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Fossil remains of the domestic yak and its wild ancestor date back to the Pleistocene period. Over the past 10 000 years or so, the yak developed on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, extending over about 2.5 million sq km and often called the "roof of the world". Although this is still the centre of the yak's distribution, yak have spread northward and southward and also, albeit in relatively small numbers, to other parts of the world. Yak are usually found at elevations between 2 000 and 5 000 m (the lower elevations at the more northerly latitudes).

The wild yak may have been tamed and domesticated by the ancient Qiang people. Chinese documents from ancient times (eighth century B.C.) testify to a long-established role of the yak in the culture and life of the people. From the south to the north, the distribution of the domestic yak now extends from the southern slopes of the Himalayas to the Altai and west to east from the Pamir to the Minshan mountains. In relatively recent times the area of distribution has further extended to, for example, the Caucasus and North America. In addition, yak are found in zoos and wild animal parks in many countries.

At the present time, the total yak population is estimated to number around 14.2 million, of which 13.3 million are in Chinese territories, about 0.6 million in Mongolia and the rest in other countries, notably those bordering the Himalayas and countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (formerly the Soviet Union). Their numbers are said to be increasing in some areas of China. In addition, hybridization of yak with cattle - most usually the local cattle of the area - is widely practised. Hybrids of yak with "improved" European breeds are also produced, though in relatively small numbers.

The wild yak population, as distinct from the domestic yak, is now very restricted in distribution. Numbers are likely to be fewer than 15 000. Although the animals are "protected", illegal hunting still represents a major problem to their survival. Wild yak are larger in size than the domestic ones. Because the two types readily interbreed, there is interest in the use of wild yak to improve the performance of the domestic type.

The yak is integrally associated with the culture, religion and social life of its herders, their families and communities. However, with outside pressures influencing the life of the people and with technical developments impinging on yak husbandry, it seems likely that the nature of yak keeping has entered a period of change.


The yak (Poephagus grunniens or Bos grunniens) must be regarded as one of the world's most remarkable domestic animals as it thrives in conditions of extreme harshness and deprivation while providing a livelihood for people. A herbivore, the yak lives predominantly on the "roof of the world", as the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is often called. The Plateau itself extends over 2.5 million sq km (about 1 million square miles) and was described by Miller (1990) as the most extensive high-elevation region on earth and the best grazing lands in all of Asia. For those more familiar with the western hemisphere, Miller (1990) equated the vast size of this Plateau to the combined areas in the United States of America of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. From the central "core" of the yak's habitat, the species has spread to adjacent territories. These areas are, to a large extent, above the tree line where there is virtually no cropping. There is no frost-free period during any part of the year. At its high elevation, the territory overall is characterized by a harsh climate of cool moist summers, severely cold winters and grazing resources restricted by very short growing seasons. More than 13 million yak thus live and provide food, transport, shelter and fuel where few other animals will survive. About 30 million sheep and goats (Miller, 1990) - and the herdsmen's horses - co-exist with yak over large parts of the Plateau. But these are not serious competitors to the yak in much of yak territory, and they do not have the same economic importance. However, yak and sheep are, to some extent, complementary to each other in their grazing habits. In some of the alpine regions, the terrain is also treacherous. Chinese historians have argued that without the yak's capacity to live in such a hostile environment, human civilization might not have established and flourished in these remote areas.

This book traces briefly the development of this remarkable animal and then describes in some detail its characteristics and performance and its products. There is also a discussion of the more recent research and development projects that may provide a basis for improvements in yak performance and in the utilization of the rangelands. The research and development may also lead to a wider distribution for the yak and to a better utilization of yak products. Any marked changes in yak husbandry are also likely to have far-reaching consequences for the social fabric of a society of pastoralists.


Unequivocal evidence to link the modern yak to its earliest ancestors is not available. Fossil evidence suggests that yak were extensively distributed in north-eastern Eurasia in the late Tertiary period (2.5 million years ago) and that these are the forerunners of wild yak found as Pleistocene fossils in northern China, Inner Mongolia (China), eastern Siberia and northern mid-Asia and on a line roughly connecting these locations (Dyblor, 1957; Belyar, 1980; Flerow, 1980; Olsen, 1991; but see also Chapter 15, Systematics and phylogeny).

The principal area of distribution for the remaining wild yak of modern times is discussed in the section on wild yak later in this chapter. The Himalayas rose to their present elevation above 4 500 m only in the late Pleistocene epoch. Their rise obstructed the warm and damp airflow from the south and significantly changed the climate of the central area of what is now the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Forest disappeared from the Plateau and was replaced by alpine meadow. Wild yak migrated from northeastern Eurasia and adapted to life on the Plateau and domestication followed.

Domestication and historical distribution

The present domestic yak is descended from wild yak, which may have been caught and tamed by ancient Qiang people in the Changtang (a Tibetan term meaning "the empty highland of the north"), an area that covers more than half of Tibet.

This process is thought to have begun in the late Stone Age, about 10 000 years ago, and led to the primary yak industry, beginning in the period of the Longshan Culture of the late New Stone Age (2 800 - 2 300 B.C.) (Qian Yanwen, 1979). The history of China's yak industry is thus at least 4 500 years old. Chinese historians regard the ancient Qiang people living around 30 000 years ago as the first intelligent humans. They lived and roamed the present Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, though its average altitude then, at around 3 000 m, was lower than it is now. These people developed quite possibly the earliest animal husbandry culture of excellence in the world - the Qiang Culture. This development is of a different type from that based on agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia, widely regarded as the cradle of civilization. The outstanding achievement of the Qiang Culture was the taming of wild beasts for domestic purposes. Sheep and goats had already been tamed successfully and this led to the taming of yak, horse and other herbivores and the development of a society based on animal husbandry. Domestication of yak in particular led to progress, prosperity and economic advancement for the people because of the value of the yak as a beast of burden and its products of milk, hair, hides and meat - and the availability of its dung as a fuel in the areas above the tree line.

Yak expanded outward from that original area of domestication on the Plateau. To the east, yak migrated from the Bayan Kala mountains into the Songpan grasslands (located in what are now the Aba, Ruoergai and Hongyuan counties of Sichuan province) and into the Danba mountains. To the south, the migration went through passes in the Himalayas to the mountainous grasslands of the southern slopes of the range. To the west, yak entered Kashmir through the western Tibet grasslands. And to the north the migration took the yak over the Kunlun mountains into northern Pamir, northern and southern Tianshan and Altai.

The present-day distribution of the yak developed gradually from these migrations (see Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1 Principal area (hatched) of the distribution of domestic yak

Nearly all the nationalities that now keep yak are thought to be related to the ancient Qiang people, including, for example, the Suchas and Tibetans. Others such as the Menba, Luoba and the Sherpa people of Nepal were separated from the original Qiang only when they entered the southern slopes of the Himalayan range. The Luoba became the Yi nationality when they migrated to the Yungui Plateau from the east. Similarly, nationalities in central Asia and the Tianshan area are related to the Qiang people, as are the Mongolian and other southern nationalities.

Many old Chinese documents illustrate these links and the associations with the yak. For example, the Guoyu chuyu describes events in the late Western Zhou Dynasty (ca. 841 B.C.): "... The Bapu's rhinoceros and yak cannot be destroyed ..." (Bapu was the northern part of the ancient Ba nation located in the present Daba mountains area of Sichuan province). The old text describes how yak were raised in large numbers.

A geological document, the Shanhaijing Zhongshanjing, dating from 400 B.C., states: "In the northeast there is a mountain called Jingshan. Its northern slope abounds with iron and the southern slopes are rich in gold. There are many yak on the mountain...." The Jingshan is at the extremity of the Daba range in what is now the Xiangyan area of Hubei province.

Many other Chinese documents dating from the fourth to the first century B.C. attest to the abundance of yak on the mountainous slopes. They also describe the migration, often forced by oppression from despotic rulers, of the Qiang people who took their yak with them. The Qiang people thus branched into what became different races living in isolation from each other. One of these was the sixth Mao Niu race - a name synonymous with one of the names for yak (Tong Pingya and Zhao Guopan, 1990).

Another branch of the Qiang people deserves particular attention because of their association with the Jiulong yak, which is now, in terms of its performance, among the most renowned native breeds of China. These people migrated to southern Kangding in what is now the Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Sichuan province. They called themselves muya, meaning "yak country". The centre of this territory was in the Mula region of Yajiang county of the prefecture, the original home of the Jiulong breed. The people and therefore the area of distribution of this breed spread, as the yak industry developed, to include several other counties within Sichuan (Kangding, Jiulong, Daofu and Litang) as well as Zhongdian county of Yunnan province.

Thus, the raising of yak was a national characteristic of the ancient Qiang people. Their nomadic lifestyle has carried over into much of yak keeping to this day.

Gradually, the distribution of the yak expanded. But only in relatively modern times did it reach some of the areas where yak are now regarded as important. For example, the raising of yak in the Tianshan mountain area of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is only about 100 years old. A century ago, 6 male and 170 female yak were taken from Tibet to Hejing county in the centre of the Tianshan mountain range and the whole of Tianshan (Yu Daxin and Qian Defang, 1983).

Present distribution

In Asia and traditional territories

Yak are found extensively on the plateau of western China in alpine and subalpine regions at altitudes from 2 000 - 5 000 m with a cold, semi-humid climate. The area, as seen in Figure 1.1, extends from the southern slopes of the Himalayas in the south to the Altai in the north and from the Pamir in the west to the Minshan mountains in the east. The centre of the yak's distribution is the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, which is interspersed with several mountain ranges. From the most recently available information (mostly 1997), the number of yak in Chinese territories is estimated to exceed 13 million, of which about 15 percent are hybrids with (mostly) Bos taurus cattle of local types. The majority of the yak, as shown in Table 1.1, are concentrated in four of that region's provinces. The rest of the world accounts for another million or so yak.

The majority of the yak in Mongolia are found in the Hangay and Hovsgol mountains and in the high altitude area of the Mongolian Altai - on the western and northern side of the country (cf. Chapter 11, part 2).

The yak in countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, formerly the Soviet Union) are distributed in the narrow mountain area on the borders with China and Mongolia from Pamir in the west to Lake Baikal in the east. Yak were also introduced to the high alpine areas of the northern Caucasus in 1970, and reintroduced to the Yakutsk valley of Siberia (Yakutia) as recently as 1971 (Verdiev and Erin, 1981), to exploit the potential for meat production from otherwise inhospitable alpine grasslands. The yak of Nepal and Bhutan are on the southern slopes of the Himalayas while those of India are distributed in the high altitude northern provinces and in the small territory of Sikkim. Other pockets of yak populations are in alpine areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, adjacent to the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. These areas of the yak distribution are dealt with in more detail in Chapter 11, part 2.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the yak was introduced to mountainous areas in northern China (but at lower altitudes of 1 500 - 1 800 m) to increase utilization of the grasslands in these cold areas. The results in Weichang county of Hebei province and in the Lingshan area of Beijing suggest a useful role for the yak there (Langjie Zeren et al., 1987; Zhong Guanhui et al., 1986).

Yak in China thus represent about 94 percent of the world's total number of yak but account for only a small proportion of the 140 million bovines in China (numbers in 1996, according to Xu Shangzhon, 1998).

According to Guo Shijan and Chen Weisheng (1996), 1.3 million yak were marketed in China annually. It was also estimated that the annual production from yak was 226 000 tonnes of meat, 13 000 tonnes of fibre and 170 000 pieces of skin (Xu Guifang and Wang Zhigang, 1998). Milk production was quoted as 1.4 million tonnes for 1989 by Li Yifang (1999) and 715 000 tonnes by Xu Guifang and Wang Zhigang (1998) for the year 1997. However, as roughly 40 percent of the meat, 60 percent of the milk and milk products and 80 percent of the fibre produced from yak are used by the herders' families for their own consumption (Guo Shijian and Chen Weisheng, 1996), all these estimates may fall well short of the actual contribution made by yak to the total economy.

Distribution outside Asia in modern times

Export of yak to parts of Europe, North America and other parts of Asia began in the mid-nineteenth century. The purpose was mostly for research and for the possible utilization of cold pastureland. Before that, Samuel Turner, a Briton, sent two yak bulls from Tibet to England in 1783. One died on the way there, and the other, after recovering from the journey, was mated to British cows. Several calves were born, but only one female survived to breed (with an Indian bull) (Turner, 1800).

In 1854, a total of 12 male and female yak were imported into France, also from Tibet. They appeared to acclimatise successfully but performed differently in different areas due to variations in feeding. They did best in the Cantal province of the central French Plateau.

Table 1.1 Distribution of yak and numbers (1997 - 2000 data for China*)

* Recent reports suggest that numbers in some areas of China may be higher than those derived from less-recent official statistics shown in the Table. Estimates with question marks attached may be less reliable than others.


Province or region

Distribution at location

Number ('000)




3 716 (in 2000)



3 916 (in 1999)


Western plateau and alpine

4 084 (in 2000)



Southern grasslands and

904 (in 1997)



230 (in 1997)


mountain area

50 (in 1997)


Middle of the Tianshan

0.2 (in 2001)



0.9 (in 1983)


Northwestern alpine area

0.1 (in 1983)


Helan mountain area


Northern mountainous area


Countries of

Xishan cold mountainous area

100 (?)


20 (+40 hybrid)




40-51 (?)




2 (?)


2 (?)



Hybrids with cattle were produced in both possible ways - calves from native cows and calves from yak cows - with calves of the latter being reported as the better. However, although the yak disappeared after 1862, local stories lived on about animals at high altitudes that were strong, tolerant of rough conditions and with the tail of a horse (Boulnois, 1976). The horse-like tail, derived from the yak, led to the legend that the original crosses had been between cattle and horses. Clearly, the yak left an impression, but no descendants.

Small herds of yak are found in other parts of Europe, including Switzerland and Austria (Agir, 1997; Michael Goe, personal communication, 2002; Horst Geilhausen, personal communication, 2002). More detail is given in Chapter 11, part 3.

A number of yak were sent to Canada, first in 1909 and again in 1921 for trials, including hybridization with domestic cattle and with American bison in an attempt, later discontinued, to produce an animal capable of meat production in the harsh pastoral conditions of northern Canada. A similar project using only domestic cattle for the hybridizing, was conceived and carried out for some years in Alaska, starting with yak born in Canada (White et al., 1946).

Some yak were present in the late 1980s in the Polar Park of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Since then, the yak has expanded in numbers in Canada and the United States for commercial use in meat production. In addition, there are yak in a several zoological and wild animal parks in Europe, North America and elsewhere. More reference to these yak populations, some in environmental conditions thought to be atypical for yak, is included in Chapter 4 in relation to adaptation and in more detail in Chapter 11, part 3.

The name of the yak - a historical note

In the Tibetan language, yak is pronounced as "yag"; although in that form, it usually applies to the yak bull - with dri the equivalent Tibetan term for the female yak. Other languages follow this name closely. This use of the same name in numerous languages is considered unusual.

The ancient Chinese people called the animal Ya Niu. In the Shang dynasty (before 3 000 B.C.), yak was vividly written as , denoting the yak's large body, outstretched horns, long hair and big tail. In time, the name was reduced to a word pronounced as "ya". Later still, this was mispronounced as "mao" - and many homophones began to appear after the Qin and Han dynasties. These words referred not only to the yak but also to yak hair products (because mao means "hair" in Chinese). Some people wrote , pronounced "mao", as , pronounced "li", and then called the yak Li Niu. The tiny alteration in the script led to a change of name. And this provides an interesting object lesson for good handwriting! A distinction between Li and Mao to denote yak was first made in the Compendium of materia medica, published by Li Shizhen in 1578. Li Niu was said to live in the mountains and denoted the wild yak, while Mao Niu was used to denote the domestic yak (Li Ruimin, 1986).

Present-day names, in spite of a common thread, vary for the yak from country to country and often from locality to locality within a country. The male and the female are generally known by different names and there is a plethora of different names for the hybrids of yak with other cattle. (For the sake of clarity in this book, the species of either sex will be referred to by its common name of "yak" and the sexes will be distinguished by the prefix "male" and "female", but with an occasional use of "bull", "steer" [castrated male] and "cow").

Some observations on the wild yak

Before the wild yak became known as Li, it was called Zhong in the Tibetan language and Zuo by the ancient Chinese in central China.

Li Shizhen in his Compendium of materia medica of 1578, said: "In the southwestern area around yak country, Li Niu (the wild yak) lives in the high mountains. Its appearance, hair colour and tail are the same as those of the domestic yak, but its body is larger." In 1875, N.M. Przewalski, named the wild yak Bos mutus Prze, in the belief that the wild yak did not make a sound or "cry". In fact, although the wild yak does not normally cry, it will let out squeaks and cries during oestrus and the breeding season and if it meets other wild beasts, just as does the domestic yak.

According to Miller and Steane (1996), wild yak once numbered in the millions in the central and eastern border areas of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Herds of them also existed on the cold pastures of western Sichuan province up to the middle of the twentieth century. Male wild yak could be seen mingling and mating with herds of female domestic yak. A few individuals with hair colour characteristics of wild yak can be seen in domestic herds to the present day - the principal visual difference being grey-white hairs, which are normally absent in the domestic yak, found around the mouth. The domestic yak that do have such grey-white hairs are those that have had, at some stage, an infusion of wild yak blood. This is particularly found among the Plateau breed of yak in Qinghai.

Excessive hunting of wild yak for food drove them from the plateau areas into mountainous areas at even higher altitudes, above 4 500 m and right to the tops of the mountains at 6 000 m. By the 1970s, wild yak were thought to be on the verge of extinction. Some survived in China's Kunlun mountains and due to protective measures by the Chinese Government, some wild herds are reported to have reappeared at elevations between 4 000 and 4 500 m. Schaller (1998) gives an authoritative account of the distribution and herd dynamics of wild yak. He reports finding few animals, except in the Changtang reserve, in the course of extensive visits to areas of the wild yak's present and former range. Schaller's estimate of likely total numbers is around 15 000. However, in view of improved access to much of the territory by road and continuing reports of illegal hunting, survival of the wild yak does not seem assured.

The wild yak is large in body and strong (Figure 1.2). Thick, long hair covers the whole body. The colour of the hair is jet brown or jet black. This is virtually the exclusive colour, but Schaller (1998) reported a golden brown mutation among wild yak seen in the Aru Basin of northwestern Tibet. A colour line down the back of the body and behind the withers is silver grey and there are grey-white hairs around the muzzle. (As referred to earlier, the latter feature is found only in domestic yak that have some wild yak blood.)

Figure 1.2 Wild yak bull of the Kunlun type (Photo courtesy of Lu Zhonglin)

The horns are round and very thick, 15 - 20 cm in diameter. (Some herdsmen used these horns as milking vessels and this can still be found in some remote areas of the country.) The horn arch of the wild yak is open (Figure 1.3), and the head shape has a fierce appearance.

Figure 1.3 Horn arch and part of a wild yak skull (undated) discovered in the middle reaches of the Heihe River in Ruoergai county, Sichuan province

The skull illustrated in Figure 1.3 is the largest of several skulls found in the middle and lower reaches of the Heihe Riverof Ruoergai county, Sichuan province and presumed to be ancient remains of wild yak. Measurements of the skull are as follows:

Forehead width - highest

34 cm

Forehead width - lowest

28 cm

Distance between base of horns

27 cm

Circumference of base of horns

44 cm

Horn length

99 cm

Largest distance between horns

146 cm

Distance between tips of horns

126 cm

On the basis of these measurements, it was estimated that this yak had been 170 cm high at its withers, had a body length (pin bone to shoulder) of 190 cm, a heart girth of 250 cm and weighed approximately 950 kg, which is 1.5 times the average for domestic yak bulls in the same area (Cai Li, 1989). Schaller (1998) quotes figures based on a number of published studies suggesting a shoulder height for adult wild yak bulls of 175 - 203 cm and of 137-156 cm for adult females. A total body length is given as 358 - 381 cm for bulls. Wild yak bulls are said to be about 35 percent heavier than the cows. The length of 53 horns of wild yak bulls found in the Changtang reserve is reported by Schaller (1998) to have averaged 75.7 ± 10.7 cm along the outside curve.

Wild yak prefer to live in herds of tens or even hundreds of animals. The wild yak has a very acute sense of smell, is highly alert and timid; it tries to escape immediately on sensing or seeing people or other animals. Wild yak stampede readily, but if angered or cornered they are fierce and will attack an intruder. Wild yak dislike heat but are highly tolerant of cold and starvation. Wild yak bulls often wander off individually during the non-breeding season to hill areas away from the high mountains. Such males are known to attack people on remote roads.

In times when wild yak were more prevalent, they were known to come down from the mountains to mate with female domestic yak during the breeding season. The first crossbred generation (F1[1]) between the wild and the domestic yak was similar in appearance to the wild yak and had a larger body and fiercer temper than the typical domestic yak. The crosses are difficult to manage, but the herdsmen like them because of their apparently better growth and development compared to pure domestic yak. They are also liked because the crossbred males are perceived as protecting the herd better than their domestic counterparts. There is now an attempt, organized by provincial yak breeding centres, to exploit the potential benefits of such crossbreeding through the use of semen from wild yak bulls to inseminate domestic yak cows. Some observations on the body size and performance of such crosses are included in Chapter 3.

Feral yak

Recently, 250 - 300 feral yak were discovered in the Helan mountains of Inner Mongolia at an elevation of 2 500 - 3 000 m (Han Jianlin personal communication, 2002). These animals are thought to be the offspring of yak that lived about 200 years ago that were used at that time by lamas to transport Tibetan religious books from Qinghai to Gansu. The herd contains a high proportion of white animals, which suggests they may be related to Tianzhu White yak. Currently, there is no confirmation of this. Some of the oldest residents in the region contend that these yak are only about half the size that they were 50 years ago. This is attributed, with agreement from local technical staff, to inbreeding in the herd. Local farmers also believe the lack of salt in the area may have contributed to what is described as the degeneration of the animals over the years. These yak are said to have shorter and thinner coats than what is normal for other yak and this is attributed to the fact that the area is warmer than typical for yak-producing areas. It would be useful to have more detailed studies of these animals to determine their kinship to other yak and possibly their inbreeding status and to have some record of their performance, reproduction and survival rates.

Yak in the culture of the people

As noted earlier, the yak has a long documented history stretching into ancient times. As the people who kept them migrated, they took their yak with them into wider territory. It is important to stress how closely involved the yak has been, and is, with the culture, religion and social life of the pastoral people of the cold, high-mountainous regions of Asia - at least among those people who can trace their history of yak keeping back over the centuries. This will be given more detailed consideration in Chapter 12 (see also Miller, 2002). The traditions and traditional knowledge of yak keeping provide a suitable counterbalance for the scientific and technological considerations - the main concerns in this book. It is possible, of course, that the cultural and social context of yak herding may diminish in the future in the face of the introduction of market-driven economics and of improved transport and communication. It is also possible that the spread, however slow, of modern concepts of feeding, management and breeding, and the pressures on yak husbandry from those proffering such technological advice, might further erode the force of traditional values. In some areas, such as Nepal, social change in relation to its yak economy, as documented by, for example, Bishop (1989), has led to a great reduction in yak numbers. It would be a pity if the natural resources of the vast territories now purposefully exploited by the yak were to become less productive or deserted through insensitive management of change.

The yak takes its place alongside other animals, both real and mythical, in the history, legends and mythology of the Tibetan region and neighbouring territories, as illustrated with examples by Cayla (1976). The yak and yak emblems are closely associated with many aspects of religious practice of Tibetan Buddhism and depicted widely in temple art, as described succinctly by Olsen (1990). The use of the yak as provider of components for local medicines is but one aspect of their near-mystical importance. Meyer (1976) described some of these medicines and remedies associated with the yak.

As discussed in more detail in Chapter 12, religion, ceremony, social customs and attitudes to wealth and its symbols are all intertwined with each other in the life of the people and with the integral role of the yak in all aspects of that life. This intertwining has counterparts among nomadic people of Africa but is rarely applicable to animal husbandry in the western part of the world. It is important to bear these points in mind, lest it be assumed that knowledge of the reproductive and productive attributes of the yak and of modern management practices are all that is required to bring about "improvements" in the economy of yak keeping.

The spread of knowledge of the yak outside its "native" area

The relative isolation of both wild and domesticated yak in the mountainous regions of central Asia, around the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is illustrated by the dearth of mention of the yak in the West until relatively modern times. If early travellers to the East had attempted to export yak, they might have been frustrated by a reputedly poor tolerance of the yak to prolonged exposure to heat at lower altitudes - particularly if this involved a relatively rapid transition from cold to hot areas. Although, as already mentioned, yak now exist in zoos and wild animal parks in many parts of the world and commercially in North America. This suggests that the degree of tolerance of the yak to heat and its adaptability to different environments may be better than traditionally thought and that this subject requires reappraisal (see Chapter 11, part 3).

Lydekker (1912) asserted that yak were known by repute in western Europe in the classical Grecian times and given the name of poiphogoi, or "eaters of poa grass", because they were said to feed exclusively on grass. Also, Zeuner (1963) in his A history of domesticated animals provided two early references to yak. The first of these dates to the latter part of the first century A.D. when Martial (a Roman poet) alluded to the use, by the ladies of Rome, of the tail of some kind of ox (Muscarium bubulus) as a fly-whisk, or clothes brush. Zeuner deduced that the tail was that of the yak and goes on to point out that this, in turn, suggests that overland trading routes to the East must have been fully open then. (The yak-tail fly-whisk has been well-known in India for centuries). Zeuner further referred to accounts of the thirteenth-century travels of Marco Polo, who clearly exaggerated the size of the yak when equating it to an elephant.

Boulnois (1976) provided a much fuller background to the knowledge of the yak made available by Western travellers in early times, especially from the seventeenth century onwards.

It is therefore apparent that factual information on the yak, as distinct from anecdotes, came to Europe rather late, compared to China, as seen from the many references in ancient Chinese literature. Perhaps the first Western account was by Samuel Turner, who was sufficiently impressed by the yak to send two to Europe. His book, An account of an embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet, was published in 1800 and republished in 1971; in it he vividly described the characteristics of the yak and its environs.

In respect to more recent times, there are, apart from much documentation of the yak by Chinese authors and a substantial body of publications in Russian, two substantive accounts in English on the general performance of the yak in China. These reports resulted from visits to various parts of yak country in the 1940s by distinguished American experts in animal husbandry (Phillips et al., 1945, 1946). In the past few decades, relatively brief, general accounts of the yak in English have appeared in textbooks and in FAO publications dealing with the livestock of China and the former USSR. In addition, there are a number of "popular" articles about the yak though they are of the "isn't-it-wonderful" or "quaint" variety. Fortunately, there are a substantial number of technical papers on specialist research topics regarding the yak and the ecology of its territories published in English, French, German and other languages that are more widely accessible to readers in the West. Many of these are reference sources for this book in addition to the great number from traditional yak-rearing countries. Special mention must be made of the substantial and well-documented study by a team of French scholars (The yak - its role in the economic and cultural life of its breeders in central Asia) sponsored by the Société d'Ethnozootechnie au Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle (Paris) (1976).

A recent source of information on the commercial use of yak is the promotional literature and Web site of the International Yak Association, formed by yak breeders in North America.


Agir (1997). Elevages exotiques en Suisse. Actualités, 30 Août 1997.

Belyar, D.K. (1980). Domestication of yakutsk. Siberian Publication House.

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[1] The F1 in this book denotes the first generation of offspring from a cross of two pure breeds, or a hybrid of yak and cattle. F2 is then the generation produced by mating F1 to F1. Matings of F1 back to one of the parental types is referred to as B - with an appropriate suffix - denoting a backcross.

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