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Yak keeping is closely bound up with the social and cultural life of the people, most particularly in the vast rangeland grazing areas of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and other parts around the Himalayan mountain range. The yak is, moreover, a component of the religious practices and manifestations of Tibetan Buddhism.

Yak production underpins the economy of much of this region. To meet the challenges of a harsh and often unfriendly environment on the "roof of the world", herders have developed a complex system of management and land use involving the sharing of grazing lands and their use, for the most part in a nomadic fashion resulting in rotational use of the grazing lands. Much of this developed through agreements between families and within villages. Traditionally, pastoralists relied on their yak primarily for subsistence, but status was also conferred by possessing large numbers of yak. With the more recent moves towards a market-oriented economy, changes have been imposed or at least suggested that affect both the traditional patterns of yak keeping and the purpose of keeping the animals.

In particular, not only have the animals themselves passed into the private ownership of the herders, but, over large parts of the yak-keeping provinces of China, land has been allocated to individual families. This has been in an effort to encourage settlement in place of unrestricted movement - in other words, to change from a mobile to a sedentary method of production. There are both positive and negative aspects to these developments. In respect of range management and making best use of forage resources in times of plenty (the short summer) for the times of feed shortage (the long winter and early spring), the problems created may well be paramount.

Better opportunities for marketing yak and yak products and the attractions of a market economy encourage increased production and technological inputs to assist yak keeping. A move from traditional to modern practices, however, can create tensions and problems if these modern practices are not sensitively integrated with the vast, accumulated knowledge and experience of the herders.

This chapter aims to set out the principal considerations in the relationships of the yak, the land and the people.

Cultural role of yak in Tibetan tradition

The primary importance of the yak is in the economy of the so-called "roof of the world", the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. A number of researchers (Alirol, 1976; Goldstein and Beall, 1990; March, 1977) have discussed the importance of yak for pastoralists in the Himalayas. However, domestic yak are also of great cultural importance to the people of the Himalayan region. They are closely linked to the cultural and ritual activities of these herding societies. As illustrated with examples by Cayla (1976), 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. For example, the use of the yak as a provider of components for local medicines is one aspect of the near mystical importance of the yak. In Nepal, especially in the Mustang area in the months of July and August, yak blood is taken from the juvenile vein and fed to weak persons. Meyer (1976) described some of the medicines and remedies associated with the yak. Olsen (1991) considered the yak to have been so important to the Tibetan people that prior to the Second World War their society could legitimately be referred to as a "yak culture" similar in many ways to the "buffalo culture" of the native Indian peoples of America (see Chapter 1).

There is a long history of interaction between the yak and Tibetan pastoral societies. Even the phenomenon of yak totem can be found in some areas on the Tibetan Plateau (Yang, 1987) - and yak are sacrificed at certain festivals. Bovine deities, believed to include yak-headed gods, were important in the religion that preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet from India. In the Tibetan farming areas of Sichuan province of China, there is a special festival to offer sacrifices to "yak gods" or ancestors, called Gerdorom, which takes place every November. In Tibetan legend, wild yak are said to be as "stars" living in heaven and the yak is always imagined as a safeguarding god.

Almost all parts of yak body have cultural or religious values. In western Sichuan and Qimdo areas, Tibetan women place on their heads two silver ornaments embedded with coral and yak horn, from which one can imagine they are adherents of ancient yak tribes. Yak horns and skulls are both of religious importance, and they are often carved with mantras and placed in prominent places. On the Tibetan Plateau nomadic people place yak heads or skulls on walls, on the threshold of a gate or Manidui (shrine) and may even hang a yak corpse on the doors of monasteries in order to drive out evil spirits. Yak butter sculptures are burnt as offerings to the gods and can be found in most of the monasteries of the Tibetan areas. There is also a popular practice that, in the words of Miller et al. (1997), "Sometimes a community will set a domestic yak free. This "god yak", as it is called in Tibetan, is an offering to gods of the locale, a gift back to the environment which sustains pastoralists." Throughout yak-raising regions, yak dances are held by herders, which signify typically the vital role that yak play in the cultural and spiritual values of the pastoral society.

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. Yak are always used as a dowry when a Tibetan girl marries a young herder. Therefore, yak, apart from being indicators of wealth, play an important role in maintaining social relationships. Complex forms of social organization have developed within yak-raising societies that aid in the allocation of rangeland resources and, through trade networks with other nomadic and agricultural communities, help to secure goods not otherwise available in pastoral areas. However, with socio-economic development, especially the process of modernization, "it is possible," as suggested in the first edition of this book and repeated in Chapter 1, "that the cultural and social importance of the yak may diminish in the life of the herdsmen." And "it is also possible that the spread, however slow, of modern concepts of feeding, management and breeding, and the pressures from those proffering such technological advice on yak husbandry, may further diminish the force of traditional values." It would be a pity if these values were lost without an understanding of their profound importance and further lead to the disappearance of cultural diversity. The conservation of biodiversity and cultural diversity are of the same importance in the development of yak keeping.

Socio-economic significance of yak keeping

Over the centuries, herders have developed complex and, very often, extremely efficient pastoral systems for managing rangelands and livestock in the harsh, high altitude environment where yak are found. Herders possess great knowledge about the rangelands and the animals they herd. As Miller and Steane (1996) concluded, "The fact that numerous unique and, in many cases, prosperous yak herding societies remain to this day bears witness to the extraordinary skills of yak herders." In recent decades, however, the modernization process has brought improved access and services to previously remote pastoral areas and an increased demand for yak products (Miller, 1997; Wu and Richard, 1999). Along with reforms in land and animal tenure, the changed socio-economic issues are transforming traditional yak production systems and grazing use patterns on the rangelands.

From subsistence to marketing purpose

Many researchers have emphasized that the yak has made life possible for man in one of the world's harshest environments. In purely pastoral areas, where cultivated agriculture is not possible, yak allow people to subsist and, in many areas, to live quite well (Miller, 1997). A wide variety of yak products are produced for home consumption and marketing. In the mixed pastoral areas where both animal husbandry and cropping is found, yak and yak-hybrids are also an important component of agricultural production systems. Apart from the home consumption of yak products, yak husbandry is also the mainstay of the regional economies. For example, in western Sichuan, an important yak-raising area in China, 72 percent of the milk, 45 percent of the beef, 42 percent of bovine skin and 34 percent of animal fibre (including fine wool) come from yak. Because of improved outlets for yak products, the number of yak more than doubled in every yak-raising area of China in the period 1950 - 1990, and in some cases increased by as much as two and a half-fold.

In grazing areas where pastoralists rely for their subsistence mainly upon their yak, the wealth of the nomads is judged, as in other traditional pastoral societies, by the number of animals owned (Wu, 1997a). However, prestige and social status are not the only reasons for keeping as many animals as possible; possession of a large number is also thought by many nomads to provide extra insurance against death of animals in times of severe cold or drought (Scholz, 1981; Huebl, 1986). Wu (1997b) elaborated on this point by suggesting that as an insurance against disasters nomads need to strive to increase stock numbers so that in the event of severe losses of animals an adequate remainder is left to rebuild the herd. Thus, the expansion of herd size in good times is a survival strategy adopted by yak herders, which is analogous to "r-selection" in bionomic strategy. Maintaining a large stock, therefore, becomes an ecological strategy selected by nomads. Among the causes for loss of yak, cold stress is the single most harmful factor on the Tibetan Plateau and some other regions of Central Asia (Wu, 1997a; Humphrey and Sneath, 1999).

In the past two decades, alternative sources of feed and improved veterinary facilities have been reducing the losses of animals during hard winters in some areas. However, the maximizing of livestock numbers by herders has been widely perceived as having caused rangeland degradation in pastoral areas through overgrazing (Linziduojie, 1996; Li and Yong, 1993; see also Chapter 13). It has also been suggested by (Ellis et al., 1991) that, provided an impending climatic disaster could be predicted sufficiently well in advance and provided good market outlets exist, a sensible and potentially profitable move by herders would be to sell out their stock before disaster strikes. However, this seems optimistic, as prediction of climatic disaster is at best uncertain and might not even become known to herders in advance, and the requisite market outlets may not exist. The only thing likely to be known, ahead of time, is the condition of the animals at the start of winter. If the preceding summer has been dry and vegetation growth inadequate, the condition of the animals is likely to be poor, and they will be at greater risk of death if the winter is then especially harsh. Most of the disastrous losses of yak that appear to occur in different areas every few years have resulted from a combination of a poor summer followed by an especially bad winter (Wiener, 1996).

Trade of yak products is also an important way of capital accumulation. Income can be derived from most of the products, from the sale of pack animals and from animals for breeding. Herders also try to exploit year-to-year fluctuations in resources in order to optimize herd productivity.

If reproductive rate is higher than normal in "good" years, or if supplementary feed has been available during winter, herd size increases and greater opportunities are created for marketing.

The present commercialization in China and other countries of Central Asia with histories of centrally planned economies has accelerated the development of marketing of yak products. Many attempts have been made by governments to force pastoralists to reduce their stock numbers and to integrate the subsistence pastoralism with a market economy (Humphrey and Sneath, 1999; Miller, 1998). The market-pricing process has made pastoralists more aware of the possibilities inherent in slaughtering livestock earlier in the season. Moreover, pastoralists now own their livestock, and there clearly is an open market in animal products, especially for those in the proximity of urban areas. This is starting to alter the traditional attitudes of the pastoralists. In the more remote yak-raising areas, the marketing of yak products is still limited due to only a few market outlets and at great distance, weak communications and high transport costs. Without market intelligence for yak products, it is also difficult to evaluate trends in the market or in price changes. Reliance on individual traders with poor management and financial capabilities does not provide a good basis for large-scale marketing. Because the remoteness of most yak-raising areas from good market outlets is still a fact of life, there continues to be substantial reliance on the use of yak products for subsistence and on marketing traditional products through traditional channels. In particular, yak herders have not yet been able to tap into speciality markets for products that could bring higher prices. Moreover, the reluctance of marketers or processors to advertise and develop high-value yak products also limits these developments (Miller, 1997). However, as described in Chapter 10, the development of cheese factories in Nepal provides an example of how substantial marketing outlets for yak milk can be created.

The development of the pastoral economies is the key to poverty alleviation and to improving food security, as well as to the wider goal of creating sustainable livelihoods. Ellis et al. (1991) suggested that the most important development intervention for promoting pastoral survival might be to reduce isolation and to consolidate links between the pastoral ecosystem and external resources. This involves encouraging the movement of goods and livestock through trade or marketing systems and linking the pastoral area to external economies both for consumption and distribution of products. As herders' incomes and access to goods increases, their dependence upon the local environment for subsistence decreases. Helping herders explore and adopt new marketing strategies requires support from governments to safeguard the social fabric of the communities by providing credit, insurance, relief funds and market outlets. Improving the infrastructure should reduce reliance on herd number maximization as an insurance against disasters (cf. Williams, 1996; Wu and Richard, 1999).

From mobile to sedentary system

Developments in the science and technology of yak husbandry do not alter the physical conditions of the region. Seasonal mobile keeping of livestock, therefore, still characterizes most of the highland animal husbandry.

On the Tibetan Plateau, the sparseness and limitation of natural pastures and their geographic and/or orographic location encourage nomadic livestock production. Yak herds are regularly moved between different areas at different seasons and, if necessary, between different pastures within a season. Scholz (1986) emphasized that mobile livestock keeping is an "optimum active human adaptation to the physical environment of arid and semi-arid areas and is probably the only possible way of putting the barren pastures of these regions to economic use without an immense expenditure of capital". In ecological terms, the exploitation of heterogeneity in pastoral society involves optimizing forage use through local strategies of habitat division and the dispersal of grazing pressure (Wu, 1997a; see also Chapter 13).

From studies in the eastern Tibetan Plateau, Wu (1997b) suggested that an appropriate management strategy for a mobile system of yak raising used by local herders depends on finding the right starting and termination times of the grazing season. Critical factors involved include the time of greening of the summer pastures, the height of the sward, tillering and the requirements of re-growth of the vegetation. Termination of grazing of the summer pastures in the autumn also impacts on the yield of vegetation in the following year - so this must not be left too late in the season. Detailed consideration of the ecosystem and of range management and grazing practices is found in Chapter 13.

The aim of the nomadic system is to use animals to harvest limited amounts of vegetation scattered over large distances that cannot easily be gathered by any other method. In energy terms, it is inefficient as only a very small proportion of incoming solar energy is converted into usable material; yet without this system, no benefit at all would accrue (Scholz, 1995). With the various nomadic groups following a regular pattern of movement from one grazing ground to another at different times of the year, they can always aim to be where biological productivity is at its maximum.

The rangelands on the Tibetan Plateau are ecologically heterogeneous. Exploiting environmental heterogeneity (or so-called ecosystem diversity) can also be considered an important ecological justification for nomadic movement (Wu, 1997b). Miller (1990), in his account of the rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau, regards the pastoral grouping and mobile keeping of yak as well-adapted responses to different range and environmental conditions and as ecologically sound and sustainable.

However, sedentarization has become a worldwide trend in all pastoral areas of the Old World Dry Belt (Scholz, 1995), marking a gradual move from a nomadic to a more sedentary way of life (Salzmann, 1980). Forced by external circumstances, yak herders have settled down in most yak-raising areas. While this has merit in providing an infrastructure for the community and raising the standards of social services for yak herders, there are a few potential risks. Perhaps the most important is the increased risk of environmental degradation. Lack of mobility is a key factor leading to the degradation of rangelands in many yak-raising areas (Sneath, 1998, Thwaites et al, 1998, Williams, 1996, Wu and Richard, 1999). The nomads' ability to track environmental conditions and mobilize herds to seek pockets of good forage is effectively eliminated when grazing areas become partitioned. Enclosure of pastures almost always accompanies settlement. The general trend is that the more productive rangeland areas are fenced first, leaving residual open range prone to faster degradation, especially in areas where some winter areas are fenced and others are not.

Traditional mobile livestock raising is founded upon a traditional social system, which secures the realization of multiple resource goals beyond the purely economic (Behnke, 1984). If the whole system changes from mobile to sedentary in the yak-raising areas, communally based local institutions are likely to be weakened or even eliminated without being replaced by an effective local administration. Excessively centralized settlements, undue expansion of enclosed pastures, irrational encouragement of longer grazing periods in winter pastures along the main roads and abandonment of seasonal migration will inevitably require higher input levels per household and can lead to a breakdown in systems of social cooperation and conflict resolution. With enthusiasm for modernization, people often ignore the fact that a nomadic society responds in its entirety to the change of environment and the availability of resources (Wu and Richard, 1999). Simply to focus on pasture or livestock development fundamentally ignores the tight linkages between culture and the land. This in turn can lead to failure of such projects in the long term - in part through unintended social consequences resulting in a breakdown of traditional institutions. Moreover, because yak are an integral component of the nomadic system on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, changes from a mobile to a sedentary system with consequent changes in management and production could adversely affect the yak species. Reduced need for hardiness and survivability in a harsh environment, which may accompany such changes, could, in time, lead to a loss of these valuable attributes of the yak.

From common to private ownership

In today's market-oriented environment, there is a growing trend to promote increased agriculture and livestock production through intensification of rangeland. Generally, intensification measures are initiated through changes in tenure arrangements from communal to individual, based on the assumption that pastoral strategies involving the use of grazing commons are inefficient.

Privatization of rangeland has been regarded by some as a precondition for the protection of natural resources; and the systems of common and collective pasture ownership are regarded as the primary causes of the degradation of rangelands (Koocheki, 1993; Li and Yong, 1993). Hardin's (1968) concept of "the tragedy of the commons" strongly influenced land tenure policies. Using grazing as an example, Hardin argued for private tenure on the assumption that access to a common resource leads to overexploitation because the livestock owner will view the grazing resource as a free commodity, thus maximizing herd size at the expense of other herders. This view has been refuted extensively in the academic literature, as his argument fails to recognize the common property arrangements generally made among herders and in reality reflects a situation of open (or unregulated) access. That situation is the exception rather than the rule in pastoral regions of the world (Wu and Richard, 1999). Despite the overwhelming evidence against Hardin's argument, his concept still holds sway among policy-makers around the globe, resulting in inappropriate land tenure policies for marginal lands.

In yak-raising areas, large sectors of pastoral societies have been involved in a privatization process coordinated by national governments, especially in Central or Inner Asia. Since the implementation of the "Household Responsibility" system" in China, the pastoral system has moved slowly away from State control and ownership (centrally planned economy) towards a more market-oriented economy, with policies to encourage private-sector initiatives and investment. Communal livestock has been divided among every family, but the tenure of pastures has remained with the State and land has not been individually allocated. Without control of pasture resources, the situation could lead to one of open access, although local agreements generally avoid this (see also Chapter 13). However, to change the perception, the Government started the individualization of rangelands from the middle of the 1980s, first in Inner Mongolia, then in Xinjiang and finally in Qinghai and Sichuan. This programme aims to substantially increase livestock off-take and pastoral incomes through more intensive management to raise the nomads' enthusiasm for rangeland management and to rationalize land use by limiting livestock numbers to carrying capacity.

The individualization programme started with the traditional winter grazing lands; each nomad family was allocated an area of rangeland on a long-term contract (50 years) in what was essentially a privatization of the previously communally managed grassland (cf. Wu and Richard, 1999). Land allocation was based on the supposed carrying capacity of the rangeland and the number of livestock each family had. The construction of houses for nomads, sheds for livestock, fencing and a development of artificial pastures was also heavily subsidized. At the heart of these changes are the policies affecting common property tenure, not least the policies to convert land to individual tenure-ship.

The real effects of pasture allocation are still unclear because of the short time since the implementation of this programme. Attempts to create private, commercial ranges in some developing countries have not been successful (Mueller, 1999; Scholz, 1995; Williams, 1996). Large-scale pasture allocation has raised a new set of issues regarding long-term sustainability in terms of cost and rangeland health and in terms of social consequences for local communities, partly because of perceived inequalities in the allocation process. All options, therefore, need to be evaluated on a site-specific basis, keeping in mind the socio-economic and ecological realities. Pilot schemes should be carefully evaluated before being expanded to a larger scale.

Nowadays, many prosperous nomadic groups still exist on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, testifying to their adaptability to prevailing socio-economic and environmental conditions. The commonalities among these still-intact pastoral areas are effective communal institutions and relatively little interference by government in land tenure and management. Sneath (1998) looked at the geographic region of northern China, Mongolia and southern Siberia and found that areas in the best condition were places that exhibited low land fragmentation, experienced relatively late land tenure changes by centralist governments and consequently still possessed relatively strong local institutions capable of controlling communal pasture access. These characteristics have also been found in pastoral areas of Africa where communal range management has been found to be more productive than private ranching schemes (de Haan, 1998, Scoones, 1996). These characteristics of success can and should be translated into new and innovative policies that support nomadism, rather than undermine it.

From traditional to modern practices

As already discussed, yak herders have intricate ecological knowledge and understanding of the rangeland ecosystem in which they live and upon which their livestock production depends. Recognition of local climatic patterns and key grazing areas allow herders to select favourable winter ranges that provide protection from snowstorms and sufficient forage to bring animals through times of stress. A wide diversity of livestock and grazing management techniques are employed in these traditional systems that enable yak herders to maintain the rangelands (see also Chapter 13).

Yak herders' knowledge of the complexity and ecological and economic efficacy of traditional yak-herding systems should be used in designing new interventions. Unfortunately, this knowledge is not well appreciated or understood by many researchers, planners and others interested in improving yak production. Too often there is a reliance on "new" technologies and scientific methods that, while practical on government farms or research stations, are often not widely applicable in the pastoral context in which the majority of yak are raised. Many of the so-called "new" technologies derive from results obtained in lowland areas and have then been transferred into the harsh environment of the yak. The appropriateness of the new techniques is then in question if they have not been integrated with the indigenous knowledge of yak-management and adequately tested in the remote yak-raising regions.

In the foreseeable future, improvements in the livelihood and well-being of yak herders in the pastoral areas will have to continue to depend on yak production, even though globally yak are not as important as other bovines. The major issues related to yak management include rangeland degradation and a lack of understanding of the socio-economic characteristics of yak production systems (Miller, 1997), even though the precise extent and severity of rangeland degradation may be open to argument. The relatively low productivity of yak husbandry is one of the main reasons why it is often considered inefficient. However, the productivity has to be seen in the context of the hostile and cold environment of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the serious nutrient deficit in late winter and early spring and the lack of adequate infrastructure for some of the potential improvements and better marketing. The pastoral system does not allow a regular, balanced food intake because of great seasonal variation of the vegetation resources, in terms of availability and nutritive value. While there is a surplus of fodder during the warm season, there is usually a shortage of feed during the cold season that causes malnutrition or worse, resulting in negative consequences for health and reproduction. Moreover, normal herd off-take, which tends to fluctuate from year to year, is frequently made more difficult by inadequate marketing facilities. Thus, further development of pastoralism in these areas depends more on the development of a whole socio-economic system than on the advance of technologies.

The improvement of services in yak-producing areas, as the pastoral areas develop, should increase the ability of yak herders to obtain a better return for their yak products. For herders to realize these opportunities, however, will require improved extension services to address animal health, product quality and yak-product marketing. A general improvement in the educational level of yak herders would also enable them to organize themselves more effectively to increase the value of their products. Although no uniform concepts can be applied to all "nomadic regions" - the regional differences are too great - certain aspects do have supra-regional applicability. These include maintaining maximum mobility for nomads to safeguard the integrity of the grazing resources, promoting self-help and marketing and recognizing the indigenous knowledge when developing improvement strategies.


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[14] Wu Ning is a Professor of Restoration Ecology and Assistant to the Director at the Chengdu Institute of Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chengdu, Sichuan, China.

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