When the song Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo was first sung in the old days, people wept at its melody and tragedy.
The song tells the story of a parting between a yak herder and his yak who is to be slaughtered.
The song is a tribute to the yak and of the strong bond that develops between the herder and the herd in the remote and silent highlands.
The tale is still very much relevant today.
The number of yak herders is dropping every year. Since 2012, the yak herder population has declined between 1-2 percent, every year.
This is because yak herding, while already incredibly difficult, is getting even more challenging. Wildlife predation of herds is causing some herders to lose as many as 10 yaks a year.
Comparatively easier and highly profitable activities like harvesting cordyceps offers an attractive alternative.
Easier jobs in the lowlands and education means less people to help in tending to the herd.
A disease called Gid has also been killing up to 500 yaks in the past two years and affecting the livelihoods of the herders.
With such challenges, the number of yak-herding households, 993 as of 2015, has been falling.
We have to ensure that one of the country’s oldest means of livelihood is continued not simply because it has to be preserved, or because yak herding plays a vital role in management and use of rangeland forages, protection of watersheds, preservation of spiritual abodes and religious sites, among others, but to guarantee their right to continue an activity passed down from their forefathers.
It has been recognised that simply bringing BHUs, roads, schools, and electricity, among others, will not be enough, at least in the near future.
Additional support will be required. Tourism is one area that the highlanders can use to not only enhance their incomes but also to keep their herds.
Besides tourism, finding markets abroad, for products acquired from the yaks, such as yak fiber, could also help in sustaining the occupation.
We’re confident that the government is doing all it can to sustain the livelihood of the highlanders. But there is a need for the private sector to be roped in, to explore and identify products that can be either marketed in large scale both within the country and abroad.
We must do all we can to sustain the relationship between the yak and its herder, so that many more songs in tribute to the yak are composed, sung, and enjoyed.