Younten Tshedup  | Gelephu

Every year people from the mountains descend to the plains for warmth and comfort. But for some this is no more a seasonal migration.

People of Laya and Lunana have bought houses and settled in places like Punakha and Wangdue. In the east, natives of Merak and Sakteng are seen running shops in Mongar and Trashiyangtse. And, latterly, in places such as Gelephu and Zhemgang.

What is causing the movement?

Once their forte, the culture of herding yak is decreasing rapidly in the mountains. And so, the highlanders are looking beyond. 

Officials from the Department of Livestock (DoL) disagree. They maintain that the number of yaks in the highlands have remained almost constant over the past three decades. Since the documentation of the yak population began in 1987, the numbers have remained consistent, which is about 42,000 in the country.

So, what is encouraging highlander to come down to the plains?

There has, though, been a remarkable decline in the ownership of yaks among the mountain households. According to DoL officials, between 1996 and 2016, there was about 30 percent decline. And the highlanders are losing interest in the yak raring practice. There are elsewhere to look for better economic prospects.

National highland development programme  

A three-day workshop on National Highland Development Programme (NHDP) is underway in Gelephu to encourage highlanders to live in the mountains.

Programme director with the National Highland Development Centre (NHDC) in Bumthang, Dr Raika, said that recognising the importance of highlanders and the role they play, intervention and activities to improve their livelihood was felt necessary.

Highland development was conceived as a flagship programme initially, which included multi-sectorial involvement and several initiatives in the fields of education, agriculture, communication and health, among others.

Dr Raika said that the government dropped the flagship idea and NHDC was then asked to focus interventions based on livestock in the highlands.

“This was mainly done with the view that there were other flagship programmes in areas such as tourism, education and communications,” he said.

The activities under the NHDP were then narrowed down and made livestock-based, which included product diversification, disease control and improving the health facilities for the yaks raring.

The budget for the project was also pared down by more than 60 percent. “Another way to look at the current NHDP is that flagship programmes are time-bound but we now have a programme that will run beyond the 12th Plan,” Dr Raika said.

DoL’s chief livestock officer with the research and extension division, Tawchu Rabgay, said that the highland programme was formulated to enhance the livelihood prospects of the highlanders based on income-generating opportunities from yak rearing.

It was also to preserve and promote the unique and rich cultural assets of the highlanders that are at the brink of extinction, he said. Conserving the species within the highland ecosystem and upholding the border security in the north were the driving factors that shaped the programme.


Revamping yak rearing culture 

Tawchu Rabgay said that yaks are the primary source of income and livelihood for the highlanders. “With the declining yak population and households rearing the animals, it was important we brought in some major interventions.”

The main reason highlanders left the practice of rearing was because of the depleting of rangeland and tsamdro. The outbreak of diseases such as GID deterred farmers to continue with the practice.

To address the issues of depleting rangeland and tsamdro, DoL and NHDC in consultation with relevant stakeholders would soon be mapping tsamdro and distribute to farmers on a user right thram basis.

Improvement of nutrition for the yaks, elimination of GID and measures to prevent and control zoonotic disease would also be included in the programme.  Besides putting in measures to enable farmers to take up yak rearing, yak herders would be encouraged to form groups and cooperatives.

Unlike other livestock cooperatives, Tawchu Rabgay said that full ownership and responsibility would be given to the herders. “DoL and NHDC will be at the back providing technical supports whenever required.”

Herders would form village groups at a gewog level, which would grow into a cooperative at a dzongkhag level. A national-level federation of yak herders would also be developed under the programme.

Dr Raika said that a larger group at the national level would not only address the issue of supplying mass products for commercial enterprises, but also enable farmers to collaborate with each other. “So far herders have only functioned on their own. This networking will provided them with multiple opportunities.”

The yak federation, according to officials, would be an apex body formed with more than five cooperatives of yak herders with an objective to preserve, promote and protect yaks in the highlands.

Meanwhile, the use of artificial insemination to promote good breeding practice in yaks would also be initiated. Due to inbreeding practice, Dr Raika said that a lot of dilution in the yak breeds was happening. “We also want to start processing yak semen so that we can conserve and upgrade the genetic material of our yaks. This will go a long way in the conservation of the breed of yaks we have.”

Like the polar bear and penguin in the north and south poles, yaks are an important species found only in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, also know as the Third Pole, he said.

“Besides serving as the main source of income and livelihood for our highlanders, these animals are crucial for the ecosystem, which is why it is important to preserve these animals before it’s late.”