40-year-old Pama Sangmo Gurung and her husband look after their 20 yaks, a shaggy domesticated ox-like mammal from the Himalayan region. They’re the only herders left in the remote summer pasture of Pelung, Dolpo, Nepal, at around 4000 m above sea level. Everyone else left, after an unusually warm summer forced them to search for pastures elsewhere.
The air is crisp today. Sangmo has nothing to offer but a simple salty tea to keep guests warm. “We had been running out of butter for the last two years here in Dolpo. The little we have, we are savoring for our winter stock,” says the yak herder.
Yaks are a crucial economic resource in the Himalayas: they are used for transportation, a source of milk, wool, meat, and most importantly butter, a fat consumed with salty tea to avoid the harsh cold.
For Himalayan pastoral society, yak herding is a generational tradition where their economy and livelihood depend. But today, this lifestyle and profession are struggling to survive as climate change amplified existing challenges for the herders.
Over the past few years, the numbers of yak had dwindled. This year alone more than 100 yaks died out of starvation, undiagnosed health issues, and wildlife killings. Starvation, in particular, came after a period of unusual weather, herders said.
“This year the grass was not healthy. We had no snowfall at all in earlier fall,” says Pema Sangmo. Winter snow regulates the right temperature and moisture for the pastures. Even small amounts of snow have impacts on foraging efficiency and diet quality, adds Pema.
Without enough food, the yak started to starve. “No yaks here means we don’t even have butter to drink tea,” said Sangmo. Butter tea has traditionally become a necessity in this climate, because of the harsh climate and cold. “ It gives them energy, fat, and calories,” when they are outside most of the time.
Just like Pema, 40-year-old Sonam Lama, also lost all her baby yak this year due to a lack of nutritious grass, she told Climate Tracker. Sonam is left with only one female yak, which she’ll be leaving in another herder’s farm.
According to the livestock department of the Dolpo district, the number of yaks has dwindled over the past five years. Chandralal Dharala, a senior officer at the livestock department, thinks that climate change contributes to declining the yak population besides other factors.
The yak population today is about 8,000, while last year the number was more than 9,000 in Dolpa district.
Global warming has decreased snowfall in some parts of the Himalayas over the last 30 years, said a 2018 study by India’s Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment.
At a global level, climate change is affecting high altitude regions at a faster rate, something that could lead to water shortages in these sites, said a 2015 study by Rutgers University, in the United States.
Warming in the mountains
Two years of Covid-19 restrictions had a major impact on these pastoral communities, who depend on bi-annual trade with Tibet, China.
Their needs like butter, tea, wool, blankets, and trading caterpillar Fungus —a type of highly prized medicinal plant for cash — are all sought from Tibet.
With a reduced yak population, the locals had to bring tons of butter in mules crossing more than 6,000 m from Mustang, a neighboring region. Farmers who still continue to raise yaks are running out of butter, because of the reduced female yak population.
According to the UN scientific panel, temperatures at higher altitudes are rising faster than in lower lands. Mountain regions are likely to be more vulnerable to climate change than other parts of the world.
“Increase in temperature has a lot of scientific implications for our biodiversity. This has big relations with the yaks,” says Tashi Dorji, yak expert at International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
According to Dorji’s research, climate change has a snowball effect on the already challenging profession.
“Less snowfall, no snowfall, less rain has a dramatic effect on the soil, growth, and temperature. So then the composition of the grasses will change, the availability will also change and these are direct impacts of climate change,” the scientist said.
Pema says the shortage and degradation of pasture have not only impacted yak populations but have also challenged social norms and cultures.
“Yak butter tea is strongly tied with our culture and identity. Not only does this harsh climate demand it, but our identity as Himalayan people is defined by this tea. If we start losing our yaks, we will have no butter tea, and our identity will slowly erode,” says Pema’s husband, Norbu Gurung.
Biodiversity is also under stress. Research published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) states that the number of Yaks has dwindled over the last decades.
Caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps Sinensis) is another important commodity from Dolpo that the herders heavily relied on, after their other economic activities decreased. But that too has been severely affected.
The fungus, also known as Yartsa Gumbo (meaning “summer grass”), is an aphrodisiac traditional Chinese medicine that is used to treat illnesses, such as cancer or asthma.
While over-harvesting has been one of the main threats, climate change has also contributed to the population decline, locals say. “(There was) no snowfall in the earlier winter, which affected the growth of the fungus. The fungus was not fully matured and it was soggy. There was nothing to pick,” says Sonam.
Sonam’s monthly income from yartsa harvesting supports her children’s education and her family expenses in a year, but it has been increasingly threatened.
“Easy income is making herders rely more on Yartsa harvesting which is also declining today. This is also an indication that the locals return back to yak herding,” says Dr. Uttam Babu Shrestha, yartsa expert, University of Massachusetts Boston.
According to Tashi Dorji, yak expert from ICIMOD, the yak herding profession might decline in the coming years if there is no sustainable market for the herders.
In the past, the villagers of Tso in Dolpo had at least two to three livestock per family, locals say. But today most of the houses had given up herding with only a few families left, as the tourism economy blooms.
“For this profession to lucratively survive, technological innovations such as solar equipment and connectivity communication technology can save the labor and encourage the youth to continue in herding profession in the mountains,” says Nyima Lama, village ward chair.
The Department of Livestock Services (DLS) provides district services to Nepal’s livestock- dependent palpitations. Their objective is to expand market opportunities for livestock and make animal husbandry practices “more environmentally sustainable.”
However, government presence and support in the Himalayas has been weak, said Dorji. Nepal is lacking policies to support yak herders and is falling behind neighboring countries, argued the scientist.
Other Himalayan countries have also searched for policies to face this issue. Bhutan created a policy only allowing yak herders to pick caterpillars fungus, excluding outsiders. “This will encourage the yak herders to continue their profession, we need such grass-root policies (in Nepal),” says Dorji.
Bhutan, in particular, has already established 12 yak cooperatives and one national federation. But in Nepal, herders don’t even have access to yak life insurance.
The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) started efforts to create a yak federation in all parts of Hindukush mountains, which would include Nepal. The idea is for yak herders to raise their voices and speak on these issues with a national platform.
The department of livestock outreach is very limited in these remote areas, said Dorji. He added there aren’t enough veterinary doctors supporting herders.
In response, Chandralal —officer at the Livestock Department Dolpa— thinks that because of limited resources and staff, the government lacks services in all parts of upper Dolpo.
“We have a limited budget and only three veterinary doctors here, and it is inaccessible to travel in these remote places,” said the officer.
Meanwhile, in the mountains, winter is approaching. Her husband is sick and the grasses are limited. Sonam is worried that the next coming month will be a struggle. She has one female yak left.
But most of all, she worries about what she will drink, “probably a simple salty tea, but yes no butter,” says Sonam.
This story was updated on November 29 to add the “Bad harvests” subtitle.