Phub Dem | Haa

Kencho, a young herder who dropped out of school to help his family rear yak, might be an example of hope for many highlanders. But Kencho finds it hard living alone in the mountains.

For hundreds of years, nomadic yak herders of Haa moved between the high-altitude alpine grassland between Bhutan and Tibet.

Today, the domestic yak (Bos grunniens) and the indigenous herders are facing an uncertain future.

Changing environment as a result of development and climate change, among others, have altered the practice, isolating and fragmenting herders and their traditional pastures.

Without a lucrative source of income such as cordyceps and horse businesses like other highlanders, yak herders of Haa are finding it hard to adapt to the changing times.


Abandoning the  mountains

Many Haaps have returned home and hired herders from other parts of the country.

Tobgay, 58, returned to his village, Bangayna in Haa 14 years ago. Scarce fodder and lack of educational opportunities were some of the reasons. “And the income from yak is small.”

Today, with improvement in livelihoods, families are sending their children to school. Many are acutely aware that their children will never prefer to live in the mountains, herding yaks.

Ugyen from Dumcho is one of the last six herders from his gewog. He tends to his herd only during migration and emergencies. “No one is willing to stay. It is becoming difficult by the day.”

If the situation remains the same, he said that there was a risk of such indigenous practices becoming extinct. “Everyone is planning to sell their animals.”

Of the six gewogs in Haa with more than 500 households, only 57 households from three upper gewogs rear yaks today. There are only 4,915 yaks in the area.

According to livestock statistics, the number of herders decreased from 99 in 2013 to 57 today.


Rangeland degradation

The degradation of rangeland due to poor management is a concern.

The traditional management practice of rangeland burning is prohibited. Before this, local yak herders used rangeland burning as the primary rangeland management tool.

Ugyen said that the restriction resulted in the proliferation of shrub species, reducing the amount of grazing land for yaks.

Climate change is known to have a synergistic effect on the already existing challenges of dwindling yak populations, yak husbandry, degradation of high-altitude pastures, and shortage of feed and fodder, and even on changing social norms.

Climate change, according to the director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and rangeland expert, Pema Gyamtsho (PhD), has a profound effect on the condition of rangelands.

He said that the composition of the vegetation was changing because of warmer temperature and reducing snowfall. “Alpine grass and herb species are being replaced by invasive species of shrubs and weeds from lower areas.”

The receding of the snow line, he said, exposes the alpine screes to erosions and landslides. “Increasing rainfall replacing snowfall is further leading to degradation of the rangeland through increased erosion.”

The country is also experiencing increasing temperatures, leading to a significant change in tradition of herding yaks.

The number of herders decreased from 99 in 2013 to 57 today

The number of herders decreased from 99 in 2013 to 57 today

A finding from the analysis of historical climate between 1996 to 2017 by the National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology indicated increase in temperature both at mean seasonal and annual scales. The overall trends in rainfall showed a more considerable variability and decrease in rainfall.

Two decades ago, although the facilities were limited, there never was shortage of natural resources, according to herder Ugyen. “Around 20 households would be herding more than 500 yaks in the same grassland. Today, although there are only four herders with less than 300 yaks, there is a shortage of winter fodder.”

The herders have also observed the proliferation of warm-climate plants like the rhododendron and other lowland trees encroaching upon pastures where yaks graze.

Sonam Dorji, a herder from Hatey, said it was challenging to find fodder in places where it used to be abundant.

According to a report “Yak on the Move” by the ICIMOD, shortages of winter fodder, a decline in the number of yaks as well as young herders, restrictions on mobility and exchange, and climate change are some of the challenges shared by the herders of Himalayan Hindu Kush region. It states that climate change is known to have a significant impact on species distribution and diversity patterns. “Warming temperatures in the high elevation region can harm yak populations because of their lack of tolerance for heat, the reduction in habitat, and decline in yak survival and reproduction.”

With experts predicting a severe impact of warming temperature on mountain natives, Sonam Jamtsho from Yangthang said there was no choice but to abandon the practice. His yak population has doubled over the years. Shortage of fodder, especially during winter, is a concern.     As Sonam’s herd resides right next to the China border, he said that he could not migrate further due to border restrictions. According to studies conducted in different parts of the Himalayan region, climate change is forcing communities to migrate to higher elevations in search of productive grazing lands, with an early start in the upward migration due to shortening of the winter period.

He said that the only solution was for the government to lease tsamdro to the yak herders before it is too late. The Land Act (2007) nationalised rangelands through a generous compensation scheme.

Grazing allotments under a leasehold system are yet to be implemented.

To address the fodder scarcity in winter, the herders buy supplementary feeds such as Karma Feed and locally available feeds likebuckwheat flour, mustard oil cake and barley grains, among others.


Drying up of spring and high-altitude wetland

The highlanders of Haa have witnessed a considerable decrease in snowfall in the last couple of years.

Springs and high-altitude wetland, one of the significant sources of water are reportedly depleting. Such incidences are increasing by the day, especially during the long dry season, posing a threat to people’s livelihood and the rural economy.

Ugyen said that he had to walk for hours to reach the drinking water source. “In winter, I melt snow to cook and drink.”

A study published by Mountain Research and Development titled “Signs of climate change through the eyes of yak herders in northern Bhutan”, reveals an increase in temperature, glacial retreat, and ascension of the snow line.

Major yak herding communities were selected from the districts of Thimphu, Bumthang, Paro, and Wangdue to evaluate the vulnerabilities of yak herding communities.

Herders noted that weather events such as flash flood have become increasingly unpredictable and severe. Many also said that water sources are drying gradually and water availability has dwindled.

Activities under highland development programme

The National Highland Development Centre focuses on interventions related to livestock in the highlands after the government flagged off the highland flagship programme.

The initiatives to enhance the highlanders’ livelihood include making groups and cooperatives, product diversification, disease control, and improving the high-altitude rangeland.

Chief livestock officer with the research and extension division, Tawchu Rabgay, said that the programme targets  enhancing the livelihood prospects of the highlanders based on income-generating opportunities from yak rearing.

He said that the programme includes value-adding and branding yak products from across the dzongkhags to target both the regional and international market. “For a consistent supply chain, we are focusing on yak groups and cooperatives.”

Improvement of nutrition for the yaks, elimination of GID and measures to prevent and control the zoonotic disease are some of the initiatives under the programme.

The programme has plans to set up a processing unit in every yak rearing dzongkhag.

With more than five yak herders cooperatives, a national-level federation of yak herders would also be developed under the programme.

The yak federation, according to Tawchu Rabgay, would be an apex body to preserve, promote and protect yaks in the highlands. “A larger group at the national level will address the issue of supplying products for commercial enterprises, enable farmers to collaborate and integrate with regional highlanders.”

Meanwhile, the Yak Breeding Centre in Haa will also initiate the use of artificial insemination to promote good breeding practice in yaks. Due to inbreeding practice, he 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. ”

In an attempt to improve the degrading rangeland, the centre is currently studying the nature of the grass and is planning to propagate the existing grass, as it was not viable to introduce new grass species.

Tawchu Rabgay also said that the centre was in the process of introducing a feed block which would be taken up by the cooperatives and distributed to the highlanders.

The National Land Commission, he said, was in the process of returning the tsamdro to the genuine yak herders as per their user right thrams.

In the meantime, most herders are of the view that with government changing after every election cycle, different policies come up and this does not help solve the problem.

Many said that although the government provided them with tarpaulin, woodstove, milking and churning equipment, little could they be put to use.

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