Their extensive presence in the snow-clad alpine and subalpine Himalayas makes the landscape look like a crumpled white sheet punctuated with shaggy black dots. And, in the cradle of these mountains, depending entirely on their produce—milk, fur, skin, dung and meat—have thrived pastoral communities like the Brokpa, a semi-nomadic tribe belonging to western Arunachal Pradesh. But these totemic animals of the Himalayas and their Brokpa herders are increasingly getting affected by climate change—and this has even forced them to bring changes in their traditional ways of being.

Yaks inhabit at altitudes of 2,000 to 5000 meters above sea level and are comfortable at an average temperature of below 10ºC. A flagship species for the high rangeland ecosystem of the Himalayas, they’re cold-adaptive and are rightly dubbed “shaggy barometers of climate change.” Temperature-driven shifts in wild yak grazing range and distribution pattern in the Tibetan Plateau as well as changes observed in the Brokpa yak pastoral practices are indicators of a changing climate in High Asia, researchers (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep08676) contend.

A Brokpa woman in Mandla Phudung village, 38-km off Dirang in West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh.

Temperature is rising in the Himalayan yak range, with a projected mean annual temperature increase from 2.2ºC to 3.3ºC by 2050. A University of Wisconsin-Madison study (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259851159_Accelerated_climate_change_and_its_potential_impact_on_yak_herding_livelihoods_in_the_eastern_Tibetan_Plateau_in_the_Asian_Highlands) in 2014 finds in the eastern Tibetan plateau daily low temperatures have increased in the past 24 years, and daily high temperatures have increased at a rate of 5ºC over a period of 100 years.

“The Brokpa yak pastoralists are facing multiple challenges like temperature rise, degradation of high-altitude pastures,  dwindling of pure yak population and a gradually shortening winter,” said National Yak Research Centre’s Sanjit Maiti, who studied (http://nopr.niscair.res.in/handle/123456789/29527 ) Bropka herders’ traditional strategies of coping with changing climatic conditions. “They’re responding to the changes in climate by modifying their transhumant yak herding practices.”

According to Maiti, Brokpa climate adaptation strategies include proliferation of yak-cattle hybridization, migration to higher altitude, herd diversification, change in migration calendar, change in pasture utilization practices, rejuvenation of degraded high altitude pastures, feed supplementation and adoption of modern healthcare.

Adjusting to a Changing Climate

65-year-old Brokpa Phurpa Saiya of Mandla Phudung village in West Kameng has been living the life of a transhumant yak rearer since he was barely ten. He now owns 45 yaks and dzomos, a hybrid of yak and highland cattle called kot. His grandfather Brokpa Tsering was from Monyul—or Tawang region—and he too used to be a yak pastoralist.

Like other Brokpas, Phurpa also starts his summer hike along with his herd of yaks—and sheep—in April, as snow starts to melt baring the high-altitude meadows on which the herd feed. His final destination is Saiya, a grazing range at around 4500 masl on Arunachal Pradesh-Bhutan border. Phurpa’s transitory life continues throughout the summer till late November when with the onset of winter he descends back to Mandla Phudung.

“Earlier we used to embark on the upward journey in late May or early June. But now you can’t do that. The yaks start feeling uncomfortable as early as late-February because of the heat. The summer has extended and temperature risen.”

Phurpa says the period of migration has extended by one and a half months in the recent years “because winter has shortened.” Also the fodder along the route to Saiya has declined over the years, including Paisang leaves (Quercus Griffithii), yak’s most favourite winter fodder, he adds.

In the winter, Brokpa yak rearers stay in their permanent settlement area at an altitude around 2000 masl to 3000 masl.

Brokpa Lobsang, a yak rearer from Tawang district, is allowing proliferation of yak-cattle hybridization as hybrids like dzomo are more heat-resistant and have a better adaptation to lower altitude and rising temperature. “But the problem is,” says Lobsang, “if the calf is a dzo or a male born out of a male yak and a female Kot, it’s useless. Dzo is sterile and can’t be used as a bull for breeding purposes.”

Lobsang, nevertheless, plans to shift entirely to yak-cattle hybrids in case climate difficulties soar.

Phurpa, on the other hand, says “nothing can be like pure yaks. To me yaks are more than animals. Brokpa identity is based on yaks. A Brokpa must own yak no matter what. Dzomos can only give you milk.” He is ready to migrate to higher altitudes for his yaks’ comfort rather than opting for hybridization.

Yaks in the wild have also been affected by climate change. But mother yaks are more vulnerable to climate change affects, Wildlife Conservation Society and University of Montana researcher Dr. Joel Berger told ScienceDaily, (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150304104038.htm) as they’ll likely climb steeper and steeper terrain in search of snow, which is essential for milk production.

Climatic change or political shutters?

However, the biggest problem Phurpa’s yak herd is facing at present is inbreeding—not climate change. In fact, all yaks outside “pure yak region,” now in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, are “thought to be suffering from inbreeding due to the lack of availability of new yak germplasm from the original yak area during the past few decades, and the resultant practice of prolonged use of the same bull within herds,” notes a 2016 report (http://lib.icimod.org/record/31938) by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The wild “pure breed” yak population is estimated at no more than 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, of which nearly the entire lot is in China-controlled Tibet, where border control is strict and free-crossing of yaks and their herders has been restricted.

Worse still, yak-herds usually have very few males—they tend to live in isolation save the mating season. And blocking of yak traffic with the “pure yak region” has caused a serious paucity of yak males outside Tibet when it’s time to mate.

A Mithun ambling by wayside in Morshing, West Kameng

As such, Brokpa yak herds—including Phurpa’s—in Arunachal Pradesh today are facing what befell on Kyrgyz and Wakhi yak herds in the 1950s after the border between Afghanistan and China in the Wakhan Corridor was closed, leaving no possibility for Wakhi and Kyrgyz herders to get new yak germplasm from outside.

“Younger yaks in my herd are weak and smaller in size, and also more disease-prone. This is because I’m using the same old bulls for breeding,” says Phurpa a bit ruefully. “There’s no way I can procure a pure yak bull. Bod (Tibet) is a forbidden country for us.”

Phurpa further says his grandfather Brokpa Tsering could make it to the “pure yak region” and hence his herd never had to suffer from inbreeding. “His days were easier and happier unlike ours. There were fewer people and enough pasture; there were no climate difficulties and borders.”

As climate change is pushing yaks to higher altitudes, political restrictions shut their access to high-altitude pastures and mating companions beyond national borders. Thus these manmade borders in the politically volatile Himalayas have blocked critical yak traffic, leading to inbreeding and fodder shortage.

“Only a transboundary approach will help doing away with the problem,” thinks Leki Norbu, who worked towards a PhD at Rajiv Gandhi University on Brokpa livelihood strategies. “Without an unhindered yak germplasm traffic from the pure yak region, there’s not much hope for the yak.”

Meanwhile, National Yak Research Center at Dirang in West Kameng is encouraging Brokpas to adopt “scientific yak husbandry”—and give up their harsh transhumance system, (which is no longer necessary if yak-cattle hybridization proliferates.) But Phurpa is skeptical, “I don’t think they can really help us out from the problem of inbreeding. They only help you get hybrids, not pure yaks.”

Sailajananda Saikia, an associate professor at the School of Environmental Sciences of Arunachal Pradesh’s Rajiv Gandhi University, however, believes while the push for scientific animal husbandry could help Brokpas, this also serves a political function: transforming semi-nomadic Brokpas into “settled political subjects.”

Political scientist and anthropologist James Scott has argued that states and state-making projects have always been anxious of “pastoral mobility” and see sedentary settlement as a necessity for state-making and state control. (https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300182910/against-grain)

Then there’s a catch: as Saikia poses “Is it really climate change that is pushing Brokpa yak pastoralism to the edge? Or it is the politics of nation-states, which has brought closures of routes that earlier allowed unhindered yak traffic?”

Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya is young writer and an avid follower of Southeast Asia’s political developments.The story is being published as part of IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Programme. 

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