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30 Mar 2022 | Transboundary Landscapes

Yak genetic improvement through transboundary cooperation

Kamal Prasad Aryal, Basant Pant, Tashi Dorji, Jitendra Raj Bajracharya & Sushmita Kunwar

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Background

The yak is an iconic species of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, exceptionally adapted to the harsh climatic conditions of the high mountains. The transboundary movement of yak and yak herders is critical for genetic exchange among yak populations from different areas. Unfortunately, closed borders and restrictions on grazing and movement have isolated yak populations for nearly seven decades. In the southern Himalaya − across parts of Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan − yak populations have suffered from inbreeding depression and reduced productivity. This leads to low quality of offspring, reproductive problems, and reduction in growth rate and body size, making yak populations less adaptive to the changing environment and more prone to fatality, especially at a young age.

Through our Kangchenjunga Landscape and Conservation Development Initiative (KLCDI), we have taken up yak as one of our thematic areas for intervention. Partners from Nepal, India, and Bhutan have unanimously endorsed the need for exchange of yak germplasm to harness the benefits of transboundary cooperation.

Starting from 2018, our KLCDI team organized several regional yak events including transboundary yak festivals, capacity building of herder groups/cooperatives, and exposure visits. These events provided opportunities to strengthen the regional network and enable cooperation and linkages at different levels (herder to herder, government to government). In a collaborative move that bolstered yak conservation in the landscape, the Government of Bhutan handed over two best-quality breeding bulls to Nepal and one to Sikkim in 2020 (view a video about this exchange here).

 

Building on the past

The yak genetic exchange programme of 2020 was made possible with lessons from 2005, when a bilateral yak exchange took place between Sikkim (India) and Bhutan. The Government of Bhutan gifted 30 good-quality yaks to Sikkim. Their offspring were found to possess better genetic characteristics regarding body size, inter-calving period, and milk yield. Building on this past fruitful experience of genetic transfer and recognizing the need for greater transboundary cooperation to improve the yak gene pool in the region, KLCDI started a series of local and national consultation meetings and dialogues between stakeholders in all three countries and moved forward the process for necessary approvals for the exchange.

 

The process and status

The Department of Livestock, Bhutan, took the initiative to select five quality bulls aged 3 to 4 years from Haa and Paro districts of Bhutan. For the exchange, certain technical parameters had to be fulfilled as per the live animal import regulations of the Government of Nepal and the State Government of Sikkim, including disease-free status at the source, habitat, and the condition of the animals themselves. The National Centre for Animal Health, Department of Livestock, Bhutan, assessed the health status of the whole herd and collected blood and fecal samples. The samples were investigated in the laboratory to ascertain their disease-free status. The results were further cross-checked by the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) to ensure that quarantine requirements are fulfilled.

The Royal Government of Bhutan formally handed over two yak breeding bulls to Nepal and one to Sikkim at Tsento block of Paro district. The Government of Nepal and the Government of Sikkim observed a 14-day quarantine period to monitor the health of the breeding bulls before mixing them with local herds. The bulls in Nepal are now being raised in yak herds at Charrate at an altitude of 3,560 masl in Panchthar district. They are under the care of the Panchthar, Ilam, Taplejung Yak Network and Phalelung Rural Municipality. In Sikkim, the bulls are being raised at the Zema Yak Breeding Station, Lachen, North Sikkim at an altitude of 3,100 masl. By mid-2021, the young bulls became potential breeding sire and have successfully bred with several cows that are due for calving in the spring of 2022.

The yak germplasm exchange programme was a historical event on transboundary cooperation among Bhutan, India, and Nepal. Representatives from the three countries agreed that the programme will benefit the transboundary cooperation among the three countries in livestock genetic exchange and other genetic resources in the future. This germplasm exchange among member countries is in line with KLCDI’s broader vision of establishing a HKH Yak Network.

The yaks were handed over by Dasho Tenzin Thinley, Governor, Paro district. Banshi Sharma, former Director General of the Department of Livestock Services, Government of Nepal, led the delegation from Nepal. Diki Lepcha, Department of Animal Husbandry, Livestock, Fisheries and Veterinary Services, Government of Sikkim, led the delegation from India, and our KLCDI Programme Coordinator Nakul Chettri led the team during the germplasm exchange programme.

 

Key messages

  • The Kangchenjunga Landscape Conservation and Development Strategy and Regional Cooperation Framework endorsed by the three member countries (Bhutan, India, and Nepal) was crucial for policy support in implementing the yak exchange programme as live animal transport across borders invokes sections of the Biodiversity Act and Material Transfer Agreements of/between the respective countries.
  • Preparatory groundwork was initiated a year ahead in terms of organizing exchange visits and facilitating transboundary yak festivals – all of which helped in building rapport and trust and served as an advocacy tool to influence policy makers on the role, significance, and critical status of yak husbandry in the region.
  • The yak exchange programme was profitable for all stakeholders involved. Local communities are satisfied with access to high-quality breeding bulls that will improve milk, meat, and wool productivity of their herds, government line agencies and partners were able to address the urgent needs of yak herding communities, and ICIMOD was able to fulfill its mandate of facilitating transboundary cooperation among member countries.

 

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank the Royal Government of Bhutan for providing quality yak bulls to Nepal and Sikkim. We wish to thank all individuals from government and partner institutions who were directly and indirectly engaged in facilitating the exchange programme.

 

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