A trip with two colleagues to the Jomolhari area of northwestern Bhutan in October gave me hope that yak-herding remains an active part of the regional economy. We hiked for two weeks through villages and high pastures and up near the mountain’s glaciers, both along major trails and in less-traveled sections. I met some herders at a two-day festival early in my visit, and then was able to visit them in their villages later during the trip, while my colleagues studied the forests at the treeline.
This abundance of yaks around Jomolhari seems to be an exception to a general pattern throughout much of highland Asia. Yak-herding is reported to be declining there, as shown by studies in recent decades from China, India, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, as well as in parts of Bhutan to the southwest and the east of Jomolhari. In those cases, young people find the caring of the animals at high elevation to be overly rigorous; they prefer to seek employment in towns, a shift which has been supported by the growth of market economies, education and road networks. If this decline continues, it may become irreversible, as younger generations lose the knowledge and skills of herding. The Jomolhari area might be different, due to some combination of local pride in yak-herding, complementary economic activities that support yak-herding families, and the efforts of the Bhutanese government to support yak-herders with traveling veterinarians and with programs that offer compensation for losses from predator attacks.
I traveled there at a good time of year to observe the animals, since they had recently moved down from their high summer pastures above 5000 meters, when they were dispersed in small groups, cared for by the herders who lived in tents and other temporary shelters. By October, the herds had returned to the winter areas, between 3500 and 4500 meters, where the pastures would be supplemented with hay and other fodder, cultivated over the summer; the herders had returned to the small stone houses, sturdier than the summer residences. The location of these houses on paths made it easier to see both yaks and herders. Though I did not conduct a census of humans and animals, I was able to see that the houses were all inhabited, and a number were new, unlike other yak-herding areas, which have experienced significant outmigration. Conversations with local mayors and school officials indicated that the ratio of children to adults in the local villages also indicates that populations are stable.
The behavior of the animals in this season made them easier to find. October is towards the end of the mating season. The females go into estrus at that time and bear the calves eight or nine months later. This timing—the production of natural selection among wild yaks and human breeding practices assures that the nursing females will have access to the abundant summer pastures, while the newborn calves will have little risk of exposure to frost. The rut leads bulls to be more aggressive and more visible. Threatening each other with lowered heads or fighting with their horns, they become easier to notice than animals that graze quietly, as they do other times of year. They also leave visual signs of their presence at this time by wallowing in dry soil.
Once I became aware of the yaks, I could notice them at greater distance, and detect other evidence. Their dung has a different shape than cattle’s. Their tracks are quite distinctive, since their hooves are small for such large, heavy creatures. And I learned that the homes of herders could be recognized by the fodder that had been harvested and was hanging from the eaves to dry.
I had the opportunity to spend a full day and night with a yak-herding family, since they were relatives of Renzin Dorji, the local villager who provided the horses to carry tents and other belongings for my colleagues and me. The husband and wife had built a home for themselves soon after their marriage, eager to establish a claim to an area of rich pasture along a creek that carried water from Jomolhari’s glaciers. They own 54 yaks (40 cows and 14 bulls) and 8 horses.
I was particularly struck by the strong attachment to the area and to herding itself on the part of their children, a daughter Pema Lham, who was 21, and a son, Tshering Wangchuk, who was 17. Tshering had studied English for seven years in school, and spoke it quite well. The work of herding, which I had been told was burdensome, seemed to pass easily for them. They kept a close eye on the animals, each of whom they recognized as individuals and knew by name. Tshering did not need much time to complete the evening round-up of the younger animals, and he seemed to watch with interest as each one entered a large paddock near their house. Pema milked the cows efficiently in the morning and made cheese, by curdling and boiling the milk, separating the curds and hanging them in a cloth to dry, and then pressing them under a heavy rock. The dried yak cheese can be stored for a long time, and, as Tshering told me, sells for a good price. I had heard, before we set off on the trip, that the cheese from this area is particularly prized, since the yaks are reported to graze on medicinal plants as well as on grasses.
Tshering had a number of stories of interesting events during his recent stay at the summer pasture, and was looking forward to meeting up again with friends of his who were also returning from these pastures. He gave me a quick positive answer when I asked him if he planned to remain in the area when he grew up, as if he had never seriously considered an alternative. And Renzin later told me that Pema, an attractive, cheerful and hard-working young woman, was likely to marry in the coming years; as is the local custom, her future husband would move into her home, as Tshering would move to the home of his future wife. There was a good chance, I realized, that Pema would remain for her whole life in the house where she was born.
I recognize that it could have been easy for me to idealize this family during a short visit. But I did notice their attentiveness to their animals a number of times, and I believe it showed a genuine affection: Tshering standing patiently to wait for the slowest of the animals to walk back at night, a bull whose front foreleg had broken when he slipped on boulders in a heavy rain; Pema turning to hold a bowl of whey for a cow to lap up (giving me a chance to stare, close-up, at the cow’s dark blue tongue); the two of them, laughing as Pema scooped up the family cat—the mouser who protected the food stores at home—who was sniffing at a plate of butter. And they seemed comfortable in their family home. Pema showed me the large battery, run off solar panels on their roof, that powered the lamps in the house and the flashlights they took out at night, and allowed them to charge cell phones. In a way the battery complemented a cement bridge, built by the provincial government a few years ago, that Tshering had pointed out to me earlier that afternoon, when we went out for a walk and came to a sizable creek. Both the battery and the bridge are signs of progress that suggest that the high pasturelands are not being left behind as Bhutan’s towns and cities develop.
As I walked back down to the main valley after the visit, I had the strong impression that these two young herders were likely to build lives for themselves in the high country, rather than leaving for town. I was pleased that they, at least, might be an exception to the more general pattern of decline that has been found throughout highland Asia and that I had expected to find in Jomolhari as well.