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Climate change poses threatto yaks and herding practices.

Yaks are considered the lifeline of highlandersin Bhutan given the fact that yaks are a sourceof dairy products and other raw materials forsustenance.But unlike, a decade back, the heavy-hairedcattle of the north are no longer thriving andhighlanders are not as enthusiastic aboutrearing them.

The number of households depending onyaks for livelihood in Merak, a hamlet 3,0006,000m in the mountains of Trashigang,has declined over the years.Climate change is a reality that is threatening the traditionalway of life in the highlands.Higher altitudes areregistering increasingtemperatures during warmermonths resulting in heatstress in yaks, which directlyaffect the nomads who relyon yaks for their livelihood. Forty-five-year-old SangayNorbu is one among the many highlanders in Merakwho has given up yak rearingfor good. He says this ismainly due to insufficient pastureland (Tsamdro).'Unlike in the past we do nothave enough pastureland forour animals.'Climate change's impacthas been very visible, withyaks suffering from variousdiseases.A recent study publishedby Mountain Research andDevelopment, 'Signs ofclimate warming throughthe eyes of yak herders innorthern Bhutan,' revealsthat herders have observedchanges not only in theweather and the naturalenvironment but also in thehealth of the animals onwhich their livelihoods arecentered.

The study determinesthat the yaks are sensitiveto warm temperatures -illness and discomfort haveincreased as a result andthe declining health of theyaks and a shift in timing ofthe migration have madeherding more difficult.Warmer temperaturealso causes physiologicalstress in yaks and generalhealth decline. Warmer,longer summer of grazingdoes not translate to happieryaks. With thick black hair,yaks are well adapted to thecold temperatures.Studies have shown thatthe average environmentaltemperature in the regionhas also increased in the pastyears. Yaks are accustomed tovery cold temperatures andcan survive up to -40 degreesbut finds it difficult whenthe temperature crosses 13degrees.'Over the past years, Ihave seen that yaks are easilyaffected by diseases resultingfrom changes in climate.These various diseases arecausing death of yaks and minimizing yak productivity, 'said SangayNorbu.Gid and tick-borne diseases, which kill yaks when they are very weakin spring, are common inBhutan.

Yak rearing is on aserious decline due to thecombined factors of climatechange, insufficient pastures,prevalent diseases and theappeal and attractions of modern life.ApSangay, 66, fromMerak owned more thanhundred yaks a decade back.Today, he has just about 40yaks. 'Without any helpinghand, it is very difficult forme to rear yaks,' he says.'Since Merak falls under the protected area (SaktengWildlife Sanctuary), there are lots of predators and wehave no means to keep themaway from our domesticanimals.'And young brokpas no longer want to rear yaks.'They want to lead modern lifestyles,' says ApSangay.And it is little wonderthat over the years, the number of Brokpa families rearing yak and leading their livestock between mountains in summer and lowland pastures in winter has decreased.MerakGup LamaRinchen says that apart fromother causes like climate change and insufficient pastures, education is rapidly transformingMerak.

'With a school nowavailable in the community,younger generationsare forced to migratedownstream for highereducation which distancesyounger generation fromtheir traditional way of life,'he says.Many highlandersalso prefer to work atconstruction sites and runsmall businesses these daysthan rear yaks and otherlivestock.The report states thatas temperatures advance,hardships will only grow.'Hardly a country in theworld has contributed lessatmospheric emissionsthan Bhutan and yet itspopulations like the yakherders who suffer fromclimate change.'For Himalayan countriessuch as Bhutan, erraticweather patterns, fastreceding glaciers, and therisk of glacial lake outburstfloods have now becomestark reality. Climatechange, if left unchecked,can become one of thebiggest threats to humanity,according to the report. Now that a gewog center road reaches right into the heart of Merak, Sangay has sold off all his yaks to buya bolero. 'Hoping to earnmore and live a comfortablelife, I bought a bolero butI soon realized that yaksare more valuable thanvehicles.'A few households inMerak that have sold theiryaks to buy boleros sharedthat yaks are more usefulthan cars. Three to four households in Merak have already sold their vehicles and bought back yaks. Similarly in the western highland of Haa, 2,600mabove sea level, yak herdershave observed decreasedrainfall and snow during thepeak winter season leadingto yaks suffering fromvarious diseases.The most commondiseases arise due tocontaminated water,according to yak herders.

Due to less rainfall, the waterin ponds and watering holesare not replaced frequentlyleading to contamination.A yak herder since his childhood, Ugyen, said that yaks die suddenly orafter drinking water fromstagnant ponds, marshyareas and potholes. 'Closelyto 80% of my yaks dieddue to poisoning fromcontaminated water and wecan't even consume theircarcass,' he says.He added that death ofyaks occur especially duringthe late autumn and onsetof winter when yaks returnto their winter pastures.'The early dew drops on thegrasses are harmful to theyaks.'Elderly natives of Haashared that declining health of the yaks and a shift intiming of the migration alsomade herding more difficult.The yak herders remain onthe summer pastures longer than before. Ninety-three year oldApDaw said that in the pastyak herders would migratearound October towards the lower altitudes of Hashala(right above Chhuzom),their winter habitat.However, these days, theymigrate only around January. Though yak herders in Haa are relatively few in numbers with sufficient pastures, yak milk production has also dwindled.

Ugyen says that now yaks have started giving birth to calves every yearcontradicting the traditionof the past where a calf wasborn every alternative year.'This increases the numbersof yaks but the qualityand quantity of milk havealtered.'A young yak herder,Kencho, says that in thepast even if they had only14 milking yaks, they hadto churn the milk everynight. At present, they churnmilk only after three dayseven though they have 24milking yaks, indicating thatmilk quality is low. 'Thuswe realized that it is notonly about pasture but theneed for enough water and moderate temperature,' hesays.Fifty-six year-oldTobgay, who sold his yaksdecades back, says thatyak herding practice hasdeclined significantly dueto lack of labor and youngchildren unwilling to take upherding. 'We had around 24households raising yaks then,only four household are seenherding now,' he says. Meanwhile, TrashigangDzongkhag Livestock Officer,Naina Singh Tamang, said as global warming continues resulting in changes in the climate patterns, high altitude animals like yaks, especially the calf can beaffected through shortageof water, fodder andvulnerability to diseases.'There is little we cando to overcome the effectsof climate change,' he says.

'However, we are trainingthe highlanders to conservefodder during summer inorder to consume it duringwinter, since shortageof fodder has remaineda main problem for thehighlanders.'By improving thenutritional managementof the yaks and geneticdevelopment of strains thatwould be less sensitive toheat stress, effects of climaticchange on yaks could bereduced, he adds.Highlanders continueto barter with the people of Arunchal Pradesh and during such times dogs and other animals fromArunchal Pradesh spread diseases, which lead to deathof yaks and affect numberof yaks. 'But we are trying tocreate awareness programson the effects of suchdiseases and vaccinating the animals.'The DzongkhagLivestock Sector has plans to establish a wool processing center in Merakto encourage the Brokpasto rear yaks and keep theirculture and tradition alive.But keeping alive thistraditional way of life inmidst of climate changeimpacts and modernizationwould be an uphill task.
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Publication:Business Bhutan (Thimphu, Bhutan)
Geographic Code:9BHUT
Date:Dec 15, 2018
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