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30 Mar 2020 | News

Yak across borders: Bhutan gifts breeding bulls to Nepal and India for gene pool improvement

Akriti Manandhar

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A Lama blesses the yak to be handed over to India and Nepal during the handover ceremony in Paro

In a collaborative move that bolsters yak conservation in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, the Government of Bhutan handed over two yak breeding bulls to Nepal and one to Sikkim, India, on 27 February 2020 during a ceremony in Paro, Bhutan. ICIMOD facilitated this yak germplasm exchange programme, which involved high-level delegations from Nepal and Sikkim convening in Thimphu, Bhutan, from 25 February to 1 March.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF)
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF), Bhutan, received high-level delegations from Nepal and Sikkim, India, along with ICIMOD representatives, for the yak germplasm exchange programme and yak handover ceremony. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)


The event’s conceptualization began in 2018, and the formal process started in 2019. Nakul Chettri, Regional Programme Manager, Transboundary Landscapes, ICIMOD, explained, “We organized festivals and facilitated informal dialogues between policy makers and yak herders, so there was a sensitization process in the lead up to the event.” Starting from 2017, ICIMOD, in partnership with local and national governments, organized several regional yak events including transboundary yak festivals in 2017 and 2018; capacity building of herder groups/cooperatives from Nepal, Bhutan, and India; and exposure visits. These events provided opportunities for strengthening regional network, cooperation, and linkages at different levels (herder to herder, government to government, etc.).

These collaborative activities culminated in the Government of Bhutan agreeing to offer high-quality yak breeding bulls to Nepal and Sikkim. Kamal Aryal, Associate Natural Resource Management Specialist, ICIMOD, attributes this success to the joint effort of all stakeholders – from the community to policy level – through ICIMOD’s facilitation. Bhutan allowed Nepal and India to choose the yak from a pool of six healthy yak. Then, teams were mobilized to comply with the required processes for the yak transfer, conducting a thorough health screening of the yak before they were transported. “The yak supplied are around four years old, so they will be able to breed soon,” confirmed Tashi Dorji, Senior Ecosystem Specialist and Theme Leader of Ecosystem Services, ICIMOD. The yak offered by Bhutan have reached Phalelung Rural Municipality in Nepal and Zema Yak Breeding Station, Lachen, North Sikkim, India.

the formal signing of the yak handover programme-1280x720
(L–R): Nakul Chettri, Regional Programme Manager, Transboundary Landscapes, ICIMOD; Karma Rinzin, Officiating Director General, Department of Livestock, Bhutan; Banshi Sharma, Director General, Department of Livestock Services, Nepal; and Sonam Diki Lepcha, Veterinary Officer, Department of Animal Husbandry, Livestock, Fisheries and Veterinary Services, Government of Sikkim, India after the formal signing of the yak handover programme in Thimphu, Bhutan. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)


Rangelands cover almost 60% of the land in the HKH region. Yak are considered the flagship species in four of the six transboundary landscapes in the HKH identified by ICIMOD: Hindu Kush Karakoram Pamir, Kailash, Kangchenjunga, and Far Eastern Himalaya. During the event in Thimphu, Tashi Dorji spoke about how integral yak are to the functioning and identity of agro-pastoral communities in these landscapes. Yak play a key role in ecosystem management and food security of the highlanders. They are the source of milk, meat, fiber, hide, and fuel and are used for transporting goods in the hilly terrains. Yak are also integral to the culture, tradition, and social life of high-mountain communities. Dorji pointed out that these yak herder communities are marginalized as they face challenges of inaccessibility, migration, communication, and climate change issues.

Yak herding is a 4,500-year-old practice in the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining areas. The transboundary movement of yak and herders has been critical in acquiring access to good quality breeding stock for sustaining yak production. However, geo-political changes in the region beginning in the late 1950s have led to restricted movement of yak and herders across borders. This restriction has isolated yak populations for nearly 60 to 70 years. And this has inevitably led to in-breeding and consequently reduced the productivity and health of yak populations particularly in the southern Himalaya across Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan.

As an intergovernmental organization, ICIMOD is well placed to provide a platform for governments to work together and to address this key issue. “We took this as an opportunity to bring the three HKH countries together to tackle this common challenges, thereby ensuring long-term sustainability,” said Dorji.

Nakul Chettri emphasized that this will not be a one-time event. ICIMOD has taken up yak conservation as one of the thematic areas of intervention for flagship species conservation and promotion. It has prioritized yak germplasm exchange among member countries in the Kanchenjunga Landscape in line with its broader vision of establishing the HKH Yak Network. Bhutan can also access good-quality yak bulls from Nepal and India through systematic exchange programmes in the near future.

ICIMOD is also exploring new technologies like artificial insemination and semen exchange to ensure good-quality breeding stock for sustaining yak production. “For now, the best thing we can do to maintain this age-old yak interaction among Nepal, Bhutan, and India is to have interaction among herders of these countries and work together,” explained Dorji.

Marchang, a traditional Bhutanese ceremony-1280xx720
Marchang, a traditional Bhutanese ceremony to mark an auspicious event, is performed during the yak handover ceremony at the Tsento Block in Paro, Bhutan. ICIMOD will continue to push such exchange programmes to revitalize yak populations across the HKH. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)


(This news piece was prepared by Akriti Manandhar, ICIMOD.)

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