HOW YAKS CAN CHANGE THE ECONOMIC
AND ECOLOGICAL LANDSCAPE OF TIBET

Wong How Man
Tai Tam, Hong Kong - 28 September 2008

There are over 13 million yaks on the Tibetan plateau, accounting for over 90% of the
world’s yak population.This number provides for a ratio of 2.5 yaks to each Tibetan.

Historically a Tibetan nomad family can subsists on a dozen or so yaks, providing the most basic requirements for livelihood. The wool can be used to make their tents, knitted as sweaters, or weaved as rugs. The meat provides high protein low cholesterol beef as food. The milk (no toxic melamine added in such remote area!) is made into butter, key ingredient of the all-important Tibetan beverage called butter tea, as well as yogurt and cheese. The yak also serves as a beast of burden. Even its dung, when dried and hardened, provides a most useful fuel for cooking and heating.

Tibetan lady boiling yak milk inside a yak-hair tentTraditionally wealth and well being of a nomad family depended heavily on the number of yaks they have. When the numbers of their herd grow, so does the family fortune. Every so often, perhaps once in a decade, a severe winter snow storm would hit some part of the plateau and this wealth of the family would be wiped out. Sometimes entire herd would be decimated. Other times, a few yaks were left which the nomad would begin the slow pace to relative prosperity with the gradual addition to their herd. Those who lost their entire herd may have to borrow some livestock at huge interest repayment in order to survive, or even descended to become literal slaves laboring for others who are more fortunate. Such were the course of history in the nomadic area of the Tibetan plateau.

In contemporary times, the formula has changed. Nomads who lost most or all of their livestock (raising sheep has become also prevalent on the plateau) during winter storms can run for cover with the government. Not unlike today’s massive government bailout of the financial world (without the fat CEOs who brought these institutions to their brink), the Chinese government would always provide relief as well as restocking of animals should there be a natural disaster. This has become an insurance against natural calamity.

Today, it is not unusual that nomads see their herd sizes grow to over 100 animals, or at times even several hundreds. This is particularly true for the Amdo region of the plateau where there are large areas of pasture. A coracle (raft) along the upper Yangtze utilizing a single yak skinSuch numbers of livestock, when translated into market value, can mean tens of thousands of dollars. The nomadic lifestyle, despite rich in financial return, can become an impediment to children education as school age students are locked into the vocation of being livestock herders. The nomadic circuit also makes providing healthcare and medical services difficult to achieve given the constant mobility of the nomad’s tent.

Within the last two decades, local governments on the plateau has successfully helped in curtailing nomadic activities by promoting stable and fixed homes for the nomads during the winter months. Such homes, usually closer to towns and community centers, provide not only winter shelter, but abode for the aged as well as opportunity of schooling for the children. Adults, however, continue their nomadic circuit, especially during the summer months by moving camp from one pasture to another. Such measure however is not enough to help the Tibetans move into the 21st century. Other problems are looming.

With the increase of yak as well as other livestock herds during the last three decades since China liberalize its economy, the pasture of the plateau has been going through major changes. The plateau supports a very fragile ecology, more so the higher the land is. This sudden rise in livestock grazing activity is bearing down on the pasture, reflecting in the gradual, and at times sudden, degradation of the land. In other words the grassland of the plateau cannot provide the carrying capacity commensurate with the increase in livestock numbers. Yak dung piled like a wall with relieved motifIt is not recovering to its original state each season. Everywhere we can witness the plateau in an advancing state of desertification. This is further impacted by the loss of surface water due to global warming which shrinks the over 20,000 glaciers of the plateau at an alarming rate.

To counter this trend, livestock numbers must be curtailed. In order not to affect the economic growth of the nomads, higher value must be delivered for their livestock or livestock products. The China Exploration & Research Society (CERS), in partnership with a social enterprise Ventures in Development (ViD), are doing just that in a pilot project. Today yak milk is used to produce high quality cheese (after three years of experiment and trial production led by a professor from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls) which can be sold at many times the price of yak butter. Indeed even yak butter is going through modification to make it more palatable than the rancid taste before.

Another project pioneered by ViD is producing high-end yak wool products for markets both in China and in the West. These branded products are now able to provide a much higher margin of return for the nomads who sold their wool. Compounded by other future products like yak jerky (marketed as from pristine region and natural foraging with no supplement of animal feed), yak wool carpet and rug (in Tibetan design which is much sought after in the West), or even compressed and specially packaged yak dung, the future additional value of the yak can be assured. Take the last item as a case scenario. Yak dung when dried does not smell and is quite clean as an alternative fuel for burning in fireplaces. It may even become in vogue as our new age generation may even acquire carbon credits for using it.

Other scholars and bureaucrats had even gone as far asking for relocation of the nomads outside of the plateau or from area of massive desertification. I believe that is not a practical or the right strategy. Only by providing higher value for yak products can we implement an overall policy that limits herd sizes without a wholesale sell-out of the nomad’s economic interest. Indeed, with the livestock numbers under control, the nomads’ children may finally have a real chance to attend school, rather than growing up as another generation of shepherd in a beautiful but otherwise gradually degrading land.