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Yak are our identity: Himalayan herders raise concerns at International Yak Conference

Tashi Dorji, Muhammad Ismail & Ruijun Long

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Yak herders from across Asia gathered with scientists, businesses, and policy makers to discuss challenges and develop partnerships for revitalizing yak farming (Photo: Tashi Dorji)

For the first time in the history of the annual International Yak Conference, yak herders from the southern side of the Himalaya were able to join their counterparts from other parts of Asia to raise their concerns during a yak herder dialogue organized by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). The dialogue was organized as a part of the Sixth International Yak Conference held from 27 to 30 August 2018 in Xining, China. At the conference, yak herders from China, India, Mongolia, Nepal, and Russia met with scientists, businesses, and policy makers to discuss challenges faced by herders and to develop partnerships for revitalizing yak farming.

Many yak herders in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) treat yak as a part of their family. Yak are a source of food and nutrition, energy, transport, clothing, income, and employment, and yak ownership is also linked to a family’s social status. “Yak are a part of our tradition and culture. They are our identity,” said Janga Bahadur Rai, Vice-chair of the Falelung Chauri Palak Krishak Samuha (Falelung Yak Herders Group) in Panchthar, Nepal, speaking at the conference.

For many yak herders, the international yak conference was an opportunity to learn about new ways of processing and packaging yak meat to meet growing market demand (Photo:Tashi Dorji)

Given the challenges facing yak herding, there is much to be gained from knowledge sharing across borders. During the conference, Chinese companies displayed diversified yak products made from yak milk, meat, wool, and bones, demonstrating that every part can be made into products for high-end markets. Sharing such knowledge and technology from plateaus to other yak-rearing countries will contribute to sustainable yak farming in the region. Tshewang Lama, herder representative and member of the Nepal parliament, echoed this view: “We need to strengthen cooperation so that we can learn from each other.”

Many of the Himalayan yak herders in attendance were interested in learning about the development of a new yak breed by crossing wild yak with domestic yak in a farm in Qinghai, China. Palzang Lachenpa, who was representing yak herders from the Indian state of Sikkim, emphasized the need for regional cooperation among yak-rearing countries to facilitate the exchange of knowledge on yak and to improve access to better germplasm.

Zhao, a yak herder from Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China, shared that yak are special animals reared in clean environments. Their meat and milk products are rich in nutrients and medicinal value. Yak wool can be transformed into a desirable natural fabric that, if industrialized, could contribute significantly to the livelihoods of yak herders. Therefore, there is a need for comprehensive development of yak production systems through a multi-disciplinary approach, integrating science policy and practices to promote the ecosystems-based niche yak industry.

The scattered nature of yak production requires mobilization of local institutions along with well-developed governance. Enkhbold Gelegdorj, Head of the Khuvsgul Aimag Federation in Mongolia, highlighted the importance of local institutions – like local pasture user groups and the Mongolian National Federation of Pasture User Groups – that have empowered herders to make informed decisions, protect their rights, improve rangeland productivity, and support value-chain development. He added that upscaling local efforts and regional yak festivals to international platforms would also help ensure that concerns about yak reach the global development agenda.

Herders at the conference also highlighted some challenges to the yak herding tradition and livelihoods of yak herders. In most HKH countries, restrictions on the movement of yak herds across borders has brought an end to centuries-old transborder grazing practices and germplasm exchange. These abrupt changes have directly affected the number and productivity of livestock as winter grazing resources become scarcer.

A lack of knowledge on highland issues among policy makers has led to the formulation of policies that are unfavourable to the traditional transhumance system. The conservationist agenda – promotion of national parks and community forestry – has, to an extent, alienated the concerns of highland communities dependent on natural resources. Herders at the meeting underscored the need to include pastoralists in policy formulation so that policies would be more appropriate.

The dialogue concluded with a recommendation of establishing local and regional yak herders’ networks. This has already been demonstrated in the Kangchenjunga Landscape Conservation and Development (KLCDI) Initiative. Ultimately, these networks can come together through a regional-level yak network and link with herders in other regions through an international yak federation. Such a network would be required for recognizing the vital importance of yak globally and reiterating our pledge to work collectively for sustainable yak farming development.

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