WILD YAKS AND A BRUSH WITH DISASTER

Paul Buzzard, PhD
Cuochi, Qinghai
- April 2010

As the earthquake tragedy Wild Yak ready to chargeunfolded in Yushu, Qinghai, in mid-April, our thoughts and prayers have definitely been with those affected. On that fateful day, we were fortunately in the Cuochi community over 250 kilometers away. We barely felt tremors that morning and didn’t even hear the news until that night. I was not able to make international calls but thankfully a prompt email response by How Man put my mother at ease. The earthquake certainly put things in perspective, and we quickly had a meeting in response. We decided it best that I return to Xining via Golmud while the others finish the last wild yak protection team workshop in Cuochi before returning to Jiegu to check on friends and help out the rescue effort.

I had travelled to the Cuochi and Lichi communities of Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve with Tashi Dorjie, or Zha Duo, of the snowland great rivers non-governmental organization to observe community conservation work with wild yak and Tibetan antelope, or chiru, that CERS supported. Reading the snowland website was one thing but seeing the charismatic Zha Duo in action was another thing entirely. The focus of the trip was meetings and workshops with herders, and Zha Duo effectively held the herders’ attention and engaged in lively discussions with them. The herders spoke in Tibetan but from what I observed and discussed with Zha Duo the meetings were very productive, and even I with my newly minted Tibetan name, Drong Ba Dorjie, “son of wild yak”, was able to give a short statement expressing my admiration for the herders’ conservation efforts and the importance of their work.

It was my first trip to the Sanjiangyuan reserve and I quickly noticed the quality of the alpine meadow especially in Cuochi. I also observed plenty of wildlife. For example, before even reaching the wild yak protected area in Cuochi I saw three pairs of black-necked cranes, about 500 Tibetan gazelle, about 250 kiang or Tibetan wild ass, two wolves, seven foxes, a badger as well as many steppe buzzards and a few lammergeiers.

Wild Ass herdWild yak were my focus on the trip, though, and I was eager to observe the novel conservation approach around Cuochi where herders protect wild yak partly as a genetic resource to improve the bloodlines of their domestic herds. Specifically, the calves wild bulls produce are larger and hardier than fully domestic calves, and this is a novel conservation approach for several reasons. Firstly, the ancestors of many types of domestic livestock are extinct such as aurochs for domestic cattle and the ancestor of dromedary camels. For sheep, the benefits of wild/domestic hybrids are known - for example, the hybrids are better able to utilize poor pasture. But the wild ancestors of sheep are not endangered and are not protected for hybridization benefits. Moreover, in the case of water buffalo, the wild ancestor is endangered but they are not protected for hybridization benefits. Finally, in the case of wild Bactrian camels, the males are a menace and will kill domestic males during rut.

Although my trip was cut short because of the earthquake, I still saw 20 wild yak bulls in an area of Cuochi where large herds of 100 or more are present in winter and another either bulls near the Lichi community. At the moment, hunting is not a threat and wild yak bulls are expanding their range into Lichi, an indicator of conservation success in Cuochi where 12 families have voluntarily moved out of the wild yak protected area to enhance conservation. There is also the potential for wild yaks to expand their range to the south into the Suojia community where community conservation initiatives have also taken place. I also saw four hybrid calves sired by wild bulls; these calves definitely had a wild air about them with black coats and especially large neck humps, and I heard about another two hybrids including a particularly virile 10-year-old bull that has sired many calves.

Domestic YaksHybridization from the wild yaks to domestic is beneficial to the Cuochi community but if introgression goes the other way, that is, if domestic females join wild herds, this would be a problem. Migration of domestic yak into wild herds compromises the integrity of the wild yak bloodlines and is a threat for wild yak conservation. For example, in some areas, individuals in wild yak herds have been seen with white faces or patches, a sure sign of introgression with domestic yak. Thankfully, I did not see any wild yaks with white coats and according to herders the wild yaks remain all black. However, the herders noted that domestic yak cows occasionally escape to the wild herds, once in five years according to one, and in the future we will have to work on avoiding any loss of females to wild herds.

In the future, it is also necessary to conduct winter surveys especially in the important southern area of Cuochi by the upper Yangtze to get a complete idea of the number of wild yaks being protected. It would also be interesting to revisit the highway from Wudaoliang to Golmud, because on this trip we saw about 42 wild yak bulls on this route, many more than I, George Schaller and other researchers have seen on previous trips. It seems that wild yak may be expanding into this area from Kekexili, and would be good to further document a positive conservation story such as this as well as the one taking place in Cuochi thanks to the support of CERS.