What the Yak Herders of Northern Bhutan Are Saying About Global Warming

A recent study in the high-altitude Kingdom of Bhutan indicates climate change may have its yak herding population on thin ice. Owing to its topography, the Himalaya provides for a variety of climatic conditions and human populations to study. This diversity makes indigenous peoples who inhabit those areas uniquely qualified to provide traditional knowledge, empirical evidence, and perspective.

This new study, published in Mountain Research and Development, seeks to evaluate vulnerabilities of the yak herding livelihood; no fancy instruments, no ice cores required, just people talking to people who have seen a place change over a long period of time.

New study shows how Yak herders from Bhutan perceive how climate change will impact their culture and livelihoods (Source: Deanne June Scanlan/Twitter).

One hundred village elders, averaging 60 years of age, were chosen as the survey subjects. The researchers from Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests set out on foot in late summer 2017 to gauge the elders’ awareness of environmental changes as well as their perceptions of climate change signals, weather patterns, water and vegetation changes, and economic impacts. The elders offered keen, spatio-temporal perspectives for the researchers who aimed to measure perceptible changes in climate.

Study sites in major yak herding communities were selected in the districts of Thimphu, Bumthang, Paro, and Wangdue. The elders were interviewed in a two-stage sample, and results of the questionnaire were averaged across the population. Survey questions were pretested and framed as closed-ended with three possible responses: “agree,” “disagree,” and “neither.” The conclusions drawn from the results provide a snapshot of a corner of the world at a tipping point.

The yak herding elders’ observed warming over the past 15 years concurs with climate-research data. Data, often measured from a distance and at brief moments in time, can lack salience when presented alone. But when compared next to the testimony of observant, indigenous people, like the yak herders, the data carries greater weight and texture.

The elders observed the increase in temperature, glacial retreat, and an ascension of the snow line. They noted that weather events like flash flooding have become increasingly unpredictable and severe. A majority of respondents said that the frequency of landslides has also increased, though they were divided on the increase of glacial lake outburst floods, a catastrophic consequence of receding glaciers.

Yak foraging the pristine Lhotse Moraine (Source: Flickr)

The herders have observed changes not only in the weather and the natural environment, but also in the health of the animals on which their livelihoods are centered. The yak themselves are sensitive to warm temperatures— illness and discomfort have increased as a result. The elders’ responses showed the researchers that the declining health of the yak and a shift in timing of the migration have made herding more difficult.

Ruijun Long, a yak expert and ecological and pastoral specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), told GlacierHub that due to warming and glacial meltwater availability, the yak herders can remain on the summer pastures longer than before.

But a warmer, longer summer of grazing doesn’t necessarily translate to happier yaks.

With thick black hair, yaks are well adapted to the cold temperatures of the high Himalaya. Warmer temperatures cause physiological stress in yaks and general health decline. Their grazing spaces have also been encroached upon thanks to the upslope proliferation of warm-climate plants like the rhododendron. With less grass available, yak milk production has suffered. To make matters worse, predators like the snow leopard have been forced into bolder descents due to their melting habitat.

Transhumant migration has become difficult for yak with rising temperatures (Source: Ian Cochrane/Twitter).

Though yak herders are few in number, herding is the lifeblood for a majority of inhabitants in Bhutan’s high Himalaya. To provide additional income for the yak herders, in 2004 the government gave them explicit collection rights to harvest cordyceps, a valued element in traditional Chinese medicine.

According to Tashi Dorji, a senior ecosystems specialist and Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation,” the fungi are complicit in luring yak herders away from yak herding. Dorji told GlacierHub “With good market price, the income from this high value commodity has encouraged yak herders to invest in alternative livelihood in downstream-away from yak farming.” Though now the cordyceps themselves are in doubt due to the changing climate.

A cordyceps, or “caterpillar fungus,” emerges from a larva (Source: Jason Hollinger/Flickr).

Dorji cited another pressure forcing rapid transformation of yak herding in  Bhutan: education. While primary schools are common in yak herding villages, young farmers are forced to migrate downstream for higher education. Dorji told GlacierHub, “This already distances younger generation of herders from their landscape and their traditional farming knowledge. Coupled with inherent difficulties and lack of socio-economic development amenities in those landscapes, young herders are less attracted to yak farming.”

The researchers offered a reduction in herd size as a potential adaptation strategy for the yak herders. A smaller herd equates to reduced income, less security and more hardship. While harvesting prized cordyceps is offsetting losses in yak productivity in the interim, a long-term strategy will likely need to include alternate economic opportunities.

As temperatures advance, the hardships will grow. Hardly a country in the world has contributed less atmospheric emissions than Bhutan. And yet it is populations like the yak herders who suffer from climate change first, and most. External forcings like globalization increases might lure yak herders into exploring other ways of subsistence. As northern Bhutan becomes increasingly connected to the world and the yak herding livelihood continues to be threatened, their way of life will remain tenuous.

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