Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Chapter XIII - The eastern Himalaya


In the eastern Himalaya, transhumant herding is important in Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. This zone is generally wetter than the western Himalaya and large ruminants much more important than small; yak and mithun are kept in addition to cattle and buffaloes. Systems are more stratified altitudinally, since yak prefer low temperatures and can survive in colder places than other stock. The same pasture may be used by different species and different herding groups at different seasons of the year - the summer pastures of cattle × yak hybrids may be the winter grazing of yaks, and in turn the winter grazing of the hybrids may be the summer grazing of buffaloes and cattle from lower regions. In one Bhutanese system, cattle are entrusted to another group for part of the year and migrate, while their owners remain stationary. Three case studies are presented: two from Bhutan and one from Nepal; summaries are provided for each study. The first study (Chapter XIV) describes a mixed herd system in which some families entrust their stock seasonally to others; the second (Chapter XV) describes a yak-based system, and the third (Chapter XVI) describes two chauri-based grazing systems in Nepal.


The Himalayas, which form a barrier between the Tibetan Plateau and the alluvial plains of India, run obliquely from northwest to southeast for about 2 500 km. Their height is such that they protect the subcontinent from cold winter air from the north and thus have a profound effect on climate. The grazing zones go further north than the true Himalaya, to the Karakoram foothills and the Hindu Kush. The latitude range of the studies is some twelve degrees, from about 38°N in Pakistan and Afghanistan to 27°N in Bhutan. This vast distance obviously involves considerable changes in climate and vegetation.

The western Himalaya, discussed in Chapter IX is mostly arid to semi-arid, and its flora shows considerable influence from western and central Asia. Rainfall increases from northwest to southeast and the vegetation changes. The wild olive gets as far east as western Nepal, which for our purposes is the western limit of the eastern Himalayan grazing systems. In all cases, the Himalayas abut on to great alluvial plains, but there the terrain and vegetation also change: in Punjab the foothills are in acacia forest, while the Nepal Terai is under dipterocarp (sal - Shorea robusta) forest, reflecting the much higher rainfall and warmer conditions.

The main areas of transhumant herding are in Nepal and Bhutan, and to some extent the part of India (Sikkim) that separates them. One of the earliest records by a professional botanist of wild white clover in the high eastern Himalaya (Hooker, 1855, Vol. II, p. 189) is from Sikkim, below the Donkia Pass where its seeds were brought over from Tibet by yaks. “White clover, shepherd’s purse and chickweed are imported here by yak.”

Large ruminants prevail in the eastern Himalaya and species unknown or little known in the west are locally important - yak and their hybrids at higher altitude and, in Bhutan and parts of India, mithun (Bos frontalis) and its hybrids are also kept.

The whole region is very steep and mountainous and transhumant systems are widespread. In some cases more than one group may use a pasture at different seasons of the year; as shown in the case studies, the summer pastures of crosses may be the winter pastures of yaks, and the winter pastures of these crosses are the summer pastures of cattle and buffaloes from lower latitudes. One Bhutan case study describes an unusual system in which the livestock migrate but two groups of owners look after them at different seasons.


The Kingdom of Bhutan is the smallest (46 500 km2) and the most southerly and easterly of the Himalayan countries, lying between 26° 40 and 28° 20 N and between 88° 45 and 92° 7 E. It is landlocked, surrounded by China to the north and India elsewhere. A Pasture Resource Profile with more details is on the FAO Web site (Kinzang Wangdi, 2002).

Bhutan is divided into three physical regions from north to south: the Great Himalayas, the Lesser Himalayas, and the Duars Plain. It is dissected by numerous rivers. The main rivers from west to east are the Amo (Torsa), Raidak (Wong), Sankosh (Mo) and Manas. All the rivers flow southward from the Great Himalayas and join the Brahmaputra River in India.

The country is mountainous, with elevations ranging from 150 up to 8 000 m traversing south to north with a great diversity of environments. However, its mountainous nature leaves only about 8 percent of the total land suitable for crops; over 70 percent has forest cover and 4 percent is registered pasture (tsadrog). The great altitude range gives rise to many climatic zones, from wet subtropical in the lower areas (starting at 150 m), through humid-subtropical, dry subtropical, warm temperate, cool temperate and finally alpine above 3 500 m.

More than 80 percent of Bhutan’s population in engaged in agriculture and related activities; livestock account for 10 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Although the contribution of livestock to GDP is estimated to be relatively low, the value of that livestock extends beyond milk, meat and fibre production - the main reason for keeping them is to provide draught and manure for crop production. Mountainous, rugged terrain limits mechanization and accessibility, so alternatives to manure and draught animals are difficult to find. The number of cattle and yaks was estimated by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1995 at 304 000 (Siri cattle - 224 555; Jersey and crosses - 25 570; Mithun crosses - 54 268; and yak 30 162), with buffalo - 1 022; equines - 25 762; sheep - 31 300; and goats - 16 030. Cattle, yak and buffalo are dual purpose, used for both draught and milk, and provide manure. Large ruminants, therefore, account for about 90 percent of domestic herbivores.

There are three distinct types of large ruminant production systems. The transhumant yak system is limited to the alpine-cool-temperate areas; with migra tory cattle in the temperate-subtropical area. These two systems take advantage of the variations in climate and vegetation as herders migrate with their animals according to the seasons. The third system is sedentary livestock rearing in semi-urban and other rural settlement areas.


The overall pasture situation in the country is described by Pariyar (1999). Nepal, like Bhutan, is landlocked and lies along the southern slopes of the Himalayas between India and Tibet. It has a population of 20 million, and an area of 147 180 km². It is 800 km from east to west, varies from 144 to 240 km north to south, and lies between 80-88° E and 26-31° N.

The south of the country is the Terai, a northern extension of the Ganges Plains of India. The topography is flat and ranges from 25-32 km in width. Rising above the Terai, and aligned east-west, are ranges of hills generally referred to as the “midhills” (1 300-2 500 m), and the “high hills” (2 500-5 000 m). To the north of these high hills are the Himalayas proper, which include the highest mountains in the world (5 000-8 848 m). Their rugged topography constitutes almost 78 percent of the land mass of Nepal.

The Terai and mid-hills are zones of sedentary agriculture, although livestock are important (Plate 59). The transhumant systems are mainly in the high hills and alpine zones. Large ruminants dominate the livestock sector: buffalo are important in the lower zones; and cattle in all but the highest areas, where yak and cattle × yak hybrids take over. In 1997, there were 7 million cattle (yaks and hybrids included), 3.4 million buffaloes, 5.9 million sheep and less than a million goats, which are mostly kept in the hills and the Terai. Sheep are mainly in the hills and mountains. Transhumance is practised in the temperate, subalpine and alpine regions where cattle, buffaloes, sheep and goats migrate from one place to another throughout the year. In earlier times there was trans-border transhumance of yaks into Tibet, but this was halted by the Chinese authorities to protect their grazing lands, with consequent fodder problems in the Nepalese districts affected.

Plate 59. Terraced farming in the mid hills of Nepal. Stock from here go to the high hills in summer.

The lower, agricultural areas are very densely populated and cultivated; there is practically no grazing land and livestock rely heavily on crop residues. Grazing land is concentrated in the mountains, and some of it is seasonal because of snow, with 17 percent of grassland in the middle mountains, 30 percent in the high mountains and 49 percent in the high Himal.

Temperate pasture lands are associated with oak or mixed broad-leaved species such as Quercus or blue pine. These pastures are very important, but due to heavy grazing for many years, less palatable species have become prominent. Thus, Andropogon tristis has been replaced with less palatable species such as Arundinella hookeri. The common forage species are Arundinella hookeri, Andropogon tristis, Poa spp., Chrysopogon gryllus, Dactylis glomerata, Stipa concinna, Festuca spp., Cymbopogon spp., Bothriochloa spp., Desmodium spp. and Agrostis micrantha.

Subalpine pasture lands are associated with a variety of shrubs; common genera are Berberis, Caragana, Hippophae, Juniperus, Lonicera, Potentilla, Rosa, Spiraea and Rhododendron; in many areas, Pipthantus nepalensis has invaded productive pasture lands once dominated by Danthonia spp. The common grasses are Elymus spp., Festuca spp., Stipa spp., Bromus himalaincus, Chrysopogon gryllus, Cymbopogon schoenanthus and Koeleria cristata. Elymus nutans is of great importance in pastoral systems at high elevations.

Alpine pasture lands are associated with Rhododendron shrubs. The main types of vegetation, based on the specification of areas, are Kobresia spp., Cortia depressa, and Carex-Agrostis-Poa associations. Common plant species are Kobresia spp. and Agrostis spp.

A considerable amount of study has been done on pasture improvement and many temperate forages can be grown in the higher areas; these have, however, little practical application for many reasons, including the steepness and inaccessibility of the terrain, the need for fertilizer to establish and maintain higher-yielding forages, the dubiousness of economic returns and the poor access, requiring that inputs be taken over long distances by porterage.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page