YAK, WILD AND DOMESTIC
Harnessing yak milk for cheese


The Wild Yak is a flagship species of the Tibetan plateau, with about 10,000 individual animals remaining. It is also an important genetic resource for the enrichment of the domestic yak, its smaller cousin, of which China has over 13 million, or over 90% of the world’s population. CERS has been active in research on the Wild Yak as well as exploring new potential for the enhancement of value of the domestic stock.

Wild Yak: On the Wild Yak, CERS pioneered behavioral study at both the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve (AMNR) and in the Qilian Mountain between Gansu and Qinghai. Dr Paul Buzzard, CERS Field Biologist, published several papers with collaborators from the AMNR.

Wild Yak are often seen in herds, but there are also single male bulls or pairs of bulls who may be brothers. The bulls’ temperament is most unpredictable. When approached by humans, rather than retreating, they tend to charge. All three generations of our Land Rovers have been charged by Wild Yak bulls over the two decades whenever we had occasionally gotten too close to these photogenic animals.

Sharing the habitat of the Wild Yak are Tibetan Antelope, Tibetan Gazelle and Tibetan Wild Ass. CERS supported Dr. Bill Bleisch to conduct long-term study of the Tibetan Antelope, and we also supported and collaborated with Dr Nita Shah, an Indian expert on the Tibetan Wild Ass.

Domestic Yak: CERS introduced dairy expert Ranee May from the University of Wisconsin River Falls of the US to the Tibetan region. Ranee and her graduate students came to China on several occasions and experimented with the use of yak milk to make cheese at high altitude. Through controlled trials, a successful batch was finally made and the process, using only equipment available locally, was taught to a Tibetan family with the aim of establishing a commercially viable social enterprise.

From a small workshop, the Yak Cheese Factory grew to a medium sized kitchen, and later to an artisanal factory. Today this Mei Xiang brand of artisanal yak cheese is sold in metropolitan cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, and is rated highly by international chefs. As the project has becomes a success, prices offered for yak milk collected locally have become higher, providing a much better return for the Tibetans who raise yaks.

A documentary film as well as an animated film have been made about the CERS Yak Cheese project.

Yak Culture: For over twenty years CERS has collected yak related artifacts. While most specimens were collected in Tibet, smaller samples were collected from Ladakh India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, offering more diversity. Today the CERS collection of yak culture artifacts encompasses a few hundred pieces of objects and can support a small theme exhibit or museum on this important aspect of traditional Tibetan culture.