwa, Tum-Tum, Dungti,
Changlung, Nichung,
- 121 2,625 2,746 607 6,099
Kharnak Lungmoche, Zara Pangchen,
Gyagang, Tsermatse
- 3,491 1,921 5,412 82 10,906
Kakjung, Pilungkong,PilungYokma,
Dungsum, Lung Maru, Riya,Yulung,
Trulung, Taro, Dudling, Zao,
Diplung, Nyanlung, Lhaphur,
Kyakchat, Pakra, Panjumglungba,
Parma Spangling, Taklung,
Kungdingnala, MuchongLungba,
NuchungLungba, LadumTaba,
Na-you, Khurul,Tseyoringmo,
- 249 4,751 5,000 475 10,475
Source: AHD Leh
6 – Recent Changes in Yak Herding Practices in Eastern Ladakh and Implications for Local Livelihoods
Overgrazing in eastern Ladakh has resulted in a reduction in the density of good quality
forage species such as Eurotia ceratoides (Uniyal et. al. 2005). E. ceratoides is one of the
most important forage and fuelwood species in the region (Uniyal et. al. 2005). The impact of
grazing pressure can also be seen in the prominence of graminoids (Rawat and Adhikari
2005), and decline in leguminous plants to only 3% of all vegetation; a good pasture should
contain at least 33% leguminous plants.
Efforts to improve the quality of pastureland were initiated by establishing a forage farm at
4,600 masl. Although the results of the experiment were encouraging, it could not be
implemented at a large scale due to the constraints of human resources for maintaining the
farm (Pal et al. 1994). Considering the magnitude of the problem, improving the quality of
pasture alone is not sufficient to tackle the problem of fodder shortages during winter. Hence
a more comprehensive approach such as cultivation and use of other locally available
resources as fodder is needed (Pal et al. 1994).
A community system of pastureland management prevails in the area, in which almost every
village has its own summer and winter pastureland whose use by people from other villages is
restricted. The nomads in eastern Ladakh are mainly divided into three groups: Kharnak,
Samad, and Korzok. Until now, their traditional rangeland management system, involving
continuous moving and use of pastures depending on season and quality, has been effective.
In this system, the pastures at the highest altitude are used during the warmest period of the
year (June to October); the middle altitude pastures during March to May; and the pastures at
lowest altitude during the winter (October to March). This migratory grazing pattern, intended
to avoid scarcity of fodder, is no longer practised intensively.
Originally, the nomadic groups had no specific rights to the use of pastureland. However, they
possess traditional grazing rights in certain areas with well-defined boundaries, where they use
some regulatory decisions to avoid conflicts with other nomadic groups. Currently, the
pastureland of eastern Ladakh (Changthang) is state owned; there is no strict rule regarding
its use by nomads and it is considered as common property with open access. Earlier, the
government used to levy a nominal amount as grazing tax, but the system is not effective due
to the lack of a policy for pastureland development.
Demography and socioeconomic status
Demography and literacy
The human population in Nyoma block increased from 7,320 in 1981 to 11,103 in 2010. In
Kharnak and Korzok, the number of households increased from 140 in 1970 to 180 in 2010,
while the number of people decreased from 1,000 to 950, suggesting migration from these
villages primary health care nyoma. The majority of the interviewed herders were older than
40 (Figure 16).
Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing HKH Region
Of the 150 people interviewed, 75 were non-literate and only two had completed pre-
university education (Figure 17). The population census data shows 67% of the population to
be non-literate and only 9% to have completed Grade 10 and above. Despite the availability
of a primary school in most of the villages, the dropout rate is very high. A mobile school
programme has been successful in many parts of Ladakh and efforts are being made to
improve it further. However, it has limitations as the teacher has to move with the nomads with
limited logistic support. Despite being interested, very few nomads have had an opportunity to
continue their education.
Livelihood alternatives and economic status
The opening of tourism in Ladakh in 1974 created thousands of jobs and now contributes
around 50% of the region’s gross income (Pelliciardi 2010). The number of tourists in
Kharnak and Korzog increased from 20,000 in 1990 to 78,000 in 2010 (District Statistical
Department Leh). Notwithstanding the continuous growth in the tourism sector, animal
husbandry remains the backbone of Ladakh’s economy and the interviewed families were still
herding livestock. However, only 27% were totally dependent on livestock and led a nomadic
life, while the re