Yak herders of Bhutan: Majestic Mountain Landscapes, Indigenous Knowledge and Hidden Meanings

The Himalayas are known for its glistening white-capped peaks and its rich and unique biodiversity not found anywhere else on the planet. Home to awesome landscapes and delicate ecosystems, remarkable wild animals inhabit and thrive in the region. While snow leopards, tigers and bears often catch traveler’s attention, less is written about one of the largest and perhaps most iconic animals that graze the steep slopes of its high-altitude mountains – the not-so-wild, domesticated and magnificent yaks of Bhutan.

May the Yaks Graze Peacefully

In the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, long-haired and large-horned yaks are primarily found in the northern belt of the country, extending from Haa district in the northwest, all the way to Merak-Sakteng in the extreme northeast of Trashigang district. These areas provide plenty of high-altitude rangelands, the primary habitat for the majestic yaks who are well adapted to the cold temperatures and high winds at these high elevations.

Although the tiny land-locked nation of Bhutan covers a small land area of 38,394 square kilometers, it is home to an estimated and astounding 39,543 yaks, according to the country’s livestock census of 2013. Known by their scientific name, bos grunniens, yaks can weigh up to a hefty 600 kilograms, and grow to a sturdy height of 1.4 meters and a length of 3.4 meters not including their tails. When yaks communicate with one another, they make a low, deep grunting noise, which does not seem to quite reflect their sheer mass and imposing presence. Even though I have encountered many yaks grazing peacefully throughout my travels and treks across the country, the calls of these powerful but seemingly docile animals always makes me smile, as I wonder what they are saying to one another as they encounter unfamiliar people across their paths in the peaceful pastures of the Kingdom in the clouds.

At the Heart of Nomadic Pastoralist Cultural Practices and Beliefs

In addition to their unique grunting calls, the handmade bells that adorn yaks make a melodic, almost magical sound to apparently scare away predators such as wolves and snow leopards, but also so their owners can find them if they stray far from their herd. On festive occasions, yaks are fashionably outfitted with beautifully colorful handmade textiles and intricate embellishments found in Bhutan and Tibet. The fact that such adoration and efforts are made to adorn these loved creatures is symbolic of the central importance that yaks hold for their owners, the pastoralist people that make up less than five percent of the total population in Bhutan.

Living in high alpine Himalayan regions ranging between 2,500 to over 6,000 meters above sea level, yaks ensure the livelihoods and ways of life of yak herders in ten of the northern districts of Bhutan. For many nomadic communities in Bhutan, yaks represent a unique way of life, but also give deep meaning to life, and shape the way it is lived.

At the very heart of pastoralist life, yaks provide manure used as fuel for fires, draught power, meat, dairy products used to make the staple of cheese and butter (dried or fermented, it can be stored for months), hair for making clothes, blankets, tents and rope, and provide the possibility to barter surplus for salt, rice, clothes, housing, tools and other of life’s amenities. However, when a yak is slaughtered for meat (which is on the decline as some pastoralists have recently reduced their meat intake in favor of vegetarianism), the yak herder dearly mourns the loss of their beloved animal. The connection between yaks and humans is strong, with each yak having its own unique personality, disposition, and previous lives – a point I return to.

While the collection of cordyceps (high value genus of fungi found at high altitudes of Bhutan) has changed the income components of pastoralists’ livelihoods, yaks still play a central cultural and livelihood role. Yaks are at the very soul of several semi-nomadic pastoralist communities spread across the high mountain slopes and pastures in northern Bhutan. They are at the heart of cultural as well as spiritual life, practices, beliefs meaning, and the very existence of indigenous ways of life. For instance, yaks centrally influence songs, dance, indigenous dress, jewelry, folklore, rites, beliefs, celebrations and oral histories.

Being a country of Vajrayana Buddhism, the belief in reincarnation plays a strong role in Bhutan, including its pastoralist communities. While being reincarnated as a human being is considered a higher rebirth based on good merit accumulated in past lives, yak herders believe a yak reincarnated is also a higher and propitious rebirth. This is movingly and emotively captured in recent Bhutanese films such as Norbu: My Beloved Yak, and Bhutan’s first Oscar-shortlisted film in the international foreign movie category, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. Both these movies depict the central importance of yaks at the heart of indigenous knowledge, but also other deeper, hidden meanings. They point to the inter-connectedness between humans and other sentient beings, and what we do in the past and the future come together in profound ways.

A deep sense of community still binds together indigenous yak-herding and semi-nomadic pastoralist communities, which centrally value yaks and the stunning but environmentally fragile ecosystems they inhabit high up in the Himalayas. Yaks symbolize a sense of community, compassion, kindness, inter-connectedness with nature and other sentient beings, and a wise and deeper meaning of happiness, contentment, belonging and continuity. However, as the climate emergency impacts even these remote locales, yak-herding is becoming increasingly difficult, as a warming climate makes life more difficult for the thick-haired animals. They are more susceptible to physiological distress, diseases, health decline, and lower milk production due to grazing spaces being encroached by warm-climate plants. They are also at greater risk from predators like snow lions and wolves who are forced to lower descents due to melting habitats and impacts to the food chain.

Although Bhutan did not contribute to the climate emergency – as the only carbon negative country in the world, it absorbs more carbon than it emits – its yak herders face the brunt of climate emissions generated elsewhere on the planet. In an environment where yak herding is becoming more difficult and yak herders are lured, or forced into other modes of subsistence, an important and indigenous way of life that is well adapted to the extreme conditions of high semi-arid alpine pastures, is at risk. This is not just a cultural loss, but a loss of precious indigenous environmental knowledge which can provide important solutions for a planet faced by an ever-growing climate emergency.

The rate at which indigenous knowledge and ways of life is being lost is given due attention and importance in the Kingdom of Bhutan. This is evident in the celebration of indigenous highlanders and yak herders’ ways of life, culminating every year in late October with the epic Snowman Race, the Laya Run, and the amazing Royal Highland Festival in Laya, which is growing in popularity amongst travelers and adventurers from around the world. The Royal Highland Festival is a special project spearheaded by His Majesty the King of Bhutan, and strives to raise awareness to the greatest, and most pressing issue of our time: climate change and its impacts.

Pastoralists Ways of Life in Fragile Ecosystems

Pastoralists tend to inhabit and depend on very fragile semi-arid ecosystems (such as the cattle-herding Masai pastoralists of Kenya) or arid ecosystems (such as the camel-herding Oromo pastoralists of Ethiopia). These regions are sometimes referred to as rangelands, which in turn make up more than half of the terrestrial land cover on our planet. They are being acutely impacted by climate change, as evident in the melting glaciers in the Himalayas which cause landslides, flooding, and have led to recent deaths of yak herders.

Over time, pastoralist communities have developed indigenous knowledge and practices to mediate and survive in fragile ecosystems, which is why they often migrate seasonally, in the winter and summer seasons in Bhutan (or from the dry to the wet season in Sub-Saharan Africa). This semi-nomadic way of life allows them to survive in delicate ecosystems, and to minimize human and animal impacts on the surrounding environment. However, with the pace of climate change increasing, yak herders and their well-adapted way of life is under threat, and further exacerbated by the forces of globalization and development.

Take Only Memories, Leave only Footprints

What happens to the yak herders of Bhutan matters, as it is symbolic, and a matter of concern for all humanity. In today’s world of fast paced change, the importance of understanding and valuing the delicate connection between humans and sentient beings is more urgent than ever. As we sometimes get caught up in our own lives in our small corners of the world, like the melting glaciers of the Himalayan mountains or the threatened indigenous ways of life of its yak herders, the pathways to deeper wisdom and enlightenment are too in danger of disappearing from our world. There has never been a greater need for humans to tread gently, and allow our connection to nature and collective wellbeing be the balm needed to survive in an increasingly fragile world.

Travel to culturally preserved locales such as the yak-herding regions of Bhutan reminds us of responsibility we have as travelers, pilgrims and tourists. We must tread carefully and gently, with great respect and compassion for the communities we visit. These culturally and environmentally fragile locales are not just “tourist destinations”, but are the homes and central ways of life for people and all other sentient beings that inhabit these precious spaces. We are mere visitors passing by. We have the potential of being transformed by our travels, while being careful not to impact or harm such fragile locales in turn. Above all, the age-old kindness, compassion, wisdom and indigenous knowledge of yak herders reminds us that we are all interconnected with one another, to nature and this amazing planet that we share together. Let’s make sure we do everything can to protect and cherish it, for the benefit of generations of humans, yaks, and sentient beings to come.

Dr. Ritu Verma

A socio-cultural anthropologist, researcher, author and photographer, she has published extensively on GNH, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, and beyond. She is a regular columnist in this magazine. Find her at rituvermapuri.wordpress.com, ucla.academia.edu/RituVerma and on facebook@NetworkBhutanAnthropologists