A yak federation is expected to preserve, promote, and protect yaks and yak herders

… to address declining yak rearing tradition 

Phub Dem

The decline in the number of yak rearing households in Haa, a major yak-herding community, has contributed to worsening economic conditions and it is a national concern.  The yak herders comprise less than 5 percent of the country’s population.

These communities also serve as informal custodians along the northern border and occupy the country’s northernmost belt, mainly in the alpine region.

However, recently many natives of Haa have returned home to warmer valleys, leaving behind the age-old herding practice.  They say yak herders today face an uncertain future due to development and climate change, altering the practice, isolating and fragmenting herders and their traditional pastures.

Most herders say policies change with the change in government every five years and this has worsened their troubles.

Although policymakers are aware of the declining trend in yak farming, the community has received nothing much, they say.

Seasoned herders like Ugyen say although the government provided them with tarpaulin, woodstove, milking and churning equipment, little could be used.  He said that there was no action plan to retain the declining herders except for some training on product diversification and animal health.

Another herder, Jamtsho, said the herding community had been looking forward to the Highlands Flagship Programme, which they believe was the only programme designed explicitly for yak herders never came.

For now, the formation of a yak federation, with support from the government, seems the only hope for these highlanders.

The yak federation is expected to preserve, promote, and protect yaks and yak herders.

Chief livestock officer with the research and extension division, Tawchu Rabgay, said that the formation of yak federation would represent the herding communities where herders’ voice could be heard at the national, regional, and international levels. “The yak federation is ready for registration.”

At the moment, there is no policy to address problems faced by the yak herders.

According to some officials, the government prioritised lowland livestock, and highlanders were often neglected.

RNR Research & Development Centre under the Department of Livestock was realigned as National Highland Research and Development Centre only in 2016 to promote the sustainable livelihood of highland communities.

In the past two decades, the number of yak herding families practising transhumant yak rearing – in which herders lead their livestock between mountains in summer and lowland pastures in winter – has plummeted in the Himalayan region.

Programme Director of National Highland Research and Development Centre, Vijay Raika (PhD), said that although transhumant migration was still relevant and essential, the practice was on the decline, leading to ecological, economic, and socio-cultural losses.

He said that it was essential to create awareness and provide an incentive to encourage youth to take up herding as most youths prefer other livelihood options, leading to farm labour shortages and family abandoning the herds.

Like Bhutan, a declining trend in yak farming practices is reported in Nepal and India due to the rural-urban migration of younger pastoralists desiring a better and more comfortable life and better opportunities.

According to the Director-General of ICIMOD, Pema Gyamtsho (PhD), it was essential to encourage and create attractive opportunities for the highlanders to stay in their places.

He said that there was a need to consider the provision of education and health services. “We can have high schools and doctors working there,” he said.

Focusing on income diversification, he said that tourism must be promoted with attractive packages and incentives, including tax waivers integrated with livestock farming and herbal products to enable highlanders to create jobs and earn decent incomes.


Highland development programme

The government included the Highlands Flagship Program in the ongoing 12th Plan to deliver targeted interventions to improve the lives of selected highland communities. However, the flagship programme has now become a highland development program.

The government insists that flagship programmes are time-bound, unlike NHDP that will run beyond the 12th Plan.

Activities under NHDP were narrowed down and made livestock-based, and the budget for the project was also pared down by more than 60 percent.

According to Vijay Raika, the highlanders were looking for essential supports such as health, education, telecommunication services, and farm roads under the flagship programme.

He said that the highland development programme does not have many provisions to cover local infrastructures, requiring multi-sectoral interventions to provide youths with tangible opportunities so that they stay back to take care of their family herds.

The programme, for now, focuses on genetic improvement, nutritional management through nutritious feed in winter, and disease prevention considering the risk of climate change on yak health.

Some of the programme’s adaptive measures and action plans include the construction of temporary sheds in grazing areas for free-range grazing and migratory routes to protect them from adverse weather.

The programme primarily focuses on product diversification, creating a yak product value chain to a target niche market, and developing herders in product diversification.


Lack of policy intervention

According to a study “The future of yak farming in Bhutan: policy measures government should adopt (2016)” by Jigme Wangdi, the decline in yak rearing was associated with limited policy support from the government on yak research and development.

Other issues include labour shortages, high morbidity and mortality of yaks resulting from erratic climate and emerging new diseases, deterioration of the alpine tsamdro (grassland) resulting in a lack of quality pastures, and external encroachment of tsamdro.

The study suggests the government to develop a clear road map for the yak development program and provide adequate resources to give highlanders a well-protected livelihood from yak farming into the future.

Besides, researchers have suggested that the government formulate policies, plans, and projects to support and encourage younger generations to continue with the age-old tradition of yak farming.

According to Pema Gyamtsho, there should be a specific provision to deal with climate change impacts in the highlands.  He said climate change impacts were more pronounced at high altitudes, as shown by the vertical change in species and their habitats and threats from glacial lake outburst floods.

As part of mitigation and adaptation plans, he recommended that policymakers consult and engage the highlanders in monitoring climate change impacts. “Highlanders have a better understanding and appreciation of the changes taking place over the years and could provide valuable local knowledge to adapt to climate change,” he said.

Rangeland management 

Ten highland dzongkhags shared concerns regarding fodder shortage which often lead to low milk production and a higher rate of yak calf mortality, causing economic loss to yak herders.

As fodder shortage, especially during winter, was a challenge facing the highlanders, the NHRD centre has already initiated feed block productions to address feed shortages and nutritional supplementation.

The degradation of rangeland due to poor management is a concern as the traditional management practice of rangeland burning is prohibited.

A rangeland expert, Pema Gyamtsho, said co-management of rangeland for multiple uses such as livestock grazing, wildlife conservation, and watershed protection must be put in place to address rangeland degradation.

This, he said, should begin by ensuring user rights and tenure security to the local people. “Otherwise, the tragedy of the commons is likely to repeat itself when it comes to high altitude rangelands.”

He added that ICIMOD could bring in experiences from across the region to support such an initiative. “ICIMOD is already working with the Watershed Management Division of the Department of Forests and Park Services to revive the dried up or drying springs, and these could be provided with more support.”

According to some researchers, retaining mountain pastoralists played a significant role in utilising and protecting the country’s considerable alpine rangeland resources. “In the absence of pastoralists, these large areas would remain unoccupied and underutilised.  The government has to allocate resources to secure and protect these vast rangeland resources from any external exploitation and encroachment.”

Vijay Raika (PhD) said climate change was one of the possible causes of rangeland degradation. He said that the centre was involved in an alpine pasture restoration programme and sustainable yak rate along with controlled grazing.

He said that the absence of a rangeland expert in the county impedes rangeland research which was essential to guide policymakers.

In the meantime, he said that the centre has been creating awareness among highland communities on the importance of protecting rangelands, focussing on measures related to sustainable rangeland management practices.

This story is supported by Bhutan Media Foundation’s climate change grant.