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Chapter XV - Bhutan case study 2: Yak herders in Soe Yaksa, Chentok Geog, Bhutan, in 1999-2000 - Tsering Gyaltsen and B.N. Bhattarai


The Soe Yaksa community is wholly dependent on yak herding for their livelihood. They have permanent homes in the lower part of their territory (around 4 000 m), and the herds, with enough people to look after them, move to high pastures in summer, above the tree line, up to 5 000 m. Most children now attend school in the provincial capital, two days journey away. No crops are grown, only a few vegetables. Hay is made close to the houses and a little wheat is grown for hay, mostly on winter yak pens. Stock numbers have risen very steeply from the levels reported in 1987, and pastures are generally very hard grazed. The pastures visited and studied were in good condition. Bush encroachment is troublesome and is exacerbated by a ban on pasture burning to improve wildlife habitat. Blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) are competitors for grazing on the high pastures.

The transhumance is vertical and relatively short, one to two days travel from the villages. Yak and a few ponies are the livestock; sheep are not kept. Some of the stock are tended on behalf of monasteries. Dairy products, especially dried cheese, as well as live animals and yak-hair products, are marketed or bartered for grain and necessities. Herders mainly live off dairy products and cereals; animals are usually slaughtered only for ceremonies. Gathering incense and medicinal plants is a secondary source of income.

The demand for fuelwood, needed for cheese making as well as domestic cooking and heating, is such that families have to go farther and farther to get supplies. Winter mortality of young and weak animals due to malnutrition is a major problem; hay-meadows do not produce enough to see stock through the winter. Improved pasture forages can be grown on the better soils but, unless protected, are destroyed by overgrazing. Fencing is a problem. Oats have shown considerable promise and are more productive than the traditional green wheat, but seed supply has still to be organized.


Soe Yaksa is mostly in Chentok geog of Paro dzonkhag, and comprises 9 villages with 18 households; villages are about half an hour apart on foot. Two of the villages are under Lango geog and one under Shari geog, the rest are under Chentok geog. The altitude range is 3 900-4 200 m. The inhabitants are pastoralists, totally dependent on livestock; yaks are mainly raised for meat and milk; dairy products may be sold on the markets of Paro and Thimpu. Horses also earn a good income in the tourist season. Transhumance is usual throughout the yak-rearing zone but, unlike many other areas, Soe people have permanent dwellings and usually one or two family members remain at home when others move to temporary summer yak pastures, although sometimes the whole family moves. At the onset of winter they move back to their lower base and feed yak on hay made in summer, but the amount of hay is inadequate and the stock are put to graze on barren pastures.

The only crops grown are in small kitchen gardens (radish, potatoes and turnips). Wheat fodder is grown in sheltered areas - yak winter pens - and made into hay. Some herders have small areas of improved pasture near their dwellings. There was no government infrastructure at the time of the visit, but in 1999 most of the villages got piped water and no longer have to fetch it from a stream. Most herder children go to school in Paro, two days journey away. Two village leaders are elected annually to assist the headman of the block in passing messages, organizing public meetings, etc.

Grazing lands

There are two kinds of registered land rights: tsesa (household plots) and tsadrog (pasture). The average registered tsesa is under 1 000 m2; a tsadrog would cover hectares in area, and stretch from the village for two days’ journey. Land near the village is winter pasture; summer pastures are at one or two days’ travel, at altitudes up to 5 000 m. Grazing land belongs to the state and herders have only grazing rights. Grazing rights at Soe Yaksa mostly belong to the Monastries-Dhatshangs of Thimpu and Paro; nominal fees are paid annually to the government to renew them. Livestock does not migrate to other geogs but remains within their locality.

In summer, the herds graze, moving five to six times from one grazing ground to another. In winter, morning and evening, they are fed hay and some concentrates such as millet, oilcake, maize flour, mustard oil, and maize and millet dough mixed with ground hay; during the day they are let loose to graze what they can find. Yaks do not take salt voluntarily and it has to be administered by hand - placed in the mouth and washed down with water; it is given monthly at 300-350 g for adults and 100-150 g for young.

The growing season is short and pasture quality is generally low; growth begins between April and June and ends in October or November. A grassland monitoring trial was set up on natural pasture at three sites at altitudes between 4 000 and 4 300 m, corresponding to winter, spring-autumn, and summer grazing areas. Sample areas were circular and covered 452 m2. Eight metal cages, 70 × 70 cm tapering to 40 × 40 cm, and 60 cm high, were placed in each trial to record yield. Preliminary results, the average of two years, are given in Table 15.1.

TABLE 15.1
Production from natural pasture (average of two years; kg/ha).


Altitude (m)

In Cage

In Open

Lamilakha 1

4 200

1 976

1 699

Lamilakha 2

4 060

1 677

1 791

Kamgung 1

4 130

1 058


Kamgung 2

4 100

1 716


Thombu slope

4 300



Thombu plain

4 200

1 304


TABLE 15.2
Botanical and vegetation cover at six sites (percentage).


Altitude (m)







Lamilakha 1

4 200







Lamilakha 2

4 060







Kamgung 1

4 130







Kamgung 2

4 100







Thombu slope

4 300







Thombu plain

4 200







The fodder of sites at Lamilakha, Kamgung and Thombu slope was harvested before the yaks arrived for winter grazing. The difference between in-cage and outside was due to grazing by blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and horses. Fodder yield outside cages at Thombu are from intensively grazed summer pasture; grazing livestock included yaks, cattle, horses (including tourist horses) and blue sheep. Botanical composition and vegetation cover were recorded using a transect of 1.5 m and reading 30 points at 5-cm intervals, with 12 transects recorded at each site (Table 15.2).

The vegetation of Soe Yaksa contains a large number of species - further study is needed to see changes with time. Specimens collected from grazing areas during the study were identified by the Renewable Natural Resources Research Centre, Jakar, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, Thimpu.

Grasses and sedges: Agrostis pilulosa, Brachypodium sylvaticum, Bromus sp., Calamagrostis lahulensis, C. scabrescens, Carex hamata, Danthonia cumminsii, Elymus dahuricus, E. nutans, Festuca sp., Kobresia prainii, Poa sp., Stipa sp., Trisetum sp., and six grasses and sedges not yet identified.

Broadleaved plants: Allium wallichii, Anemone sp., Aster falconeri, Cyananthus lobatus, Epilobium? sp., Gentiana prolata, Geranium nakaoanum, G. polyanthes, Inula rhizocephala, Leontopodium jacotiatum (Anaphalis sp.), Ligularia? sp., Onosma hookeri, Pedicularis sp., Polygonatum hookeri, Potentilla sp., Pterocephalus hookeri, Ranunculus sp., Rhodiola sp., Rubus fragaroides, Saussurea sp., Saxifraga paranassifolia, Taraxacum sp., Thermopsis barbata, and twenty broadleaved species still to be identified.

According to Harris (1987), the common shrubs of the area are: Berberis angulosa, Cassiope sp., Cotoneaster sp., Juniperus indica, J. recurba, Potentilla fruticosa, Rhododendron anthopogon, R. setosum, five other Rhododendron spp., Salix sp. and six unidentified shrubs.

Soil samples were taken from six sites at the three locations; pH ranged from 4.8 to 6.5; phosphate and potassium were low. This would have implications on species choice if hay meadows were to be improved.

Pastures accessible to grazing animals are claimed to be overgrazed. Pressure is very high in one of the most important pastures at Thombu, where yaks graze in spring and autumn and cattle graze in summer. The closure of the Chinese border and the denial of traditional grazing areas is another cause of overgrazing in Soe and Lighsi. The increase in yak numbers may be partly due to the good veterinary services provided by the Royal Government.

TABLE 15.3
Percentage cover by plant group in seasonal pasture at Soe Yaksa, 1987.

Plant group or pasture type

Winter pasture

Spring-autumn pasture

Summer grassland

Shrub land
















Broad-leaved herbs

























SOURCE: Based on Harris, 1987.

TABLE 15.4
Percentage ground cover at Soe Yaksa in 1987 by pasture type.

Winter pasture

Spring-autumn pasture

Summer pasture

Shrub land











Bare soil










SOURCE: From Harris, 1987.

However, most of the tsadrogs visited were in good condition, with good vegetation cover, but the destructive effect of marmots through burrowing and grazing was evident in some places. The entrances of marmot burrows cover a radius of 30 m in stony meadows between 4 000 and 4 500 m in the Laya pastures (Gyamthso, 1996). These entrances are used by yaks to sharpen their horns and, with further expansion, serve as resting pits for yaks; eventually they become very large and foci for erosion. Scars were seen on almost all pastures in the study area. Herders claim that, in all pastures, unpalatable plants like Rhododendron, Juniperus, etc., are spreading due to restrictions on the burning of pasture. Herders used to burn unwanted vegetation as part of traditional management and would like, once more, to burn for shrub control and grazing improvement. Apart from shrub encroachment, other weeds include docks (Rumex nepalensis) which rapidly colonize camp-sites due to fertility accumulation.

Senecio and Ligularia, which are poisonous and can cause problems for livestock, are common in many areas of forest grazing at high altitudes; stock generally avoid such plants but may eat them in times of feed scarcity; during the study no herder reported mortality due to toxic plants.

The community pasture of Soe-Thongbu is a day’s journey over the Thongbu pass at 4 600 m; a nice open valley at 4 100-4 500 m with rich open grazing land and about 5 km long. The valley runs southeast to northwest; southwest facing slopes are mostly open grazing while northeast facing slopes are almost completely covered by shrubs. At the end of the valley, on the ridge, are 3 ha of fir forest. There is marshy land on both sides of the stream, with black soil rich in organic matter; the marshy area is about 15 percent of the total area. On the lower part of the northeast slope, 4-5 ha of rhododendron had been burnt to allow better grass regrowth. Herders bring their yak twice yearly, March-May and August-October. In June and July, cattle (siri and mithun cross) of herders from Chentok geog graze. The area is on a major trekking route of tourists and traders, so tourist horses also graze in the camping season.

Yak are by far the most important livestock, with horses, a few goats and some dogs; there are no sheep. Stock numbers at the time of the study were: yak - 1 655, of which 60 percent were female; 89 horses and 25 goats. Harris (1987) reported a yak population of 897 in Soe Yaksa, so there had been an increase of 85 percent in 13 years! The goat population had also increased, from 9 to 25; goats have no economic role but the initial stock was given to a herder as tsethar [saving them from being slaughtered] - belonging to a religious foundation - and the numbers have increased to 25 from the original pair.

Yaks have played, and continue to play, a very important role in the economy and social activity of the people of Bhutan. They are an integral part of the Kingdom’s pastoral systems and are mainly reared in the north of the country. They are kept by pastoral groups known as Jop in the west and Brokpa in the east - in both cases meaning yak herders.

The yak of Bhutan are multipurpose animals for draught and meat and milk production. Demand for yak dairy products and meat, high internally and in neighbouring states, ensures that yaks will remain important in the Bhutanese economy for the foreseeable future. The value of the yak should be viewed not only on the basis of its meat and dairy production, but also as it is the only domestic animal that can survive and produce under extremely cold temperatures and convert alpine herbage into products for human use. It is also valuable for pack-work, draught in crop production and as a source of hair and down. The main yak products are milk, butter, cheese, hair products, philu (clotted cream), meat, tails and hide. The total dairy commercialization at Soe Yaksa is 520 litres per day of milk, 356 kg per week of butter and 623 kg per week of cheese.

Herders milk only once daily during the first year after calving, in the morning, leaving the rest for the calves. From the second year, herders milk twice daily: in the morning between 5.30 and 7.30 and in the evening between 17.00 and 18.30. Both men and women milk. Yak milk is valued for its fat content as well as medicinal qualities, attributed to herbs in alpine meadows eaten by the yaks. The qualities of these plants is thought to be transmitted to milk, butter and cheese. It is probably for this reason that yak dairy products fetch a premium in the market compared to cattle products. The composition of yak milk averages 17-21 percent dry matter, 5-6 percent protein, 6-9 percent fat, and 1 percent ash (Sasaki, reported by Gyamthso, 1996).

The average daily yield of a yak is reported to be two bottles (1.5 litres, inclusive of suckled milk). Milking begins from the second month after calving, from May to October; because of feed scarcity, herders do not usually milk in winter, except a few animals for domestic consumption. Milk yield over a lactation (excluding that suckled) is 220 litres in 223 days.

Milk must be churned very fresh since the buttermilk is used to make chugo, a high-value product that cannot be made from sour milk. Churning is done daily in summer, after the morning milking, and takes one to two hours. The butter is removed and the liquid poured into a pot for chugo making. The skimmed liquid is heated, stirring all the time; after about an hour the chugo is ready and is put in a cotton cloth and pressed between stones overnight; next morning it is solid and is cut into pieces 10 × 5 cm and these are strung into rings of 24 pieces, which thereafter are smoke dried. Chugo making uses a lot of fuelwood. Tachu is made in the same way, but is cut into smaller pieces - 2.5 by 1 cm - and boiled in milk to make it white and sweet; after boiling, the pieces are strung into rings of 24 pieces and sun-dried. Tachu requires more labour, fuel and milk than chugo, and its manufacture is less popular with herders; it is sold locally, whereas chugo is marketed in bulk in towns bordering India.

Livestock products are marketed in Paro and Thimpu, although chugo is marketed in Phuntsholing and the border towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling. Prices quoted in 2000 were butter - Nu 180/kg; chugo - Nu 100-120/kg in Paro and Thimpu, but Nu 117.5/kg in Phuntsholing and Nu 125-137.5/kg in Kalimpong and Darjeeling, India; tachu - Nu 20-24 per string of 24 pieces; plilu (cream) from milk - Nu 180/kg; beef with bone - Nu 100-120/kg; boneless beef - Nu 130-140/kg; hides - Nu 150 per unit yak-hair rope - Nu 200-300 per piece; and saddle bags - Nu 1 000 per pair.

Herders barter livestock products for local red rice and milled flour. At the time of writing, rates were 1 kg butter for 8 deys [15.2 kg] of rice, and 1 kg of wet cheese for 2 deys [3.8 kg] of rice. Most herders are moving from barter to selling for cash. Sale of live animals, mainly yak bulls, is now common in Soe Yaksa; they are purchased either by herders or people from Paro in the lower valley. Prices are from Nu 19 000 to 23 000 per adult bull. Live animals are taken down to Dophu village and sold to butchers at a profit margin of Nu 3 000-4 000 per head. Thereafter they are slaughtered for sale in Paro and Thimpu. The season for selling yak meat is from September to January. Old female yaks are also sold to butchers at Nu 8 000-10 000; bulls are preferred as they cut out better. Tshering (1994) reports the weight of adult males to be 480 kg, with castrates at 400 kg and adult females at 340 kg. Herders slaughter two yaks annually for religious purposes and bartering or selling for rice. A butcher, hired to do the slaughtering, charges 20-25 kg of meat and fat.

Herders used to sell yak-hair products to tourists but due to the way in which contractors now organize tours, there is little opportunity for such selling.

The commonest disease is gid (caused by a tapeworm, Taenia multiceps, the intermediate stage of which is known as Coenurus cerebralis), for which dogs are intermediate hosts, and there are occasional cases of liver fluke. Routine deworming is done quarterly and vaccination six-monthly; diseases like footand- mouth and black quarter are controlled. Livestock mortality is mainly due to malnutrition in winter, especially calves and weak animals; April and May are the worst months for such losses. Snow leopards also attack yak and horses; herders report losses of 4-5 horses and 6-7 calves annually due to leopards; the victims are usually weak animals.

The government supplies breeding bulls. Those from Haa Dzonghag are regarded as superior, and are exchanged between areas to avoid inbreeding. Only pure yaks are reared - no hybridization is done. The mating season is July-August; both government and private bulls are used. Frozen yak semen from China has given promising results but widespread artificial insemination is unlikely to be feasible since there are no roads and the herds are at 5 000 m in the breeding season. Yak cows are first served at three to four years of age; calving is from April to July; a yak should give birth to a minimum of five calves; the calving interval is 23 to 24 months. Herders expect a minimum lactation of 10 months and a maximum of 24.

Blue sheep compete for grazing in high areas. Gibson (1991) reported that since blue sheep and marmots occupy the high places for all or most of the year, and yak for only three to four months, it is reasonable to assume that where the numbers of blue sheep and marmots are high they cause more environmental damage by overgrazing than do domestic stock. Herders claim that there are about a thousand blue sheep in Soe Yaksa and do not think that they compete seriously for grazing; the blue sheep graze on areas that are too steep and rocky even for yaks. Snow leopards prey on blue sheep. During the study, several flocks were sighted of between 20 and 80; competition by wildlife may be more serious than is realized. Wangchuk (1994) concluded that there is considerable dietary overlap between blue sheep and yak; observations indicate that both preferred leafy foliage and avoided woody parts. He concluded that, whether or not there was competition for feed, overgrazing and bare, eroded pastures were becoming increasingly common in the Lingshi area.

Large animals reported to be in the area are blue sheep (Psuedois nayaur), bear (Melurus ursinus), takin (Burdorcas taxicolor - observed for the last five years in the Thombu area), snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and wild dog (Cuon alpinus), of which at least two were seen recently.

Improved pasture and sown fodder

Some improved grasses and legumes can be grown at high altitudes if soil conditions are suitable, but temperatures above 3 500 m are considered too low for introduction of improved forages and fertilizer application to improve productivity. Earlier trials above 3 500 m in Bumthang in Lingshi and Merak Sakteng were unsuccessful for various reasons. The only successes seem to have been the development of hay fields in intensively managed individually owned plots that are protected from grazing. During the ADB-supported Highland Livestock Development Project, some success was reported with Trifolium hybridum at Merak and Saktens, with protection and mineral fertilizer.

A few herders at Soe Yaksa have hay plots, usually established on old winter yak pens; most such plots are now old and past their prime. Forages include Trifolium repens, Dactylis glomerata, Festuca arundinacaea and Lolium multiflorum. Manure is applied annually after irrigation; two cuts are taken from unirrigated plots and three from irrigated. Average plot size is small, from 100 to 150 m2, and they are fenced with wooden slats. In 1999, oats (Avena sativa) and rye (Secale cereale) were given to two farmers to compare their performance against traditional fodder wheat. Both grew successfully at over 4 000 m and herders were very pleased with them. Seed supply may be a major constraint, as at present herders would have to go to Paro to buy oat seed.

Herders spend over a month every year making hay from natural herbage, which includes broad-leaved plants and is done before yaks return to the village for winter. Each herder has their designated hay area close to the house; grass from knolls and steep cliffs is also cut. Hay is usually twisted into ropes and hung to dry in the roof or from trees; hay from broad-leaved species is half-wilted and stacked in the field.

Collection of wild plants

Fuelwood is collected in the vicinity of the village, mainly in spring. Fuelwood for the summer pastures, which are above the tree line, is taken from the village by pack animals. Juniperus, Betula, Salix and Rhododendron trees are used. The distance to go to find fuelwood is now much greater than in the past.

Incense collection is a significant source of income for the poorer of the population; major plants are balu (Rhododendron anthopogon), sulu (Rhododendron setosum) and shrub (Juniperus); pang gey, jagey, gey pey and tong key are collected in minor quantities. Some plants are uprooted and the whole used, while only parts of others are harvested. Medicinal plants are gathered, often illegally, on the summer pastures; those most extensively taken are Cordiceps sinensis (a mushroom) and Fritillaria delavayi; others collected intensively include Picorrhiza kurroa, Corydalis sp. and Gentiana spp. Some herders dig Onosma hookeri to sell in the valley for religious purposes as a red dye.

Traditional culture

Herders of Soe Yaksa have their traditional festivals. Ten zou is the offering of an animal to the local deities without slaughtering it; this helps bring good luck and avoids evil events to the herd and family. One of the most important female deities in which the herders believe is Tsheringma, a goddess of longevity, wealth and prosperity. A male yak is offered to male deities and a female to female deities. The animal offered is identified by coloured yak hair on its ear, tail and rump. Ten zou animal are celebrated, with incense and tying coloured yak hair, in the sixth and seventh Bhutanese months. Ten zou animal are exchanged when old or replaced on death; old ten zou animals are sold or slaughtered.

There are three local festivals annually. Da-tsa is celebrated in the village, on the third day of the second Bhutanese month (March) for three to four days, which has a special community hall for it. Men have archery competitions; women look after the catering and dancing - dancing is a speciality of young women. This is the only festival where a large group gathers and every household joins in. Food is contributed and a herder, selected by the group, provides enough yak meat for all. The selection is done, in rotation, by offering a scarf (Khadar). This festival is a farewell before the herders move to the summer pastures.

Loe-cho is an annual religious ceremony observed by every household in the first Bhutanese month, February. It is performed by a priest from Paro in the lower valley. A family member from every household will bring some rice, ara (local liquor) and join the Loe-cho; they are treated as guests and served a good meal and drinks. Priests are given butter as their fee. Herders also celebrate Lomba at the beginning of the eleventh Bhutanese month.

Conditions governing the keeping of Monastery yaks

There is a traditional relationship between monastic bodies and herders. Most Soe Yaksa herders tend monastery stock. The number of animals remains the same; any increase belongs to the herder, but he has to replace mortalities. There is a formal account of livestock at the time of handing over by the monastery. A milch yak with calf = three head; a female yak = two head; a two-year-old male yak = one head; a fouryear- old male yak = two head. Payment is in butter at four sang (1.3 kg) per head per year. The monks usually collect in person. At least 86 yaks are herded by Soe families for monasteries from Thimpu and Paro.

Constraints perceived by herders

Constraints identified in discussions included:

Suggestions for intervention

Overcoming the winter feed scarcity is a priority. Assessment of current practice and the economics of feed supplementation in winter is needed for better understanding of seasonality of feed supply and the responses of yaks in terms of body weight, growth, fertility, milk production and mortality so that interventions can be targeted more strategically. Increase in hay supply and an improvement in quality is needed; summer oats may be part of the solution and more study is needed, including the seed supply.

Depending on tsadrog conditions, controlled burning of shrubs should be permitted on pasture land on a trial basis; the effect of fire on wildlife habitat will, however, have to be monitored. More detailed inventory of pasture land and pasture quality trend studies are needed as part of a programme to bring stock numbers into equilibrium with pasture production.

Probably the major technical difficulty in improving pastures, hayfields and fodder plots is the lack of fencing. Some technology is available for increasing winter fodder and for pasture improvement. The fencing problem can only be alleviated with the involvement of the communities themselves, before the initiation of any fodder improvement programme. With some effort from the community, the fencing problem could be resolved.

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