Yak Faks: The Incredible Yak And Its Symbiotic Relationship With Tibetans
Yaks are an interesting creature. They don’t exactly fit into anything we’d consider to be ‘normal’ for a bovine; they’re goofy looking, shaggy, small, and yet somehow strong enough to survive in one of the harshest climates in the world.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Yak isn’t the Yak itself, but the Tibetan culture it’s almost entirely responsible for supporting. After all, without the Yak, Tibetans wouldn’t exist!
The incredible Yak
Yaks are rather boring until you take a deeper look. The combination of the high altitude and lack of food sources has caused this furry beast to acquire some really interesting traits. Here are a few you’ve probably never heard:
- Yaks can survive in weather as cold as -40 degrees. This is because their coat gives insulation via a dense outer layer of long hair and an inner layer of matted, short fur
- Over 90% of the world’s yak population of nearly 15 million lives on the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas.
- Wild male Yaks can grow up to 6.5 feet and weigh over 2,000 pounds, while females can grow up to 800 pounds.
- Yak wool is curiously strong, which is attributed to the high levels of amino acids in the fibers.
- Yaks don’t moo! They Yak.
- Their horns aren’t just for defense. They’re actually used to move snow and reveal the tasty plants underneath.
- They live at the highest altitude of any mammal.
- Yaks are extremely friendly to humans, and there have been very few known cases of aggression.
- Females outnumber males 2:1
The symbiotic relationship with Tibetans
For thousands of years, Tibetans have lived with Yaks and subsisted almost exclusively on their byproducts. In fact, all of their food sources come from the shaggy bovine. It’s no stretch of the imagination to say these animals are almost sacred to Tibetans for this very reason.
The majority of these products are used by the herdsmen and their families, but some of them are sold.
Yak milk products
- Raw milk
- Butter – This is often added to tea. Many Tibetans drink a lot of butter tea.
- “Hard” cheeses –
- Milk residue (other types of cheese)
- Milk cake
- Sour milk
- Milk skin
- Milk wine- In Mongolia yak milk is fermented in a leather pouch and distilled as a “milk wine” called archi.
Yak meat products
Tibetans don’t relish eating Yaks, but their environment doesn’t give them much of a choice. Many Tibetans are ardent Buddhists, so you could see how it would become a problem for them, philosophically speaking. Many Tibetans adopt their own approach to the subject, forgoing meat-eating around certain spiritual holidays, or only eating meat from naturally deceased Yaks. Very few are able to pull off a full vegetarian diet in the Himalayas.
Beyond a food source, Yaks are also a utilitarian resource. They’re great for:
- Yak wool clothes
- Moving/transportation of goods
- Yak bone jewelry – This is only made from naturally deceased Yaks.
- Fuel – Many herders and families use the patties as kindling to make their food…which, of course, comes from Yaks. It’s like Yak-ception!
A dwindling resource
Without a doubt, the Tibetan culture owes its longevity and survival to the Yak. It has literally provided all the basic necessities for this deeply spiritual people, when it’s doubtful anything else could. But as time moves on, it’s becoming increasingly questionable if the Yaks will be able to support a growing population, mostly due to ineffective breeding practices. It’s become difficult for the small communities to effectively manage them because political divides have created arbitrary trade restrictions. This has led to inbreeding from the same herd. Climate has also been shifting in the Himalayas since the past several decades. Both of these factors have contributed to serious issues with the population:
“The Brokpa yak pastoralists are facing multiple challenges like temperature rise, degradation of high-altitude pastures, dwindling of the pure yak population, and a gradually shortening winter,” said India’s National Yak Research Centre’s Sanjit Maiti, who studied Bropka herders’ traditional strategies of coping with changing climatic conditions.
All of that being said, I’m confident a solution will come. After all, the Tibetan culture and way of life is an international treasure the whole world greatly benefits from.
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