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.

Photo Friday: Endangered Species of the Melting Himalayas

The Himalayas, located between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateau, is among the world’s best known mountain ranges, but the region is rapidly melting as a result of climate change. This has life-threatening consequences for the diverse wildlife and people who call the mountains home.

Animals native to the Himalaya range include the critically endangered red panda, Himalayan brown bear, snow leopard and tahr, to name just a few. Many of these species are gradually dwindling in number as their habitats are impacted by humans, rising temperatures and glacial melt.

In 2012, for example, the World Wildlife Fund found that 30 percent of snow leopard habitat in the Himalayas may be lost to treeline shift as a result of warmer and wetter conditions, with only an estimated 4,000 snow leopards still left in the wild. The increase in temperature has caused the glaciers in the snow leopard’s habitat to recede, affecting permafrost, precipitation and water resources. Pakistan’s Minister of Climate called the snow leopard a “thermometer of the health of the mountain ecosystem.”

GlacierHub hopes you will marvel at this collection of photos from the Himalayas, featuring wildlife that may very well soon be lost to climate change.


A bird’s eye view of the Himalayas (Source: Balathasan Sayanthan/Creative Commons).



A critically endangered Himalayan brown bear (Source: Zahoor Ahmed/Creative Commons).



A Snow leopard as seen in the wild (Source: Creative Commons).
A Snow leopard as seen in the wild (Source: NCF India/Snow Leopard Trust).



A Snow leopard in captivity (Source: Steve Maskell/Creative Commons).



A glacial lake in the Himalayas, with glacial melt from the Ngozumpa glacier (Source: Doug Scobie/Creative Commons).
A glacial lake in the Himalayas, with glacial melt from the Ngozumpa glacier (Source: Doug Scobie/Creative Commons).



Glacial melt of Thulagi glacier in the Himalayas (Source: DFID/Creative Commons).
Glacial melt of Thulagi glacier in the Himalayas (Source: DFID/Creative Commons).



The Himalayan tahr meets two red pandas (Source: Brigitte E/Creative Commons).



A red panda in captivity (Source: Jason Barles/Creative Commons).
An endangered red panda in captivity (Source: Jason Barles/Creative Commons).



The Himalayan Snowcock, the national bird of Pakistan (Source: Desi Nagar).

A Mountain Festival in Bhutan Draws Locals and Visitors

Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival source: Karma Tenzin)
Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival (source: Karma Tenzin)

Hundreds of people, ranging from yak-herders to government officials to foreign tourists, gathered in a remote village of Bhutan earlier this month to attend a two-day mountain festival, designed to celebrate local cultures and promote conservation. The sponsoring organizations and communities presented a wide array of activities, with broad participation by the diverse set of people who attended.

The sponsors of this festival included the local communities themselves and Jigme Dorji National Park, the park in whose lands the host village of Dangochjang is located. They received support from the Bhutan Foundation and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, an international environmental NGO. The  Tourism Council of Bhutan also played a crucial role in granting recognition in promoting it.

Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)
Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)

As Lhendup Tharchen, the field director of the national park, explained, these organizations share the common goals of protecting the landscape and biodiversity of the high mountain ecosystem and of promoting the community-based conservation approach. They hoped that the festival would promote closer relations between the national park and the communities, and at the same time stimulate tourism and bring more government services to the isolated setting, located at 4000 meters at a two days’ walk from the end of a narrow, bumpy unpaved road. In addition, they hoped that the festival, by bringing attention to mountain cultures and instilling pride in them, might help slow down the flow of migrants from these high areas of Bhutan’s towns and cities.

Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)
Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)

The festival opened on the morning of 7 October with a marchang—a ritual offering of fermented grain and butter—followed by a series of short speeches, including one by the guest of honor, Chencho Norbu, the Director General of Forests and Parks.  It soon shifted to a presentation by members of the local communities of Soe and Yaksa, who wore national dress and performed a set of circle dances similar to those found at the middle-elevation agricultural regions of the country. They differed from the high-elevation communities of central and eastern Bhutan, whose dances and customary dress are strikingly distinct from the national majority populations. (The long history of incorporation of this western mountain area into Bhutanese national society and its proximity to national capital of Thimphu may account for this difference from other regions.) The children at the local school also performed dances, which were greeted with enthusiastic interest by the local villages, the government officials in attendance, and the tourists in the audience as well. The latter formed a small group, about two dozen, some of whom were passing through on treks (Dangochang is located on a popular hiking route which leads to the major glacier-covered peak of Jomolhari) and others of whom had taken a layover day at a tourist site, Jangothang, several kilometers away.

Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. source:
Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later in the day, local men took part in a horse race, followed by athletic competitions. The assembled crowd watched avidly as young men took part in pundo, a kind of shot-put competition for which two large round rocks had been carried up from the river. Participants took turns picking up a rock, lifting it to their shoulder, and pushing it as far as they could. They did not seem disturbed by the fact that the rocks were not quite the same size or shape.

Man preparing to throw rock in local game  sour
Man preparing to throw rock in local form of shot-put (source: Ben Orlove)

The crowd also enjoyed watching a group of young women play musical chairs (a bit of a challenge, since they were wearing close-fitting ankle-length kiras or traditional skirts). Over one hundred villagers stopped by a public health booth, where their blood pressure and other vital signs were measured, and where they were evaluated for diabetes and other medical conditions.

Visitors watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)
Villagers watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later that evening, a large bonfire was lit in the festival grounds, and visitors and participants alike gathered for hours, taking part in some spontaneous dances, while Sirius, Orion and the Milky Way shone high in the sky. The festival had been set for the 25th and 26th days of the lunar month. These dates in the local calendar were chosen because local villagers recognize them as auspicious, but they have the added advantage of providing moonless skies with bright stars.)

Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)
Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)

On the morning of the second day, groups set off on half-day hikes to different spots. One group of visitors followed a trail up a steep slope to two high lakes, sacred places in the local cosmology, and placed a prayer-flag over the stream that connected the lakes–an act which promoted harmony at the festival. Others hiked up to glaciers and went to visit the cameras that had recorded snow leopards. The groups reassembled on the afternoon of the second day, in time to see more dances by the communities of the region, the awarding of prizes to the participants in the athletic events and a distribution of certificates to the local villagers, and to hear speeches by officials to close the festival.  A bonfire on the second evening drew a large group as well.

Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)
Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)

The festival met at least some of the goals of the organizers. Most simply, the festival succeeded in providing entertainment and information in a challenging, remote setting. It brought local villagers in closer contact with the national park and with representatives of other government agencies, and also provided them with government support in the form of free health check-ups and medical information.

Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)
Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)

The contributions to tourism were on a smaller scale, though the international tourists and government officials brought some additional economic activity to the village—a local shopkeeper said that she sold much more beer in two days than she usually sells in several weeks, and the yak-herders who brought cheese for sale quickly disposed of their stocks. But the engagement of the participants was genuine, and the villagers and government officials seem likely to carry through on their statements of planning to return for the festival next year.

For other stories on Bhutan, look here and here. For other stories of festivals near glaciers, look here and here.