Neten Dorji | Trashiyangtse

Highlanders of Trashiyangtse have seen a marked decline in the number of yaks which has contributed to worsening economic conditions. Villagers attribute this trend to wildlife depredation, climate change, and diseases.

Last year alone more than 15 yaks died out of starvation and other factors.  Increasing attacks by wild animals, in particular, came after a period of unusual weather, herders said.

“With frequent attacks by wolves for the past few years, the population of yak has declined. Here, no yaks means we don’t have an income to live,” said Tenzing Dema. “We used to have more than 150 yaks when I was young. Now it has reduced to around 90 heads.”

She said that herding yaks today has become difficult due to increasing wildlife attacks and health issues. “We reported to livestock officials but they also do not know the name of the diseases.”

According to herders, the challenge of livestock herding is further exacerbated by changing climate and environmental conditions.

“Snowfall has decreased considerably in the region in the past couple of years,” said herder Jamba of Shingphel, a pastoral settlement in Trashiyangtse.

“Two decades ago, at the time of the Losar festival, you would find the mountains covered in at least two feet deep snow. But now you won’t find any snow at that time of the year,” he said.

Ap Jamba, who owns about 100 yaks, said with rising temperatures, warm-climate plants are moving further up the slopes, encroaching on the pastures on which yaks feed.

“There was no trace of growing plants until 12 years ago,” says the seasoned herder, who is now in his late sixties. “I have lived all my life here and had never experienced this before. But suddenly they appeared and spread all over. I suspect this is due to a rise in temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns,” Jamba said.

Jamba and the other pastoralists have been trying to adjust to the changes in climate by shifting the annual migration calendar. Like other Brokpas in Shingphel, he starts his summer migration to high-altitude pastures with his herd of yaks in April, as the snow starts to melt.

His final destination is Pemaling and Shingphel, a grazing range at around 4,506 and 3,937metres above sea level near the international northern border.

Jambay’s migration continues throughout the summer until late November, when, with the onset of winter, he descends back to Lau and Saney. In the winter, highlanders of Trashiyangtse stay in their temporary settlement area at an altitude of around 2,816m (9238.8ft).

“Earlier we used to embark on the upward journey in late May. But now you can’t do that,” Jambay said. “The yaks start feeling uncomfortable as early as late March because of the heat. The summer has extended and the temperature has risen.”

He said that rise in temperature forces the yak to go higher, which gives us an indication of fluctuations in the weather.

Bumdeling Gup, Mani Dorji, said that in near future, the yak population and rearing practice could vanish altogether. “Increased enrollment of youths in schools has led to a shortage of herders in Shingphel. Because of that, wild animals killed small calves.”

He said that gewog is working with dzongkhag to increase the yak population and making yak-rearing economically viable which could revive the interest of the youth to continue yak-rearing.

The livestock officials of Trashiyangtse also agree that the number of yaks has dwindled over the past five years.

The statistics maintained by livestock of Bumdeling gewog show that the yak population in Trashiyangtse has dropped to 343 in 2021 from 514 in 2019, which decreased by 171 yaks. Similarly, the Zo and Zom population today is about 118, while in 2019, the number was more than 190 in Trashiyangtse.

Livestock officials think that climate change contributes to declining the yak population among other factors.

A senior Dzongkhag Livestock Officer Phurpa Tshering, said, “We couldn’t confirm if the decline in the population of yak is because of climate change without scientific study done in the area.”

“To increase the population of Yak, we supplied breeding bulls and cleared the Algae plants in the pasture area,” he said.

He said the dzongkhag livestock sector supplied cream separators and improved the mule tracks to improve the livelihoods of herders in the mountains.

Livestock officials said wildlife depredation, mostly by wolves and leopards is the main reason behind the decline of the yak population.

“Algae grows in abundance during summer and gets decayed during winter, while yaks are migrating to lowlands during winter, they drink plenty of toxic water and die. Algae poisoning in yaks (Chu-dug) is caused by toxic algae plant poisoning,” said a livestock official.