When yaks go, so does culture

Yak herds decline due to lifestyle changes, the climate crisis and outmigration


Yaks that used to be the mainstay of the culture of Himalayan communities in Nepal have been in steady decline due to lifestyle changes, outmigration, inbreeding, and impact of the climate crisis.

The National Agricultural Census shows that the total number of yaks in Nepal went down from 53,000 to 48,000 in the past three years. There are now fewer than 10,000 households rearing yaks for a living across the mountains.

Yaks are the generic name for the long haired bison-like oxen that live at 4,000-5,000m in the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. 

The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development runs a Yak Genetic Resource Centre here in Syangboche at 3,885m. Established in 1973, the centre is supposed to ensure that the yak population of Khumbu remains robust, gives adequate milk, and maintains a healthy variation in its genotype. 

The Centre has 155 yaks for research, but a lack of budget and priority means that it has not been able to fulfil its true potential to meet the challenges that this domesticated cattle species faces.

“All we are doing is protecting the yaks we have, we do not have the resources to conduct genetic studies,” admits technical officer Ramlallan Yadav who has been stationed at the centre for the past 24 years.

Yak climate crisis outmigration Nepal NT 1
Yak in Langtang where the milk is used to produce Emmental cheese. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

The high altitude cattle are all lumped together as yak, but there are specific types. Nak are female domesticated yak. Chauri (Dzo) are females born from mating of yak-nak with lowland cows. A Lang is a Tibetan bull, while a female calf born from a Lang is a Dimzo. A calf born from a Yak and a lowland mountain cow is a Urang. The dwarf Lulu found in Mustang and Manang is a mixture of lowland cattle with yaks. 

A recent decline in the population of purebred yak-nak and the difficulty in accessing Tibetan bulls means that farmers now have more Urang than Dimzo. In addition, male calves known as Jopke or Tole born from crossbreeding cannot continue the generation, and are used only as pack animals in the high Himalaya. 

“A nak gives at most 2 litres of milk a day, while a chauri can produce as much as 6 litres daily,” explains yak researcher Shanker Raj Barsila. “If we had facilities for genetic studies, we could improve the hardiness of the species. Yak milk has medicinal properties and is generally healthier than dairy milk.”


Besides changing lifestyles of local populations, outmigration, and lack of access to traditional pastures in Tibet for the yak population, Barsila points to inbreeding as the main challenge facing Nepal’s yaks. This is manifested in yak-naks being more prone to disease, a reduction in milk production, and yaks lacking horns.

The agricultural census mixes up different types of yak, and Barsila estimates that contrary to the census, there are only about 20,000 yak-nak, and 40,000 to 60,000 chauri. 

These numbers are declining further due to climate breakdown which is warming the mountains, and affecting pastures due to deficient snowfall in winter. 

"The snow that should fall from October-November now falls in March-May, and the wind blows in January-February.” Yadav says. “And all winter there is just dry cold wind.”

Human outmigration is directly linked to declining yak herds. Young people leaving mountain villages for Kathmandu or abroad means the next generation is not following the ancestral occupation of pastoralism. 

Fewer yaks mean the intangible heritage of yak rearing with a pastoral culture, festivals, local diet, vocabulary and an intimate knowledge about the habits of the animals is in danger of being lost forever.

Yak milk is hardened into chhurpi that preserves dairy protein for times when milk is not as plentiful. Yak milk is also used in brewing salty Himalayan tea favoured by people of the higher altitudes, and its butter is used for sacred lamps in monasteries. Yak hair is woven into woollen clothing and blankets, and yak meat is consumed. 

“The domesticated yak is now becoming an endangered species due to migration from the mountains and shrinking grazing areas due to environmental impact,” says Prajwal Sharma of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) who recently researched the impact of migration on yak rearing in Helambu, north of Kathmandu.

The number of farmers moving to high pastures with their herds in the summer, and descending to lower elevations during winter has decreased, Sharma observed during his field research. In Syangboche Yadav has observed changes in the pasture grass because of years of winter drought.


The mating season of the yak-nak has also been affected. Yadav explains, “Earlier, almost all nak conceived on time, but now there are seasonal changes. Mating season used to be July-August, now it is October-November.”

The pastureland where grass used to grow in April was barren this time. In Yadav’s experience, in recent years, grass and herbs have only started sprouting from May-June.

The Syangboche centre sells yak milk, but that is not even enough to buy potatoes for the yaks, let alone for conducting genetic studies. The National Animal Breeding and Genetic Research Centre is supposed to study indigenous and local animal breeds, but its chief Sagar Paudel says there has been no study of the yak-nak inbreeding problem.

The National Cattle Research Program in Rampur of Chitwan has surveyed yak-nak in Rasuwa and Mustang to find out their adaptability to climate change, but there is no detailed genetic study planned. 

Further research could also help find ways for yak-nak and chauri to adapt to a heating Himalaya and weather extremes.