Once the mainstay of the highland communities, yak herding now is on the decline.
Despite seeing an increasing trend in the yak population between 2014 and 2017 in Lingzhi Drungkhag in Thimphu for example, the number had declined to 7,208 last year from 7,319 in 2017 going by the dzongkhag statistical handbook. Soe, Lingzhi and Naro communities together make Lingzhi Drungkhag.
In Soe, yak population decreased by 27 last year from 1,641 in 2017. In Naro gewog, the number dropped to 2,155 from 2,288 in 2017.
Lhaden, 54, a yak herder in Soe, said that herding yaks was now difficult, particularly in winter due to fodder crisis. “With less grass available, the productivity related to yak has declined.”
Lhaden has 50 yaks.
While the yak population in Lingzhi has been increasing in the last five years, yak-herding households has declined by about 40 percent. This is according to Lingzhi Gup Wangdi. Of the total 94 households, only 56 rear yaks today. On average, currently, each household rears about 61 yaks.
Given almost negligent market opportunities, the younger people in the highlands are turning towards alternative livelihoods according to assistant dzongkhag livestock officer, Sonam Penjore. And the Cordyceps is luring yak herders away from yak herding, he added.
In addition, increasing number of yaks falling prey to wild dogs and other predators like snow leopard are also contributing to decline of yak population, according to Sonam Penjore.
As the region falls within the protected area, Jigme Dorji National Park, Lingzhi alone has more than 24 snow leopards according to the 2016 Snow Leopard Survey.
Expansion of education is another pressure forcing rapid transformation of yak herding practices. “Increased enrolment of youths in schools has led to shortage of farmhands in the villages,” said Sonam Penjore.
Aum Mindu Gyem, 73, from Lingzhi had to sell her yaks due to labor shortage. Two of her three daughters are now settled in Thimphu.
With the highland communities of Thimphu receiving an increasing number of tourists, many highlanders depend on horses today. That is after the Cordyceps business.
A family can make at least Nu 40,000 in nine days with 10 horses during the tourist season. A horseman, Sangay Dorji, who was catering pony services to mount Jomolhari trekkers, said the business was lucrative. “I find this attractive and easier compared to yak farming.”
The challenge of livestock herding is further exacerbated by changing climate and environmental conditions, according to a research conducted last year by Peter Deneen, a graduate student of Climate and Society at Columbia University.
According to the study, yak herders in the northern parts of the country are experiencing temperature rise and glacial retreat.
The warming of temperatures, a study stated, causes illness and discomfort to the yaks. The declining health of the yak and a shift in timing of the migration has made herding more difficult to Bhutanese herders.
A warmer and longer summer grazing does not necessarily benefit the yaks, according to a study. As thick hair of yaks are well adapted to cold temperatures of the highlands, warmer temperatures causes physiological stress in yaks and general health decline. In addition, deteriorating rangeland resources due to encroachment by the upslope proliferation of warm-climate plants like the rhododendron is another challenge.
In the past, one of the major factors that contributed to the decline in yak population was due diseases Coenurosis or Gid. Guard dogs, among other canine species, are considered to be the main host for adult Gid tapeworm in the country.
Between 2000 and 2015, Gid affected Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Gasa, and Bumthang, causing death to approximately 9,464 yak calves. Recently, however, with various intervention programmes carried out by the Dzongkhag livestock sector and National Veterinary hospital, the infection has been brought down.