Monday, 28 February 2011


Rameshwar Singh Pande

(Published in The Rising Nepal, Daily National Newspaper, Kathmandu, Nepal, June 8, 1996)

YAK is a most attractive and highly useful animal of the high Himalayas. Socio-economic life of the Himalayan people solely depends on yak farming.

That many trade names of cigarette, hotels and cheese are named after yak, reveals yak’s popularity. Yak is similar to cattle. The scientific mane of yak is Bos grunniens. The yak is a male animal. Female yak is called ‘nak. Yak freely crosses with cattle and the progeny is called ‘Chauri’. Male chauries are sterile.

The natural habitat of yak is in the high altitudes of Nepal, China, Mangolia, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and India.                                          In Nepal, yak/chauries are found in the northern Himalayan districts mainly Taplejung, Sankhuwasabha, Solukhumbu, Dolkha, Sindhupalchok, Rasuwa, Mustang, Manang, Dolpa, Mugu, Humla, Jumla and Darchula. Yak thrives above 2,700 m altitude only. The ethnic groups and communities raise yak/chauries under migratory system on pasture based grazing.

Yaks are multipurpose animals and life without the yak may not be possible in the high Himalayan region. The yak is the only animal to provide protein in the form of milk. Other products of yaks are hide and skin, hair, draught power, dung and cash.

The yak and nak are bigger than local cattle. They have long hairs, especially on lower abdominal parts. The hair colour is black and/or black with white patch. White coloured yaks are rare and expensive. The flywisk of the yak’s tail is called Chammar which is used by the Hindus and Buddhists for ritual performances. 

The yak hairs are used for making rope, bags, blankets and for decorative purposes. On an average an adult yak produces 1-1.5 kg of hair per year.

Yak is regarded as ‘ ship of the snow’. Yaks are the sole animals to carry goods and merchandise in high Himalayan districts. The castrated yaks are  used for transportation of goods between Nepal and Tibet. An adult yak can carry about 80 kg and could walk for more than 2 weeks continuously. Yaks are, apart from the porters the only means to carry expedition materials up to the Everest base camp.

The yak dung is used as manure and as fuel for cooking purposes. The yak dung also has medicinal value. A research work in DSIR, New Zealand revealed that yak dung contains certain alkaloids which are useful to control baldness.

The accurate population of yak/chauries is difficult to obtain because yaks are reared in remote cold areas under migratory system and the pastoralists are reluctant to give the exact numbers to the surveyors (who are generally governmental staff).

Nevertheless, the estimated population of yak/chauries is about 60,000. Out of the total 10,000 are pure yak and nak. The population of pure yak and nak is rapidly decreasing. As the production performance of pure yak/nak is lower than its hybrid, farmers are reluctant to maintain pure animals. Compared to the purr yak/nak the hybrids are more productive, more docile and thrive in lower altitude of about 2,500 m.

Out of the total population of yak/chauri, about 24,000 are kept for milch purpose. A nak produces about 200-250 lt of milk per lactation. Chauries are high yielder than nak or local cows. Per lactation yield of milk from chauries is about 1,200-1,500 liters. The lactation length of nak and chauries is about 6 months and 9 months respectively.

The milk production is highly influenced by the availability of pasture. The pick milk production occurs from July to October when grasses in the pastures grow in abundance. The milk of nak/chauri is not nutritious but also highly priced. The milk is used for making cheese, butter Chhrpi etc.

Yak cheese is a famous dairy product. The very first cheese factory was established in Rasuwa in 1952. Now, there are altogether 20 cheese factories, 10 under government- own Dairy Development Corporation (DDC) and 10 under private sector. These factories are collecting milk from about 20 per cent of the lactating nak/chauri population. Out of 20 yak/chauri raising districts, cheese factories are established in about 8 districts only. In five districts, such as Rasuwa, Dolkha, Solukhumbu, Ramechhap and Sindhupalchok, yak cheese is produced. In Illam, Panchathar and Kavrepalanchok cow milk cheese (Kanchan) and buffalo milk cheese are readily available.  

The main consumers of yak cheese are major cities and tourist areas such as Kathmandu, Pokhara, Jomsom, Solu and other parts. Total production of cheese was 185 mt in FY 1994/95. DDC produces 135 Mt and the contribution of private sector is about 50 mt. Present level of production of yak cheese is far its demand. The estimated demand of yak cheese is more than 1,000 mt/year (the statistics of yak cheese production has remained the same until recently).

There is a wide scope for the production of yak cheese in Nepal. Despite the growing demand of the domestic market there is a wide score for yak cheese export in the neighbouring and overseas countries.

Since yak are found in the remote, cold Himalayan regions lacking in physical facilities and infrastructure development, yak rearing has remained as one of the most neglected sectors.

Since the last few decades, attempts have been made to promote yak/chaui breeding through government and non-government organisation, mainly FAO, USAID, ODA (PAC/LAC) etc.

In the governmental sector, department of Livestock services (DLS) and Dairy Development Corporation (DDC) are two major institutes working in the field of yak breeding. The DLS is responsible for the development and extension aspects and the DDC is for the promotion of market and marketing of yak cheese.

DLS has established two yak farms, located in Solukhumbu and Dolpa. despite the establishment of farms, there is the need for the district level offices of DLS  to conduct effective programme on breeding, pasture land improvements, animal health care and training to the pastoralists on improved yak/chauri farming.

Under the existing breeding programme yak bulls are distributed to the farmers. Most of the yak bulls are either imported from Tibet or bred on government farms. Tibetan yaks are of superior quality compared to Nepalese yaks. Since the closure of Tibetan border for the migratory stock in 1988 importation of yak is becoming difficult.

Since 1994, the yak farm in Dolpa has  closed down and animals were auctioned. Closure of Dolpa farm has hampered yak breeding and biodiversity conservation works in the country.

The yak/chauri population is rapidly decreasing. Before 1960, the population of yak was estimated to be more than 0.2 million, now the population has dropped by half. The main reasons for reduction of yak/chauri population are: shortage of feeds and fodder especially during winter; closure of Tibetan pastures lands and disease, parasites and predators.

The traditional occupation of raising large herds of yak/chauri is becoming less attractive to new generations. Young people prefer to work as a porter for tourists and are willing to take to other business rather than to carry out traditional system of raising yak/chauri herds. Such a trend has exerted negative impacts on the socio-economy of the region and sustainable yak/chaui farming.

Last winter in Dolpa district alone, over 200 yaks/chauries starved to death inside the sheds due to heavy snowfall. In other areas also a large number of animals died. this remained unreported. If such a trend continues, the yak and nak population will soon vanish from Himalayan region.

In Mustang, Manang, Dolpa, Humla, Mugu and other yak raising areas the yak  milk are turned into butter, chhurpi and other milk products which are sold in Thakhola (Mustang) and Pokhara markets. A reasonable amount is sold to Tibet through  barter system. There is a wide scope for the installation of yak cheese plants in these regions.

The major limiting factor for yak cheese production, besides remoteness and inaccessibility, is adequate supply of energy. cheese making is a lengthy process and requires large quantity of energy (fuelwood/electricity) and skilled manpower. Use of fuelwood in the large quantity has adversely affected vegetation. In the traditional system, fuelwood is used abundantly. This not only denuded the forests around the existing cheese factories but also affected the valuable flora and fauna of Himalayan region.

As the yak/chauri farming is the only means for the livelihood of the high Himalayan people, more attention is needed to increase the production, productivity and market access through proper conservation of biodiversity in an environmentally manner.

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