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India’s yak herders face the end of ancient tradition in warming Himalayas

  • The Brokpa community of yak herders in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh say they may be seeing the end of their traditions as climate and social changes make the long months of herding even harder.
  • Yak herders say their animals are facing more disease as temperatures increase and snowfall becomes more irregular.
  • As younger generations of the community head to school, the traditions around yak herding are no longer being passed down.

For many Himalayan pastoral societies, yaks are a cornerstone of their livelihoods as much as of their social and religious traditions.

Climate scientists consider this cold-adapted creature a barometer of climate change, looking at how it struggles to survive the impacts of temperature-driven changes in its ecosystem.

The domestic yak (Bos grunniens) is a totemic animal of the high Himalayas: ubiquitous, pervading nearly every sphere of life in this region. But the species is increasingly affected by warmer temperatures. In the face of these challenges to their survival, the pastoralist societies that have long thrived on the yak economy have to contend with wider economic and social ramifications.

Yaks not only provide milk and meat to the yak herders of the Himalayas, but also skin and fur that can be made into items such as ropes, baskets and warm clothes. Image by Sumit Das.

Changing climate, changing strategies

In the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a yak pastoralist community known as the Brokpa says it can observe tangible changes in the surroundings.

“Snowfall has decreased considerably in the region in the last couple of years,” says Brokpa Tsering, the gaonburha (village headman) of Lubrang, a pastoralist settlement in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. “Two decades ago, at the time of the Losar festival, held in February, you would find the village covered in at least two feet [60 centimeters] deep snow. But now you won’t find any snow at that time of the year.”

Tsering, who owns about 200 yaks, says rising temperatures have led to the appearance of a kind of leech that infests the landscape as soon as summer sets in. “There was no trace of these little devils until 10 to 12 years ago,” says the seasoned herder, who is now in his late fifties. “I’ve lived all my life here and had never heard of this before. But suddenly they appeared and spread all over. They mostly harm the yak calves.”

There are other perceptible signs: with rising temperatures, warm-climate plants like rhododendrons are moving further up the slopes, encroaching on the pastures on which yaks feed. The plant is also drying up the high-altitude wetlands, or jheels, the only source of water for yaks and herders moving around mountaintop pastures, according to several Brokpa herders in West Kameng.

“Overall we have observed a general decline in fodder over the years, including paisang leaves [Quercus griffithii, a type of oak], yak’s favorite winter food. I suspect this is due to a rise in temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns,” Tsering says.

Scientific research supports the observations made by the yak pastoralists.

The Brokpa yak herder settlement of Lubrang in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. Image by Sumit Das.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study in 2014 found that in the eastern Tibetan Plateau, daily low temperatures increased between 1984 and 2008, and daily high temperatures increased by 5° Celsius (9° Fahrenheit) over a period of 100 years. The study also suggests a projected mean annual temperature increase of between 2.2 and 3.3°C (4 and 6°F) by 2050 in the Himalayan yak range.

A 2014 study published in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge concluded that 78.3% of Brokpas in West Kameng and 85% of those in Tawang — that’s 81.6 percent of yak pastoralists in Arunachal Pradesh — “were aware [of] … the changing climatic scenario.” The paper also documents various coping strategies adopted by the Brokpa pastoralists.

“The Brokpa yak pastoralists in Arunachal Pradesh are facing multiple challenges like temperature rise, degradation of high-altitude pastures, dwindling of the pure yak population, and a gradually shortening winter,” says Sanjit Maiti, a Fulbright visiting scholar at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan and co-author of the paper.

“The Brokpa pastoralists are responding to the changes in climate by modifying their transhumant yak herding practices,” says Maiti, who formerly worked as a scientist at the National Research Centre on Yak (NRCY) in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh. Transhumant herding is a form of pastoralism involving the seasonal movement of livestock between pastures.

Brokpa climate adaptation strategies, according to Maiti, include the proliferation of yak-cattle hybridization, migration to higher altitudes, herd diversification, changes in the migration calendar, changes in pasture utilization practices, and the rejuvenation of degraded high-altitude pastures, feed supplementation, and adoption of modern health care.

Tsering says he and the other pastoralists have been trying to adjust to the changes in climate by shifting the annual migration calendar. Like other Brokpas in Lubrang, Tsering starts his summer hike to high-altitude pastures with his herd of yaks in April, as the snow starts to melt. His final destination is Senge, a grazing range at around 4,500 meters (14,800 ft) above sea level on the border with the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Tsering’s transitory life continues throughout the summer until late November, when, with the onset of winter, he descends back to Lubrang. In the winter, Brokpa yak pastoralists stay in their permanent settlement area at an altitude of around 3,000 m (9,800 ft).

“Earlier we used to embark on the upward journey in late May or early June. But now you can’t do that,” Tsering says. “The yaks start feeling uncomfortable as early as late February because of the heat. The summer has extended and the temperature has risen.”

Effectively, the migration period has been extended by one and a half months in recent years “because winter has shortened,” Tsering says.

Yaks are typically accustomed to temperatures below 10-15°C (50-59°F), and can even survive down to -40°C (-40°F), but find it difficult when the mercury crosses 13°C (55°F). “The yak can efficiently conserve its body heat during cold weather conditions. What makes the yak more susceptible to heat stress is that it has minimal body mechanism to dissipate heat by way of sweating,” Maiti says, adding “which is why these animals need to be kept in the temperatures suitable to them.”

Communities in the Himalayas are facing conditions they’ve never seen before. Image by Sumit Das.

Political barriers aggravate inbreeding

The erratic climate is not the only challenge the Brokpa yak herds face. Since Arunachal Pradesh lies on India’s borders with China and Bhutan, there are political restrictions on movements of yaks to the “pure yak region.” This blocks the flow of fresh blood into the yak gene pool in Arunachal Pradesh.

The wild “pure breed” yak population, estimated at no more than 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, is contained within China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region, where border controls are strict and yaks and their herders from outside are restricted from entering.

Yaks outside the “pure yak region” are “thought to be suffering from inbreeding due to the lack of availability of new yak germplasm from the original yak area during the past few decades, and the resultant practice of prolonged use of the same bull within herds,” according to a 2016 report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The problem of inbreeding has also affected the Brokpa yak herds. They face the same fate that befell the Kyrgyz and Wakhi yak herds in the 1950s after the border between Afghanistan and China in the Wakhan Corridor was closed, leaving no possibility for Wakhi and Kyrgyz herders to bring in new breeding stock.

Brokpa Tseng Dorji, a former herder and now field staffer at the NRCY, says the younger generation of yaks in some herds is “weak and smaller in size, and also more disease-prone.”

“This is because they’re using the same old bulls for breeding. After the closure of Tibet, the previously unhindered yak traffic was stopped. In the days of my grandfather, they used to bring pure goleng bulls [Bos Taurus] from Tibet. But now there’s virtually no new yak germplasm from the pure yak region.”

Yaks can survive temperatures as low as -40°C, but find it difficult when the mercury crosses 13°C. That’s why yak herders take them up the mountains in the summer. Image by Sumit Das.

A way of life under threat

In the face of these difficulties, the number of Brokpa families practicing transhumant yak rearing has plummeted, falling from 800 to around 200 families in Arunachal Pradesh.

Scientists at NRCY and some Brokpa yak herders say cross-breeding yaks and regular cattle has proved an effective adaptive strategy to cope with climate change. Indeed, over the years many pastoralists have shifted to keeping hybrids as they can adapt better to lower altitudes and rising temperatures. The most outstanding advantage of the hybrids, known as dzomos, is that they thrive in the altitude interval where neither cattle nor purebred yaks do, i.e. from 3,000-4,000 m (9,800-13,100 ft). “That’s why many Brokpa herders now prefer these yak-cattle hybrids to purebred yaks,” Tsering says.

But he’s concerned that the overemphasis of hybridization could have negative consequences. “For keeping dzomos, you need not follow a transhumant system as you can keep it in lower altitudes. But then if you stop the annual migration the Brokpa have been known to practice since ages, you lose the essence of your identity. If you opt for a settled, sedentary life, you are no longer a Brokpa.” Tsering says he would rather migrate to higher altitudes for his yaks’ comfort rather than hybridize his herd.

“The biggest threat we are facing is from the younger generation. They don’t want to continue the harsh traditional life of a transhumant Brokpa herder that requires one to move with yaks in higher altitudes in minus temperatures,” says Norbu, a herder in his seventies from Chandar village in West Kameng, who owns about 300 yaks. Norbu says he has no one to look after his animals after he’s gone; all four of his sons have moved on to other jobs.

The Brokpa yak herders may be seeing their traditions come to an end. Image by Sumit Das.

Changing gender roles

While the threat of losing their traditional way of life remains the biggest fear for Brokpa herders like Tsering, the women herders also face drastic changes. Traditionally there is no gendered division of labor in Brokpa society. But now that many women are no longer undertaking the long yak-herding migrations, they find themselves taking up more gendered work.

This comes as families are settling down as farmers, traders and daily wage laborers, joining the formal monetized economy. In Lubrang, Tashi Lhamo and her husband, Tashi Phuntsu, used to lead the life of semi-nomadic yak herders up until the early 2000s. But it grew increasingly difficult for them to continue the tradition, and they decided to settle down to a sedentary life in Dirang.

In her former role as a pastoralist, Tashi Lhamo had equal access to resources as her husband, as is the custom among Brokpa herders. But after they settled down and integrated into the mainstream monetized economy, that changed.

“Now I’m a housewife devoting myself to the household chores,” she says. “It’s very different from the life I used to lead as a Brokpa herder.”

Banner image of a yak in the Himalyas. Image by Sumit Das.

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