The last two yak herders of Ura

Livestock: Located at a short hike away from the road and at the end of a meandering trail into the forest, lies a clearing with a wooden hut that stands defiantly upon it, in Chethtay, Bumthang.

For that past two weeks, the only yak rearing family of Ura has stopped by for the winter in Chethtay. The semi-nomadic family has migrated from pastureland in Tangsibe, as is the norm every year.

“Have you been to any funeral rites or to visit a newborn recently,” asks Ugyen Choden, 35. “You mustn’t come inside if you have because it brings illness to the yaks,” she says, as she removes wooden-shingles by a corner of the hut.

Inside, clothes, blankets and a leather satchel hang randomly from the pillars or posts used to divide the single-room hut. The hut is as shabby as it is inside, as outside. Only a wooden post separates its human occupants from the calves, who are kept inside to avoid predators at night. Plastic buckets, bamboo baskets and bowls lay carelessly strewn around the hearth.

“Father should be here shortly,” says Ugyen Choden, whose cheeks are bursting a brilliant red from the cold outside.

Today, Ugyen Choden’s family is the only one that herds yaks in Ura. In the 1990s, there used to be 18 households.

“Everyone has sold their yaks,” Ugyen Choden said, adding that her father wouldn’t accept the idea of selling his  yaks.

Ugyen Choden’s father, Kuenla, 65 arrives shortly thereafter. Clad in a faded mathra gho with a patang tucked into his waist he shares that with families giving up yak rearing, nearby pastureland and huts are now deserted and empty.

“It is sad to find yourself alone here in the mountains with fellow herders on the other side of the hills long gone,” Kuenla says.

But even at 65, an age many consider retiring at, Kuenla isn’t willing to give up the strenuous job. Despite pressure from some of his children, he still wants to continue being with yaks.

“I wouldn’t be happy without yaks because I have lived with them all my life,” Kuenla says. He adds that the yaks are also the family’s chief source of income fetching Nu 20,000 a month during the peak seasons.

Kuenla’s family is torn between keeping the yaks or switching to jersey cows like the rest of the villagers.

“They say every one in the village has sold so why do I keep struggling in the forest with yaks,” Kuenla says. He says his children have also told him that raising jersey cows are much easier.

Kuenla acknowledges that age has made coping with the physical demands of yak rearing harder. “I can’t hike to the forests like before and catching up with animals is increasingly become challenging as I grow older.”

None of the younger generations of Kuenla’s family are willing to continue the semi-nomadic livelihood. They want to go to school and migrate to the urban areas like other educated youth.

“Now every child wants to find a job in some urban places after attending school,” Kuenla says. He adds that Ugyen Choden will not be able to look after the yaks by herself if he stops. Kuenla is determined to continue for as long as possible.

“I will continue living with yaks as long as my aging body can take it, which might be five or six years from now,” Kuenla says. He admits his body will one day not be able to bear the physical nature of the occupation and that it will be heartbreaking once that time arrives.

“Yaks might vanish even in Ura like it did in Tang, once I give up,” Kuenla said.

To avoid this, one of Kuenla’s sons, Lhawang Dhendup is exploring avenues to continue the semi-nomadic livelihood after his father stops.

“I will look for someone to help my sister to continue yak rearing,” Lhawang Dhendup says. He adds that perhaps one of his own children could step in.

Meanwhile, Kuenla rises up and prepares to venture back into the forest.

“I must go or the yaks wouldn’t know when to return home,” Kuenla says. He walks out into the cold afternoon day. The snow is lightly falling.

Tempa Wangdi, Bumthang 

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