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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A Walk Up Jomolhari

A trip to Bhutan last month provided me with an opportunity to visit one of the glaciers in the country along the crest of the Himalayas. I had hoped for such a trip since I first visited Bhutan in 2011, since I was curious to learn what local people thought about glacier retreat, but I had not previously had the chance to travel above the middle-elevation regions. In October, though, my colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I had received permits to enter the high country. We arranged for horses to carry our gear, and hiked in for two days to Jigme Dorji National Park. We set up our tent in the village of Soe, where we attended a mountain festival and met with local officials and residents. Ed and Paul spent several days to take samples in the old-growth forests close to the tree line; they drilled cores in the trees, which they would later analyze to reconstruct the climate history of the region.

I realized that this was an opportunity for me to take a day on my own and hike up to the glaciers. I kept an eye on the weather, since clouds had been building up every afternoon, sometimes bringing rain, and I did not want to be trapped in a storm high on a mountain. The national park officials warned me to be careful if I left the main trails; they had had difficulties in rescuing foreign tourists who had gotten lost, or who had slipped. They reminded me that Bhutan, unlike Nepal, did not have helicopters that could fly in to remote areas if an accident occurred.

A view of Jomolhari from above Jangothang. (source: Ben Orlove)
A view of Jomolhari from the trail. (source: Ben Orlove)

On the morning of Friday 9 October, the skies were a clear blue, offering the promise of good conditions for at least several hours. Moreover, I had an excellent guide. Renzin Dorji, the man whose horses we had chartered for two weeks and who had led us up the trail, had grown up in Soe. He had herded yaks as a boy and knew the countryside well.  At the age of 37, he was old enough to recall the mountain when the glaciers had been larger.

We set off from Soe and came to the valley that led up to Jomolhari. Its summit, 7326 meters in elevation, rose high up into the sky. We set off on the north side of the creek that flowed through the valley, ascending slowly on a trail that led through meadows. Seeing the dense groves of junipers and birches, I thought of Ed and Paul. Renzin and I slowly ascended to the first moraine—a line of boulders across the valley, which had been pushed downslope by the glaciers in earlier, colder periods when the ice masses on the mountain had advanced to lower elevations.

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

When we came over the lip of the moraine, we saw Haluphu, a broad flat area across which the creek meandered in broad curves. Sixty or seventy yaks were grazing on the pastures or standing the creek. Renzin explained that the herders had recently brought their animals down from the high summer pastures to these lower elevations (between 4000 and 4500 meters) where they would spend the winter. In a month or so, temperatures would fall below freezing, and the snows would arrive. But in early October, the temperatures, which seemed about 15 or 18° C, were so warm for the yaks, with their thick dark wool, that they would enter the creek to cool off.

The massive peak of Jomolhari loomed in front of us beyond the grass-covered slopes. I looked up at the mountain and asked Renzin about it. He recalled that the ice had reached much lower down when he was a boy. The warm summers of recent years were the reason for the shrinkage of the glaciers, he said; much more water came rushing off the glaciers than in the past. It would be very serious when all the ice was gone, he thought. In fact, life might end altogether in the area. But that would be far in the future, since there was still a great deal of ice left. And the streams were still full, the pastures still abundant. Local people cared about the mountain, he added. Every household sends at least one person to the large festivals to honor Jomolhari that are held at a temple in another valley that came off the mountain. A monk came from Lingzhi, a village a day’s walk away, to lead these festivals. Renzin seemed to suggest that the mountain did not feel neglected.

An abandoned firepit used by Cordyceps collectors. source: Ben Orlove
An abandoned hearth used by Cordyceps collectors. (source: Ben Orlove)

We walked down from the moraine to the side of the creek in Haluphu. Renzin pointed out signs of new economic activities. He indicated a crude fireplace, a sign that people had come in the late spring or early summer to collect a medicinal fungus, called Cordyceps, which they sell for very high prices, either in government auctions in Bhutan or to buyers a day’s walk away across the border in China. He also showed me a large pit where local people had come to dig sand which they would mix with cement for the construction of government buildings, shops and houses in Soe and other villages. Earlier in the last century, stone buildings, sometimes chinked with mud, had replaced the yak-hair tents of the more nomadic pastoralists, and now cement was becoming common. The Cordyceps and sand-collecting were linked: flush with income from sales of fungus, local residents were constructing larger houses than they had had before. Renzin pointed out a new risk as well: there were large rocks on the flat areas along the creek. Rockfalls from the sides of the valley, especially in summer months, are more common than they had been in the past—possibly a sign of melting permafrost at high elevation, I thought. Renzin mentioned that yak-herders remained in higher pastures during the period of rockfalls, though others, eager to obtain products that they could sell at high prices, came then to collect Cordyceps and sand.

Sandpit at Haluphu, below Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove
Sandpit at Haluphu, below Jomolhari (source: Ben Orlove)

There were a number of animal trails that led up beyond Haluphu. Renzin led us on one which took us to a second moraine, composed of larger boulders than the first. Beyond that was a lake, named Haluphu Tsho, with strings of prayer-flags stretched across the point at its base where the creek emerged. The waters of the lake were a pale green, filled with fine glacier sediment. We saw a few yaks here as well, fewer than below.

Exposed rock and dark ice on lower slopes of Jomolhari. Moraine in foreground. source: Ben Orlove
Exposed rock and dark ice on lower slopes of Jomolhari. Moraine in foreground. (source: Ben Orlove)

The trail continued on above the lake to a third moraine. Here, at an elevation of about 4750 meters, the boulders were larger still, and had sharper edges. We stopped to look closely at Jomolhari, its immense mass filling the broad space at the head of the valley. The upper sections of the mountain were white with snow, but lower down the last winter’s snows had melted, revealing ice that was quite dark, almost slate gray in color. Was this local dust, or soot that had blown in from the diesel vehicles and wood fires of India? It would be possible to trace the history of this dark ice by taking cores, and seeing what particles were contained in the older ice, below the surfaces. Perhaps I would return some day with a glaciologist for such work, I thought. I recalled as well the warnings of the national park officials. The climbing had become difficult, and I did not want to risk a fall if I clambered over these large boulders to try to reach the ice. Moreover, this ice was further from the moraine than it had once been, since the glacier’s edge had moved upslope, revealing bare rock. The growing cloud masses on the summit removed any impulse to continue further: I did not wish to risk being caught in a storm higher on the mountain.

Renzin Dorji, with Jomolhari in the background source: Ben Orlove
Renzin Dorji, with Jomolhari in the background (source: Ben Orlove)

We sat in silence, staring at the mountain. After a while, I reached into my backpack and retrieved some snacks—Power Bars, a favorite of Ed’s and Paul’s, which we had both taken a liking to. We shared them, and then started our walk back. I reflected on the mountain and on the changes that Renzin had seen in the decades since he herded yaks in Haluphu as a boy. Renzin himself was taking part, in a small way, in the growth of tourism, by renting his horses to trekkers. The sale of medicinal fungi and of sand, the possibilities of trade (nearly all clandestine) with the growing towns just over the border in China: these new sources of income for local villagers were growing, perhaps as fast or faster than the glaciers were retreating. The final demise of the glaciers lay far in the future, while the trajectory of the new economy was uncertain. In the meantime, some features of earlier decades remained. Renzin’s wife and son cared for their yaks during the months when he accompanied foreign visitors, and their family sent a member to the festivals at the temple.

Blue sheep and yaks above Jangothang. source: Ben Orlove
Blue sheep and yaks above Jangothang. (source: Ben Orlove)

As we crossed the pastures below the first moraine, Renzin signaled to me to stop. He pointed out, just below us, a herd of blue sheep—a wild species, quite shy and rarely seen close up. Several yaks were grazing in their midst. I was pleased by this unexpected mix of the wild and the domesticated, at a spot not far from the villages in the main valley below Jomolhari. The presence of these animals gave me hope that the mix of old and new forms of human life high in the mountains might continue well into the future.

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