Transnational Solutions to Preserve Yak Populations in Himalayas

In the extreme altitudes and harsh conditions of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, yak herding is more than a way of life–it is a way to survive. Environmental change currently threatens yak populations in the region, and undermines the livelihoods of the communities they support. However, a recent report raises hopes of protecting yaks through international cooperation within the region.

The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) released a special publication in May on yaks in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, also known as HKH. The report, “Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” includes a compilation of studies and presentations from the 5th International Conference on Yak held in Lanzhou that suggest international, rather than local, policy decisions may be the key to preserving yak populations.

Yak on the Move Report Cover (ICIMOD)
Yak on the Move Report Cover (source: ICIMOD)

Despite the species’ importance within the region, there is a significant lack of scientific research necessary to address the growing challenges posed by climate change. This report is an important first step in filling the gap of knowledge about yak herding and management. As David Molden, Director General of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, writes in the report, ‘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.” The importance of yaks is highlighted by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, which states that yaks have played an important role in HKH life from Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies and economic activity, to preserving ecological diversity of high altitude rangelands through grazing patterns.  

This report is the second publication on yaks compiled by ICIMOD following a 1996 report co-edited by United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. It aims to bring multiple stakeholders together to discuss the growing challenges faced by pastoral communities in the high-altitude and glacier-covered ecosystems in the HKH region.

Yak on the Move is representative of ICIMOD’s transnational approach to conservation and policy, including research on a range of Hindu Kush Himalayan member countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and China.

Yak grazing in the mountains of Tibet. (Photo: Wiki)
Yak grazing in the mountains of Tibet. (Photo: Wiki)

The report explores yak herding and challenges, policy and institutional arrangements, and yak cross-breeding practices. The analysis as a whole offers the case for developing international solutions to the many challenges faced by yak-herders—environmental change among the most pressing.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, often referred to as the “Third Pole,” holds 30 percent of the world’s glaciers and is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change and glacial melting. Temperature increases are more pronounced at higher elevations, accelerating glacier retreat in the region and impacting yaks and pastoral communities. Yaks’ woolly undercoat makes them well-adapted for the intense cold of Himalayan winters, but also puts them at acute risk if temperatures increase. While struggling to protect their livelihoods, herders are displaced and forced to move to increasingly harsh landscapes and remote altitudes.

Some of climate change’s negative impacts on yak, including habitat reduction, are outlined in “Coping with Borders: Yak Raising in Transboundary Landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” the first article in the report. When yaks are only able to graze in small areas, the rangeland cannot recover. The piece notes that pastoral communities have been forced to move to increasingly higher elevations, causing a cycle of further land use change and degradation.

Yaks in a wetland at Haluphu below Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove
Yaks in a wetland below Jomolhari in Bhutan (source: Ben Orlove)

However, rising temperatures are not the only threat to high-altitude ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Forest degradation, human-wildlife conflict and illegal trade of rare wildlife and plants are also isolated by ICIMOD as harmful to the area’s wildlife and human population.

The report’s authors find that the combined effect of mismanaged human activity and yak husbandry in the region cause land use changes that can lead to flooding and landslides, putting communities’ safety and livelihoods at further risk–risks that cross national borders. Therefore, while each country, and even community, have unique barriers to yak raising, climate change is a challenge that is universal throughout the region and cannot be solved without the combined efforts of the Hindu Kush Himalayan nations.

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1 Comment

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Siraj Ulmulkreply
June 14, 2016 at 10:06 PM

Chinese traders through intermediaries in Gilgit are buying up yaks in the Baroghil area of chitral at an alarming rate. This can finish off the Yaks in Chitral much faster than the climate change you are forseeing.

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