Yangyel Lhaden

Once considered the most valuable asset for the highlanders, the yak rearing is no longer preferred today resulting in a decline in the yak population and a declining households engaged in it.

The highlanders would instead prioritise cordyceps collection which was lucrative, while the motorable road had reached just around the corner.

Consequently, the Layaps had been abandoning yak herding and records with the livestock department showed that out of 283 households in Laya, only 54 households were currently engaged in rearing yaks, amounting to a total of 2,930 yaks in the gewog.

In 2021, 63 households in Laya reared yaks, which decreased to 56 households in 2022.  There were 39,453 yaks in the country in 2013 which decreased to 38,642 yaks in 2021.

“People fail to grasp that cordyceps will deplete, but our yaks will not,” a 72-year-old man from Lungo said. “We no longer harvest cordyceps as abundantly as before, and who is to say they won’t disappear entirely one day? Yaks, which have sustained us for generations, will endure. It is disheartening to witness people selling off their yaks.”


Alternative income like cordyceps and road connectivity have made highlanders of Laya abandon yak rearing

Layaps sell their yaks to Lunaps for a price between Nu 20,000 and Nu 50,000 for a yak.

“Since there is no motorable road to Lunana, we depend on yaks to carry our supplies from Sephu and Laya,” Dawa Tshering from Lunana said.

In addition, horses had been replacing yaks for Layaps, with most households now only owning horses which cost between Nu 120,000 and Nu 200,000.

“We use horses as beasts of burden, and since the motorable road is just three hours away, horses are more convenient for us,” Namgay, a Layap said. “We are now highlanders without yaks—bjob yak mimi.”

Karma Yangdey from Lungo rears yaks. Along with her husband and a toddler child, she moves to the mountains in the summer and stays in Lungo during winter. She leaves her elder daughter with her grandparents in Lungo to attend school during the summer.

The highlanders who own horses move to Punakha for their horses during winter since horses can’t survive the harsh winter.

“It is challenging to rear yaks due to the lack of water in the mountains, threats from wildlife, and the need to stay away from home for months,” Karma Yangdey said. “Despite the challenges, I will not sell my yaks, as there is a deep connection between the yaks and the highlanders, and our cordyceps are also not as abundant as before.”

Yaks also played a crucial role in managing highland ecosystems through grazing, and abandoning yak rearing could lead to changes in vegetation, which could affect local biodiversity and the overall health of the ecosystem, according to a report on the impact of leaving yak rearing in the highlands by the livestock department.

The report also points out that yak grazing habits control vegetation and prevent soil erosion. Since yaks were adapted to high-altitude environments, they were a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Abandoning yak rearing could alter carbon and methane emissions in these regions and affect their contribution to climate change, according to the report.

The report highlights the urgent need for controlled burning of bush-dominated rangelands, the need for roofing for calves in winter herds, the supply of pipes to address acute water shortages in winter herds, chain-link fencing to protect calves from snow leopard attacks, and the need of training budget for community animal health workers to improve yak rearing practices.