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Halting the decline of the yak population in India

R.N. Pal

The author is Director of the National Research Centre on Yaks, Indian Council of Agricultural Research. He is currently working on the development of the centre and collecting Information on yak husbandry from the different yak-rearing states of India.


The yak (Poephagus grunniens), a ruminant species and native of the Tibetan plateau, remained confined to Asian countries interconnected through the Himalayan, Pamir, Kun Lun, Tien Shan and Altay mountains. In India, yaks are reared in the high hills of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh by highlanders who are practicing Buddhists. Incidentally, also in the other two Himalayan countries, Bhutan and Nepal, yak rearers are Buddhist. During migrations in these countries centuries ago, highlanders of the Tibetan-Mongoloid race brought yaks along with them as pack and riding animals. The regular trade and exchange of animals continued right up to the cultural revolution in China and the resultant annexation of Tibet.

Yaks can tolerate very low temperatures and are the only large mammals able to graze at 6 000 m above sea level, even at -40°C. The yak has a broad chest with a spacious heart and lungs and a high red cell count, characteristics that assist them in coping with the thin air at high altitudes.

Their multipurpose use is highly beneficial for yak herders. An essential pack animal for high-altitude travelling, it can carry loads of 50 to 60 kg on very rough terrain and survive on scanty local feed resources. In addition, it is useful as a source of milk, wool and, occasionally, meat. As crop cultivation is virtually nonexistent at more than 3 000 m above sea level, highlanders are dependent on animal husbandry outputs from sheep and yaks for their survival. Already, a large population of herders have left the trade and become daily wage earners. The lure of easier living conditions and more stable earnings, for instance, through government service or work with development agencies, is leaving only a handful of people to tend to yak production. Yak ownership is mainly restricted to a few families, and these are frequently the healthier people among the community. The number of yaks in an individual herd may vary from 20 to 100 or more.

Notwithstanding the economic utility of yaks for the highlanders, their population is showing a decreasing trend in India and Nepal. Figures reported in the censuses of 1977 and 1982 were approximately 132 000 and 128 000 head, respectively (Government of India, 1982), whereas the figure for 1990/91 stands at only 30 000. It appears that, at one time in 1966/67, Ladakh had 44 000 head of yaks (Tiku, 1967) as against the present figure of only 13 000. The current populations of the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir are 8 300, 5 400, 300, 3 500 and 12 800, respectively. In Nepal, the yak population has shown a spectacular decrease from 200 000 head before 1960 (Larrick and Burck, 1986) to 20 000 in 1980 and to only 10 000 in 1988 (Joshi, 1982). Although the precise figure for Bhutan is not available, probably a similar phenomenon has occurred there. Among the other yak-rearing countries, the former USSR nevertheless recorded an increase from 88 900 to 136 000 between 1970 and 1984 (FAO, 1989). Mongolia, however, showed a decline from 563 000 in 1979 to 535 000 in 1983 (Narang, 1989). In Mongolia, yak outputs provide approximately 50 percent of the country's meat, butter and milk requirements, but at an excessive rate of exploitation that is resulting in a decline in the yak population.

The reasons for the decline in India are entirely different from those in Mongolia. The high ridges of the Himalayas are inhabited by Tibeto-Mongolians, and yaks contributed to free trade with Tibet up to 1960. The trading routes crossing the high passes were regularly frequented by trains of yaks carrying trade items and the highlanders used to make a good living as transporters. Since the closing of the border, the income from yaks has been reduced to that obtained from milk and wool production. According to the yak herders, the lack of employment as transporters is one of the main reasons for the decline in the yak population. Farmers also feel that the present stock's genetical potential for milk production has deteriorated considerably. Decreased productivity is probably the result of inbreeding within very small herds. The profession is facing a crisis and is threatened to disappear. The young generation, desiring a better and more comfortable life at middle and low altitudes, is rejecting the hard high-altitude life associated with yak management.

In India, in order to rejuvenate the dwindling yak population, enhance its productivity and make the age-old profession more profitable, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has recently initiated programmes to give the highlanders a well-protected livelihood from yak rearing. As well as providing proven germplasm, adequate husbandry measures will be developed and passed on to yak herders. Grazing land in the mid-altitude hills and alpine regions will need to be tested for its productive potential and, if necessary, invigorated with new productive grass species. With a productive and assured livelihood from yak rearing, the highlanders will be deterred from joining the already overpopulated areas in the mid- and low-altitude hills, areas that are overburdened by an ecological imbalance resulting from seasonal cultivation of the fragile forest land.

The drastic fall in India's yak population in recent years is of great concern. It is adversely affecting the economic welfare of the inhabitants of the high hills who at one time were doing well with income derived from using yaks as pack animals during their trans-Himalayan trade. With the suspension of commercial trading with neighbouring countries, and the restriction of earnings to the proceeds of milk and wool sales - which are insufficient to support a family - a good number of yak herders have been forced to take other work. Consequently, the vast resources in the high-altitude areas are now underexploited, while the increased demographic pressure in the middle and low hill regions is endangering the ecological balance, particularly by the conversion of more and more forest land to slope cultivation. The National Research Centre on Yaks has formulated research programmes to improve the stock and enhance productivity so that a growing number of highlanders will once again take up the profession of yak rearing and thereby utilize the vast resources of the alpine region.


FAO. 1989 Animal genetic resources of the USSR. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper No. 65. Rome, FAO.

Government of India. 1982. Indian livestock census, summary tables, Vol. 1, p. 14-15 New Delhi, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture.

Joshi, D.D. 1982. The climate of Namchi Bazar. Mountain Res. Dev, 2(4): 399-403.

Larrick, J.W. & Burck, K.B. 1986. Tibet's all-purpose beast of burden. Nat. His., 95(1): 55-56.

Narang, M.P. 1989. Report on the visit to People's Republic of Mongolia. New Delhi, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India.

Tiku, J.L. 1967. The yak is indispensable to inhabitants in the hills. Indian Farming, 17(2): 22-23.

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