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Yaks, yartsa, and yarns: changing lives and climate in the highlands of Bhutan

As the world grapples with the repercussions of a warming planet, it is the mountain communities, such as the yak herders in JDNP, who bear the brunt of these impacts. Although these communities make minimal contributions to climate change, they find themselves disproportionately affected by its adverse consequences.
Published: 13 May, 2024
⏲ 7 minutes Read

The mist rolled over the mountains as we approached Tsholukam Lake, hiding its pristine waters from view. We had completed a challenging four-hour uphill trek to reach the lake, located at an altitude of 4,300 metres above sea level (masl) in Naro Gewog, Thimpu district or dzongkhag in north-western Bhutan, where we met Dorje and Yangden, a local couple who were tending to the needs of their 80 yaks – a species of long-haired domesticated cattle found throughout the Himalayas.

Dual livelihoods

Yak herding in this region is an age-old practice, a traditional way of life deeply rooted in the culture and landscape of the highlands. One way the couple makes a living from their yaks is with their 19 milking cows, which provide 25 litres of milk daily, yielding 2.5 kgs of butter and 10 kgs of dried cheese.

The couple also collects and sells medicinal plants, herbs and species, including kutki/puti shing (Picrorhiza kurroa), jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi), and yartsa gunbu or caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) – all of which are used to treat a range of ailments, and command a high price in the market.

This is one of the many tales of yak herders we heard, as we ventured into the Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP), the second-largest of Bhutan’s national parks, occupying the entire dzongkhag of Gasa, and the northern areas of the dzongkhags of Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, and Wangdue Phodrang.

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes

This trek was part of the ‘Lingzhi – Laya Walkshop’ undertaken by a team from ICIMOD and partners from Bhutan in September 2023. The ‘walkshop’ is an initiative of ICIMOD to connect and interact with mountain communities to understand their urgent needs and issues from their perspective in the face of climate change.

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At Tsholukam Lake, 4300 masl: A joint team with diverse expertise from ICIMOD and representatives from different departments of the Royal Government of Bhutan including the Departments of Forest and Park Services, Livestock, Tourism, the National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology, the National Land Commission, and Menjong Sorig Pharmaceutical Corporation Ltd. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya)

Over this eleven-day expedition, I saw majestic yaks grazing in the highlands for the very first time – an awe-inspiring sight I will always cherish. Yet, what fascinated me most was the interplay of various elements within the ecosystem that together shape the lives of yak herders like Dorje and Yangden. This extends to medicinal plant collection, a vital seasonal pursuit of many yak herders.

At Tshering Yangu (4220 masl), three women yak herders also shared with us how they had each earned over USD 1000 in one year through the sale of yak products and medicinal species and plants including yartsa gunbu, puti shing, and jatamansi. This income represents a substantial boost to the livelihoods and resilience of the highland herders, considering that the economic landscape in the high-altitude region is often subsistence-based and can be quite challenging due to limited access to markets and harsh environmental conditions.

The looming threat of climate change

However, the herders’ dual sources of income face pressing challenges. The encroachment of shrubs and plant species, exacerbated by climate change, has caused significant alterations to the ecosystem, depleting grazing lands and diminishing the availability of medicinal plants. The challenges brought on by changes in the ecosystem impact both their yak herding and herb collection endeavours.

“In the winter, we face the challenge of collecting feed and fodder amidst the snow, and during the summer, our pastureland is degraded by erratic rainfall, spread of shrubs, and invasive species. This is the major challenge for yak herders,” said Sonam Tshering, a local yak herder and Chairperson of the Naro Lanor Yak Cooperative at Barshong. These concerns were echoed by several yak herders we met as we journeyed through JDNP.

Impacts – happening now

The impact of climate change on yak herders and their way of life is not only significant but also clearly visible. The locals of Tshering Yangu (4220 masl) and Barshong (3800 masl) witnessed the most intense rainfall in 2023, and we too encountered unpredictable rain that resulted in several landslides along our journey. The shifting snowfall patterns and shorter snow seasons, as described by the locals, have led to the deterioration of grazing areas.

Similarly, we observed the changing pasture conditions and noted the colonisation of grazing pastures by invasive species and shrubs, such as Rumex obtusifolius, and rhododendron shrubberies. Pasang Om, a 60-year-old yak herder, also mentioned that one of the significant changes she has observed in her decades of yak herding is the growing presence of shrubs on the rangeland, which has had an impact on yak grazing. At times, when I stood atop the vast rangelands, I couldn’t help but notice how they were completely covered in shrubs, greatly restricting the available grazing areas. This illustrated the significant decrease in accessible grazing pastures, compelling herders to search for alternative areas for their yak herds.

The invasive species have not only affected yak herding but also the harvesting of medicinal plants and ‘bioprospecting’, which describes the act of searching for plant and animal species from which medicinal drugs and other commercially valuable compounds can be obtained.

Growing shrubs and invasive species have encroached upon the areas where medicinal plants and herbs grow, and climate change has added further challenges to the collection of these plants.

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The once-rich grazing grounds and medicinal herb collection areas have been impacted by the encroachment of shrubs and plant species such as rhododendron, leading to a decline in yak pasture and medicinal herbs. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya)

“The availability of medicinal herbs is declining due to changes in climate. Due to shifts in weather patterns, medicinal herbs are not growing as timely as they used to, resulting in reduced numbers and availability for collection affecting local livelihoods,” shared Thinley Norbu, Senior Pharmaceutical Technician from Menjog Sorig Pharmaceutical Cooperation, a company based in Thimpu, Bhutan, specialising in traditional medicines and health supplements. He also shared how the changing rainfall patterns and erratic weather have caused landslides and soil erosion, which are becoming more common due to climate change, further endangering the medicinal herb harvest.

From conflict to coexistence: humans and wildlife in the highlands

Additionally, the JDNP team stressed that there is an alteration in the habitats of wildlife such as tiger and snow leopard, posing the risk of human–wildlife conflict, a term which encapsulates negative interactions between humans and wild animals, with undesirable consequences for people, their resources, and wildlife and their habitats. Human-wildlife conflict was the most common issue shared by most yak herders, which they said was threatening the lives of yaks and the livelihoods of herders.

This year, Dorje and Yangden lost five yak calves to snow leopards and four adult yaks to tigers. Some herders have begun to construct fences or corrals to protect their animals from such attacks.

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Ugyen Penjor, 32 years old, yak herder stands before a fenced corral which helps protect yaks and calves from snow leopards and tiger attack. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya)

While the challenges are immense, the need to adapt to the consequences of climate change is more urgent than ever. As the world grapples with the repercussions of a warming planet, it is the mountain communities, such as the yak herders in JDNP, who bear the brunt of these impacts. It is important to emphasise here that, although these mountain communities make minimal contributions to climate change, they find themselves disproportionately affected by its adverse consequences. This disparity becomes most evident in the emerging threats to the livelihoods of these herders and the wellbeing of their yaks, as their traditional way of life continually hangs in the balance.

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With a yak herding couple at Tshering Yangu (4220 masl). (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya)

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