yaks grazing at Kangshung Valley, east of Everest, Tibet. Photo by Colin Monteath

Hail the marvellous Yak! A personal viewpoint on why yaks are important for fostering healthy grassland ecosystems on the Tibetan plateau—

ZIMOV’s ARK: For more than 20 years, maverick Russian scientist Sergei Zimov and his son have been populating a 160-sq-km piece of land in Chersky, far-north Arctic Russia, with a motley collection of hardy animals. The beasts include yaks, musk-oxen, bison, horses, sheep and other grazers. His logic is that these grazers will trample over shrubs, moss and larch trees, and help create the kind of fertile grasslands that prevailed during the Pleistocene era, a long-lived epoch that lasted until around 12,000 years ago. 

Zimov has been dubbed ‘the prophet of permafrost.’ He says he is building an Ark—with animals that will slow down the thawing of Arctic permafrost, thus preventing the release of greenhouse gases such as methane that will accelerate climate change. Trapped in the permafrost, methane is thought to be at least 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Zimov is not the only one experimenting with this idea of grazing that promotes healthy grasslands. Allan Savoury, a former park ranger from South Africa, developed a system of reviving grassland savannah through controlled grazing of domestic animals. A book based on his TED Talk about this is titled: “The Grazing Revolution: A Radical Plan to Save the Earth.” To reclaim land that was turning into desert, Savoury introduced holistic controlled grazing of domestic animals to replicate the movements of wild herd animals. After some set-backs and false starts, Savoury came up with the right ‘formula’ for doing this, and his methods are now practiced on vast tracts of land across four continents, with encouraging results.

Yak herders’ summer camp near Khama valley, Everest region, Tibet. Photo by Colin Monteath.

But not in Tibet. Here, the grasslands have suffered one catastrophe after another at the hands of the Chinese occupiers, who know nothing about grasslands management, and continue coming up with experiments that devastate the grasslands.

Yaks have evolved with the grasslands of Tibet. This is not a natural landscape: it is a cultivated one. And yaks are the gardeners. Unlike other ruminants like sheep and goats, yaks nibble at the grass, not uprooting it. Yak trample down grasslands to compact them. Their hooves allow for oxygenation, and their dung makes soil more fertile.

Why is this so important? Because desertification is sweeping through Tibet like a plague, threatening to turn the place into one vast desert. grasslands act as a carbon sink, keeping carbon in the ground and keeping permafrost where it should be—as permanent frost. No grasslands means carbon release into the air—and most likely methane release into the air. 

Yak horns inscribed with mantras, at a shrine, central Tibet

The Silence of the Grasslands

In pre-1950 Tibet, before Chinese invasion, there were vast herds of wild herbivores on the grasslands. The thundering hooves of wild yaks could be heard across the grasslands. Often sighted were immense herds of Tibetan antelopes, Tibetan wild asses, Tibetan gazelles—this was the Serengeti of High Asia. Tibetan nomads largely left the wild grazers to do their thing, though sometimes wild yaks would try to mate with domestic ones, which caused problems.

So what happened to all that magnificent wildlife? To put it bluntly, the Chinese invaders ate it. Wildlife was machine-gunned into extinction during the 1970s. Gunned down for exotic meat, for Traditional Chinese Medicine bogus cures—and for sport. It is extremely rare to find a wild yak in today’s Tibet. Tibetan delegations of the early 1980s were horrified at what they saw inside Tibet among the impoverished people, and they were also horrified by what they did not see—they did not see any wildlife. They remarked on the total silence of the grasslands, with not even the honking of bar-headed geese to be heard.

In the last few decades, the grasslands have been dealt another terrible blow. Tibetan nomads, who for thousands of years have acted as custodians of the grasslands, have been removed en masse by the Chinese government. The CCP rationale is that the Tibetan nomads were overgrazing and thus destroying the grasslands. In reality, it is Chinese occupiers who are destroying the grasslands—first, by introducing extensive wire fencing on the plateau, which preventing rotational grazing of domestic yaks. And then, much worse, by allowing mega-mining companies to plunder the grasslands and dig deep to exploit Tibet’s previously untouched stores of precious minerals. Over a hundred minerals have been discovered by Chinese researchers in Tibet. Earlier Chinese surveys of the Tibetan Plateau indicate mineral and oil deposits worth over US$125 billion. But the real value could be ten times that amount: over a trillion dollars’ worth of mining assets. The valuable minerals that China covets include large deposits of lithium, copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver. Northeast Tibet holds huge oil and gas deposits, and oil-sands and shale-gas deposits. 

Yaks are used by farmers to plough their fields.

The Many Gifts of the Yak

Unfortunately, in China’s rush to plunder Tibet, the intimate bond between the Tibetan nomads and the grasslands has been shattered. With forced settlement of nomads in concrete ghettoes, their yaks have been sold off to slaughterhouses. The idea of slaughtering yaks is abhorrent to Tibetan nomads. A live yak is far more valuable to them, as yaks produce hair for making ropes and tents, and they produce milk, yoghurt and cheese—which can be bartered for other goods much-needed from farmers, such as barley. Yak-cheese is among the most nutritious of all cheeses in the world. Why? Because unlike cows, yaks dine on a wide range of grasses and herbs and other fodder. And they frequently move pasture. 

Yaks are the ideal pack animal at high altitude, though not too thrilled about carrying loads.

In some remote pockets of Tibet, such as Kham and Amdo, nomad culture clings on. Though using solar panels and riding motorcycles, Tibetan nomads rely on yak-dung for fuel, and rely on many parts of the yak for survival. Yak-hair is woven into clothing, and is woven into cloth and rope used to make nomad tents. And yak-hide can be used to fashion boots—or can be bound together to make a coracle—a vessel for river-crossings. But nomads are not fashion-conscious—yak-hair was found to be too harsh in quality for Europeans for the making of sweaters, scarves, and so on as it irritates the skin (although baby yak-hair is much softer). For this function, cashmere wool from the under-belly of domesticated goats is far ‘’superior. 

Yak grazing on plastic, in Sikkim. Photo by Colin Monteath, who removed the plastic bag from the yak after taking the photo.

This Yak Tale does not end well

With the rise of a wealthy Chinese middle-class in the last few decades, there has been an exponential increase in the consumption of meat by wealthier Chinese people. Yaks are much sought after today for their rich meat—and their bushy tails. The fine-haired tails of this animal were sought after by wealthy Indians and Nepalis as fly-whisks and dusters. Yak-tails were also used for making tassels and helmet ornaments—tassels of yak-hair dyed red were treasured by Samurai warriors in Japan. The lead yak in a trading caravan in Nepal and Bhutan bears a tassel of yak-hair dyed red. 

In the entertainment industry, yak-hair is valued for making opera wigs. Dyed bright orange-red, yak-hair is also used to make wild-looking circus-clown wigs. In the pre-synthetic era, yak tails were considered the best material for making Santa Claus beards. 

The yak is an amazing beast—one that offers so much to the grassland ecosystems that it populates. With the demise of the yak, those grassland ecosystems are in peril—and when that happens, the desert will advance across the Tibetan plateau, and permafrost will thaw faster, allowing for the release of deadly methane as a greenhouse gas. The way China’s disastrous policies on the grasslands are going, Tibet may be left with a situation like Zimov’s Ark—a handful of yaks and related grazers trying to maintain and restore these grassland ecosystems, and the rest being devoured by desert.


Stuffed yaks hang from the rafters at a temple in Tibet.

Author’s note: Most of the material in this article has yet to be proven by extensive research. The opinions expressed here are theoretical only. However, consider this: Tibetan nomads have herded yaks and goats and sheep on the grasslands of Tibet successfully for four millennia. That would indicate the grassland ecosystem with grazing animals has worked well—until the Chinese occupiers of Tibet severely disrupted that grassland ecosystem, starting in the 1960s, and continuing to the present day.

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