Global Warming And Its Adverse Impact On Yak Herders In Bhutan
The study seeks to evaluate the vulnerabilities of yak herding in Bhutan due to climate change.
By Peter Deneen | Glacier Hub
A recent study in the high-altitude Kingdom of Bhutan indicates that climate change may out its yak herding population on thin ice.
Owing to its topography, the Himalayan region provides for a variety of climatic conditions and human populations to study.
This diversity makes indigenous peoples who inhabit these areas uniquely qualified to provide traditional knowledge, empirical evidence, and perspectives.
This new study, published in Mountain Research and Development, seeks to evaluate the vulnerabilities of the yak herding livelihood; no fancy instruments, no ice cores required, just people talking to people who have seen a place change over a long period of time.
How the study was conducted
One hundred village elders, averaging 60 years of age, were chosen as the survey subjects.
The researchers from the Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests set out on foot in late summer 2017 to gauge the elders’ awareness of environmental changes as well as their perceptions on climate change signals, weather patterns, water and vegetation changes, and economic impacts.
The elders offered keen, spatio-temporal perspectives for the researchers who aimed to measure the perceptible changes in the climate of the area.
Location of the study sites where major yak herding communities are found in Bhutan.
Map: Pema Wangda/Research Gate
Study sites in major yak herding communities were selected in the districts of Thimphu, Bumthang, Paro, and Wangdue. The elders were interviewed in a two-stage sample, and results of the questionnaires were averaged across the population.
Survey questions were pretested and framed as closed-ended with three possible responses: 'agree, disagree, and neither'. The conclusions drawn from the results provide a snapshot of a corner of the world which is experiencing the impact of climate change at a 'tipping point'.
The yak herding elders’ observations of warming over the past 15 years concurs with the climate-research data. These data, often measured from a distance and at brief moments in time, can lack salience when presented alone. But when compared next to the testimony of observant, indigenous people, like the yak herders, the data carries greater weight and texture.
The elders observed the increase in temperature, glacial retreat, and an ascension of the snow line. They noted that weather events like flash flooding have become increasingly unpredictable and severe.
A majority of the respondents said that the frequency of landslides has also increased, though they were divided on the increase of glacial lake outburst floods, a catastrophic consequence of receding glaciers.
The mountain Gankhar Puensum (elevation 7,541 meters) soars over the border between Bhutan and China. The Zanam glacial lakes spread out at the foot of the mountain. The Bhutanese government is moving forward with establishing the National Weather and Flood Forecasting and Warning Center to respond to worsening natural disasters such as GLOFs and cyclones. It aims to increase the accuracy of forecasting weather, including floods, to establish a forecasting and warning system at the national level and to assure safe lives for the country's citizens. At the root of this system will be a connection to the Global Telecommunications System (GTS, 2) that will be introduced as part of the project.
The herders have observed changes not only in the weather and the natural environment, but also in the health of the animals with which their livelihoods are centred.
Impact of climate change on the well-being of the yaks
The yak themselves are sensitive to warm temperatures— illnesses and discomfort have increased as a result.
The elders’ responses showed the researchers that the declining health of the yaks and a shift in timing of migration have made herding more difficult.
Ruijun Long, a yak expert and an ecological and pastoral specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), told GlacierHub that due to warming and glacial melt-water availability, the yak herders can remain on the summer pastures longer than before.
A warmer, longer summer of grazing does not necessarily translate to happier yaks. With thick black hair, yaks are well adapted to the cold temperatures of the high Himalaya.
Warmer temperatures have caused physiological stress in yaks and general health decline. Their grazing spaces have also been encroached upon thanks to the upslope proliferation of warm-climate plants like the rhododendron
Photo: Ryder Walker
With less grass available, yak milk production has suffered. To make matters worse, predators like the snow leopard have been forced into bolder descents due to their melting habitat.
Though yak herders are few in number, herding is the lifeblood for a majority of inhabitants in Bhutan’s Himalayan highlands.
To provide additional income for the yak herders, in 2004 the government gave them explicit collection rights to harvest cordyceps, a valued element in traditional Chinese medicine.
According to Tashi Dorji, a senior ecosystems specialist and Bhutan’s 'Godfather of Conservation', the fungi are complicit in luring yak herders away from yak herding.
Dorji told GlacierHub that 'with good market price', the income derived from this high value commodity has encouraged yak herders to invest in alternative livelihood in downstream-away from yak farming.
Dorji cited another pressure forcing the rapid transformation of yak herding in Bhutan: education.
While primary school education is common in yak herding villages, young farmers are forced to migrate downstream in search of higher education.
“This already distances the younger generation of herders from their landscape and their traditional farming knowledge. Coupled with inherent difficulties and the lack of socio-economic development amenities in these landscapes, young herders are less attracted to yak farming.”
The researchers offered a reduction in herd size as a potential adaptation strategy for the yak herders.
A Layap girl holding cordyceps collected in the highlands of Bhutan.
Photo: Dragon Herbs
A smaller herd equates to reduced income, less security and more hardship. While harvesting the highly prized cordyceps is offsetting losses in yak productivity in the interim, a long-term strategy will likely need to include alternate economic opportunities.
As temperatures rise, hardships will grow. Hardly any country in the world has contributed less atmospheric emissions than Bhutan, which is carbon-negative.
And yet it is populations like the yak herders who suffer from climate change first, and most.
External factors like globalisation might also lure yak herders into exploring other ways of subsistence.
As northern Bhutan becomes increasingly connected to the world and the yak herding livelihood continues to be threatened, their unique way of life remains tenuous.
This article first appeared in Glacier Hub and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.