Yaks in the Himalayas

Yaks are common throughout the Sherpa lands


The Tibetan Plateau.

The Himalayas.

These are the landscapes that come to my mind when I think of yaks. They stand regally, in a manner that could be called Lordly, befitting their rank as the largest animal in the Asian steppe country. Somber is another word that comes to mind, suggestive of a robust grace: they belong to the bitter storms of the barren uplands of Tibet.

The clang of yak bells along the steep trails is an age-old sound, the sound of a way of life unique to the Himalaya. Yak herding was part of the tradition of the original people when they came here from Tibet, and so it is probably the oldest Sherpa occupation. The yaks in their herds have been domesticated from wild herds, and some wild yaks still occur in the far-flung parts of Tibet.

Brass bells are worn so the herdsman can find his animals, the red tassles are simply for decoration.

The yak is a valuable animal to the People that live here. Yaks supply transport, milk, protein, fur, hoof, dung, bone, skin, and tail. Tea is made with yak milk and is a staple part of the diet of yak herders. Milk is also added to mushrooms to make a milk-mushroom stew. They convert the sparse grass of this highland into clothing, butter for tea, fuel for the stove, and meat on the fire. Herding, in addition to small scale agriculture and trade with Tibet and lower foothills, enabled the Sherpa to live in this land of rock, ice and snow.

Beyond this, though, owning yaks is also a status symbol, and being a herdsman is a respected occupation. Owning a herd of yaks is a goal of many enterprising men. Sherpas that have worked as high altitude guides for expeditions are sometimes known to invest their earnings in Yak. There are affluent Sherpas who would refuse to do hand labor in their own potato fields, and yet they will not hesitate to tolerate harsh weather and rough camping in an isolated hut for weeks at a time with their animals.  The number of yaks in a man’s herd represents his wealth. A yak is a substantial investment for the Himalayan dweller and an important piece of property. They mate and produce milk between the ages of three and twenty-five. In domestic yaks, females first conceive at the age of 3 – 4 years. Full size is reached at 6 – 8 years. A yak can live 30 years, and the length of its horns can determine the age.

Yak herders live semi-nomadic lives. They live in their village only during the cold winter months. The camps where the Sherpa stay with their yak herds are called‘ yersa’. The houses are built the same as houses in the village, but much smaller with tiny windows and doors. Some are solid stone buildings complete with hearths, shelves, and locking doors. All around the yersa are stone walled pens for yaks. Others times the herdsmen use simple bamboo dwellings which are moved with the herd from pasture and pasture.

Following the four seasons, the Sherpa herdsmen move often with their yaks. In the warm monsoon weather they move up the sides of the mountains, reaching the highest pasture in mid-summer. Some men may take their herds as high as 18,000 feet. The herdsmen stay with their yaks in these pastures from May to September. Summer is the season the herders enjoy the most, because the weather is warm and the grass and milk plentiful. During this time, the herder’s stay almost continuously with the yaks, and the animals are milked every day. The animals grow fat on the high grass of the wet monsoon summer. In the winter it is sometimes possible to leave the herd for a few days at a time, and so the herdsman will trek down to the village to visit his family.

Yak teams are used to bring supplies to the remote Mount Everest region.

In the fall, the herds are slowly moved back down to the village. During this autumn period, fodder is cut, dried and stored to feed the yaks during the winter.

For such a ponderous beast, the yak is quite agile and surefooted. The hoof is round in shape with sharp edges that afford good traction in snow covered, steep mountain country. They walk in a deliberate and unhurried manner. Their run is something like the rolling lope of a grizzly bear crossing open tundra. There is a flow to their movement.

The long shaggy hair is one of the yaks more noteworthy features. It is covered with long guard hair over its back and legs. Despite their imposing presence, when I get close to them I am surprised at how small they are. It is the wooliness of the hair that makes the yak seem larger than it is. The dense under-fur covers the entire animals body, under its belly and inside of the legs. The yak’s bushy tail protects its vulnerable parts from snow and cold. Their fur coat gives them so much insulation during snowstorms that little of the body heat escapes. They are so well insulated the snow builds up on their back and head to several inches without melting. The wooly hair is a cash crop to the herders. Yaks produce a high quality wool, rich in lanolin and long of fiber.

The softer underfur (pu) is shed in the spring. The fine wool is merely plucked, as this is the time when they would normally shed their winter fur anyway. The wool is gathered up and is spun into a yarn that is woven into clothing and blankets. The long guard hairs (Tshirpa) are sheared, since it does not shed. The hair is not sheared with scissors, but by grabbing a fist-full of hair and cutting it with a razor sharp knife. It is then also spun on a small hand held spindle. The hair is woven into ropes, mats or tents. It is sheared in the June or July monsoon season.

The legs are short and muscular, giving it a stout, solid look. The brawny shoulders, especially the males, give them a robust look. Their thick fur, and layer of fat, which insulates their body, protects yaks. Its skin is very thick and has few sweat glands, which helps to reduce heat loss. The lungs are exceptionally large in order to compensate for the thin air at high altitudes. In addition, yaks have 3 or 4 times as many red blood cells as lowland cows, which helps to increase oxynation. Yaks even have evolved with an extra set of ribs in order to support these enlarged lungs. They have strong muscles around their ribs to aid in taking deep breaths in the high thin air, and they can easily withstand temperatures of fourty degrees below zero.

They live at altitudes of from 8,000 to 20,000 feet. Having adapted to these high elevations, they are not prone to ‘altitude sickness’ that would affect a human.

The mouths of yaks have evolved to cope with the scant vegetation of their harsh environment. Their lips are thin and their tongue specially adapted to crop the meager limited brush. They are gentle tranquil animals, but this must not be taken for submission-they can be dangerous.

The Sherpa only call the males yaks; the females are referred to as ‘nak’. Yak can be crossed with other kinds of cattle resulting in many types of cross breeds. There are records of this interbreeding of yaks and other domestic cattle for at least 3,000 years. Yaks that have been crossbred with cows are called dzo (male) and dzomo (female). The advantage of this crossbreed is that they can live at lower altitudes and are easier to handle when carrying loads. The dzomo retains the fine milking characteristic of the dris. The visible difference between the two types of animals is very slight: dzos and dzomos are smaller and do not have the long shaggy hair falling from their flanks and sides as yaks do. These cross breeds are useful because they combine qualities from both animals. These crossbred animals are favored for Himalayan travel because they are robust and sure footed, and can stand the harsh weather conditions of the Tibetan Plateau almost as well as a purebred yak. Throughout much of the book I just use the term ‘yak’ to describe the cattle that live at the foothills of the Himalayas. But in fact most of the yaks in the Khumbu valley are actually yak/cattle crossbreeds. There are dzos, zums, zopkios, and naks. It is all quite complicated, and so to not further confuse the reader I have lumped them all together under the name ‘yak’. These hybrids are very suitable for work as they are easily tamed and have better heat tolerance than pure yak. Since the male crossbreed is steril and cannot be used for breeding, they are used as draught animals or are slaughtered for meat.

But the advantages are that the males of the crossbreed are not so affected by the lower altitudes of the Solu valley, and yet are still able to climb in the high hills and carry loads to 18,000 feet on the Nangpa La pass into Tibet. Also the females of these crossbreeds tend to give more milk. They are a gentle, sure-footed animal that is easily controlled. It is the only usable pack animal for the high elevations of the Himalayas, and they are often hired by climbing expeditions for that last rugged stretch to the base camp of Everest. They are far better than horses as pack animals in these mountain trails. Horses are unpredictable, awkward and given to senseless get-up-and-go in dangerous places.

There is one problem when traveling with a yak caravan. They cannot eat grain; they must graze on grass. It is impossible to use them through barren country, since it is not possible to carry food for them.

Although grain and potato farming provides the Sherpa with the bulk of their food supply, the breeding of Yaks adds protein to their diet.

Bhuddhism prohibits the killing of animals. And though the Sherpas are profoundly religious, they are not narrow-minded about it. Although their Buddhism may not allow them to take the life of an animal, they enjoy eating animals that have been killed accidentally or by the professional butchers called hyawo. Tibetans and mountain Sherpa are meat eaters, as they need to be in order to live in the high cold climate. If a high Lama eats meat–even the Dalai Lama eats meat–he makes a special effort on behalf of the animal slain to ensure it will be reborn again in a higher state

People also eat animals that have been killed by predators. If leopards or wolves kill a yak, the Sherpa have no qualms about eating this. They also eat meat from animals that have fallen off of narrow trails, and it is a common practice to force this ‘accidental’ death on a narrow trail. The Sherpa are able to eat green meat, which is not so astonishing. This is a trait shared by many of the elemental men of the earth.

Before the Tibetan border was closed by the Chinese, the lowest class Tibetans—‘Hyawo’, which act as butchers—came across the Nangpa La pass and would kill the animals for the Sherpa. The owner of an older yak would sell the animal to a Hyawo, who would then slaughter and butcher it and sell it off one piece at a time to the local Sherpa. But if the yak is killed by predators or by accident, then the owner is allowed to butcher it himself. If the animal is butchered in the cold winter in Khumbu, the meat can be stored in a shed where it will last a long time in cold storage, even though it is not completely frozen. If it is butchered in warmer weather during the monsoon, the meat is eaten quickly, or more often, dried into jerky. The Nepalese, in a mixture of awe and ridicule, tell me the Tibetans will eat raw meat.

But these days, because the Chinese have all but closed the Tibet/Nepal border, there are few ‘Hyawo’, and so yaks are killed by a low caste Hindu from the hill country of Nepal. The Hindu makes his living by walking through the hills, slaying and butchering animals for Buddhists along the way.

One technique for killing the animals involves cutting a small hole below the sternum, then reaching in with the bare arm and pulling the heart free. Another time I watched as some men killed a yak by forcing a long splinter of wood into its ribs, therefore saving the blood in the yak’s chest cavity. The blood is consumed by people, and great care is taken to avoid spilling it on the ground.

An unusual manner of killing calves is to intentionally starve them to death. The Sherpa resort to this method because they are Buddhist and are not allowed to kill animals outright. And in Khumbu, since there are no local ‘hyawo’, sometimes a calf is helped to kill itself. If a calf is starved for a few days, at its first opportunity it will gorge itself and have a fatal digestive disturbance, producing veal for the owner. Although this may seem cruel, it eliminates the need for milk and feed for an animal of low value. These young animals are unproductive in the herds because the animals cannot be slaughtered due to Buddhist religion. They compete for the time and energy of the herdsman that would be better spent on more productive animals that are of milking age and produce a larger amount of hair during shearing periods.

One of the main uses of the yak milk is a source of butter. The yak butter is eaten in great quantities, as well as in yak butter tea. Butter tea is a strong concoction of vigorously boiled tea, salt imported from Tibet, and yak butter mixed in a tall wooden tea churn. The fat that the butter contains is essential to the diets of the mountain people in these high windswept plains. Up here, the variety of food is limited; the foodstuffs derived from yak milk take on great importance. The people of this region drink more tea perhaps than anywhere else in the world, thirty to fifty cups a day. This tea is not what the foreigner would expect, and it is an acquired taste. It resembles a soup more than tea, and it fortifies the people against the cold. The butter is also used in the many butter lamps in the monasteries during the Buddhist ceremonies.

In the sparse country of Khumbu a female yak yields about 15 pounds of butter a year, whereas a cross bred animal may produce as much as 20 to 25 pounds of butter each season.

An unusual type of food produced by the yak is their blood, usually drawn from a living animal. The Sherpa claim they drain the blood in order to improve the animal’s health, as well as its ability to travel in high altitudes. A professional bleeder is called an ‘Aamji’. Once a yak is selected, it is tied by its horns to a tree. The aamji then pierces the jugular vein with a sharp iron tool. The hot blood streams out into a bowl. After a couple of pints of blood have been let out, the gizmo is pulled out and the wound will close itself up. The yak returns to its herd with little damage. The blood is allowed to harden, and then is fried. Almost no blood is wasted, and the aamji dictates how many cups can be taken from each yak. The amount of blood taken varies with the size of the yak. A two to three year old yak has between eight and twelve cups taken, while a full grown yak can have up to 25 cups removed without serious harm being done. People also use the fresh blood as medicine. They believe the blood can cure some diseases. The price of fresh blood is about $1 for one cup.

In contrast to Western countries, meat is not the main product of livestock. Despite their fondness for yak meat it is a rare thing for mountain people to eat one of their valuable animals. They have too many other uses to simply turn them into dinner. Yaks are among the most useful of Himalayan animals. Without them the famous Trans Himalayan trade between Nepal and Tibet would have been impossible. Male yaks provide the major means of transporting goods in the high-altitude Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau. They can carry more than two hundred pounds of cargo over precarious trails and snow-filled passes. In the mountains between Nepal and Tibet, long yak caravans are a common sight. The lead yaks are well trained animals that respond readily to their owner’s commands and know the trails. They can plow through four feet of unbroken snow. Out of respect, the lead yak does not carry a load like the rest of the caravan and is adorned with bells and bright red tassels.

In these caravans, which can have up to fifty yaks or more, the main cargo brought from Tibet is rock salt, dried sheep meat, wool, saddle carpets, worked silver, and Chinese manufactured goods such as shoes, thermoses flashlights, and tea cups. Rice, tea, sugar, kerosene, and cloth are carried on the return trip. Often these traders sell their wares in the high valleys, but if they decide to trade at lower elevations, the loads are transferred from the yaks to mules and horses, because the yaks cannot travel at lower elevations.

Their wool is woven on looms into a durable cloth for coats or into a dense felt to make sturdy mountain boots. The milk is made into a butter that is put into Tibetan tea, or made into a tasty cheese that can be purchased locally while traveling through the mountains. The dung is burned as a fuel in the high, sparse mountains where firewood is scarce. The resourceful mountain people tie a small basket permanently under the tail of the yak to collect the dung.

There are about 14 million domestic yaks in Central Asia. Most of them live in China. About 4 million yaks live in Tibet, which is about a third of all the yaks in China. Mongolia has the next largest population, with about 600,000. Next is Russia, and Nepal is a distant third place. Yaks also live in the Himalayan mountain regions of India, Afghanistan, and Bhutan. These are mostly domesticated now, but there are still a few wild yak.

The wild yak suffered the same fate as the American bison in the prairie country. The Silk Road brought hunters to the yak’s habitat. When rifles in time replaced the ancient bows and arrows, the wild yaks numbers plunged to 3,000. Today– owing to conservation practices–there may be as many as 10,000 wild yaks. They exist in the most inaccessible and unpopulated steppe country of Asia. In 1995 there were about 15,000 wild yaks living according to one tally by the renowned zoologist, George Schaller from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Approximately 7,000-7,500 were in the Chang Tang Reserve; 3,200–3,700 in Qinghai Province; 2,000–2,500 in the Xingjian Uygur Autonomous Region. There is a downward population trend of the wild yak. Today there are less than 10,000 wild yaks in the world.

The wild yak can weigh over 2,000 pounds, more than twice the weight of the largest domestic yak. Despite having lost some of its weight during domestication, it is still a formidable animal, adapted to the cold, high altitude country. The yaks in Nepal tend to be smaller than in other parts of their range. Males weigh between 500 and 800 pounds, and the females between 400 and 700. The largest domestic yaks are found in Russia, where the males weigh up to 1,100 pounds

In the Khumbu region, the yaks dwell between 9,000 and 18,000 feet in elevation. The lower level of their range is limited due to their physiology–the thick coat of hair that keeps them warm in the snowy mountains makes them susceptible to overheating in the lower forested country. Coming from clean, sterile country at high elevations, they have no immunity to the diseases of animals at lower elevations.


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