Yaks are cattle-like animals about the size of small oxen. Adapted for living at high altitudes, they have long hair that hangs off their sides like a curtain, sometimes touching the ground. Underneath is a soft undercoat that keeps the animal warm in the coldest and windiest environments. Yaks are highly valued by Himalayan peoples. According to Tibetan legend, the first yaks were domesticated by Tibetan Buddism founder Guru Rinpoche.
Yaks are around 3.3 meters (11 feet) in length, not including their 60 centimeter tail, and stand up to two meters at the shoulder. They weigh up to 525 kilograms (1,160 pounds). Their horns may reach 95 centimeters (38 inches) in length. Females tend to be smaller than males.
The Chinese word for yak is "mao niu," or "hairy cow." The generic Tibetan name of the animals means "wealth" or “jewels that grant all your wishes.” Technically, only castrated males are yaks. Bulls are boas and cows are dris. Mostly what tourist see are dzos or dzomos—yak and cow crossbreeds. Dzos are used as pack animals at lower elevation than yaks. They also produce milk, butter and cheese.
Of the 14 million or so domesticated yaks and yak hybrids in the world about five million live on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Domesticated yaks are usually black, grey or black and white in color. They have long horns, hairy tails that sometimes have white tips and humps behind their head that looks bigger than they actually are because of a thick mat of hair. Yaks rarely exceed five feet in height at the shoulder. They look bigger than they are because of all their hair.
Good Websites and Sources: Animalinfo.org on yaks animalinfo.org ; Yampa Valley Yaks yampayaks.com ; Wikipedia article on Yaks Wikipedia ; ARKive on Yaks arkive.org ; Life on Tibetan Plateau kekexili.typepad.com ; Tibetan Animals: China.org article on Tibetan animals china.org.cn ;Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/china ; ARKive (do a Search for China or the Animal Species You Want) arkive.org Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive ; Links in this Website: TIBETAN ANIMALS AND PLANTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SNOW LEOPARDS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SHAHTOOSH AND CHIRUS Factsanddetails.com/China ; ANIMALS AND PLANTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN NOMADS Factsanddetails.com/China
Drongs are wild yaks. They are 3.25 meters in length and stand up to two meters at the shoulder and weigh between 305 and 820 kilograms. They live in alpine tundra and cold desert regions at altitudes between 4,000and 6,000 meters. They are kept warm by a dense undercoat of soft, close-matted hair covered by generally dark brown to black outer hair. Few non-Tibetans and not many Tibetans either have ever seen a wild yak. Wild yaks are larger than their domesticated cousins and very rare. They live both as solitary individuals and in groups in windy, desolate, extremely cold steppes at altitudes up to 600 meters (19,800 feet), mainly in the Kashmir and Leh areas of India and in Tibet and Qinghai in China. They are generally thinner than domesticated yaks and have long black hair and horns that come out the sides of their head and turn upwards. Drongs In northern Tibet reportedly weigh a ton, reach a height of six feet and length of 12 feet and have a horn span of three feet. Herds of drongs are docile but an individual drong will sometimes charge.
Wild yaks are much more aggressive than their domesticated cousins and are quick to charge when an intruder appears. In most cases though it prefers to stop short of making contact and risking a confrontation.
Yaks graze on grasses, herbs, tubers, mosses and lichens and crunches in ice and snow to obtain water. They are most active in the morning and evening and spend most of their time in single-sex herds. They cover great distance as they forage for vegetation.
Females and young form herds with around 10 to 12 individuals. They are joined by males in the breeding season, which is usually in September. Otherwise males form bachelor groups or live alone. In the mating season violent duels between males sometimes occur. A single calf is born very other year, after a gestation period of 258 days. Calves remain with their mothers about a year.
Drongs used to roam in the wild in vast herds. In the 1950s, it was estimated that there were around 1 million wild yaks roaming the Tibetan plateau, now there are only around 10,000 to 15,000 of them. Their numbers have been reduced mainly by hunters, supplying a demand for yak meat. Wild yaks are about as easy to kill as American buffalo. They are also threatened by habitat loss, poaching , diseases introduced by live stock and inbreeding.
Yaks have been domesticated for centuries. Sometimes they are left on their own in mountain pastures for so long they become semi-wild.
Yaks and High Altitude
Yaks are most comfortable above 14,000 feet. They climb to elevation of 20,000 when foraging and usually don't descend any lower than 12,000 feet. Nomads migrate between summer and winter pastures and live in valleys between 14,000 to 16,000 feet high. They only other livestock found at this elevation are sheep and goats.
Yaks are built to survive in an environment with little oxygen or forage. Their blood cells hold three times the amount of oxygen as regular cattle. Their lungs are surrounded by 14 or 15 pairs of ribs—compared to 13 for cattle—and they act sort of like accordion baffles to help yaks inhale and exhale, in the process creating the grunting noises associated with yaks.
Herders don't like to sent their yaks below 12,000 feet because the are worried the animals will get malaria, parasites or other diseases. Descending below 9000 feet reportedly disrupts their breeding cycle.
Dhopa, a crossbreed hybrid produced from a yak cow (a nak) and bull, thrive better at lower elevations than yaks. The female offspring produces more milk than a nak but the male offspring bump into rocks more than the slow but reliable yaks.♬
Yak Characteristics and Behavior
Yaks are very sure-footed—even on narrow, step, rock-strewn trails with heavy loads on their back. They walk confidently through raging streams and along mountain paths with thousand-meter drops. but are notoriously slow and stubborn. They have thick woolly coats in the winter and shed much of their hair in the summer to prevent from overheating.
Yaks are gregarious and like to be in herds. They panic easily. If one yak panics often the whole herd follows suit. Herders sometimes purposely panic the lead yak so that herd acts as a snowplow and clears the way.
Yaks generally sleep standing up. They have a square tongue and broad muzzle that allows them to forage close to the ground. They are better than other animals at diggong below icy snow to get grass. Some yaks spend so much time grazing on their own they become semi-wild.
Yaks are ruminants—cud-chewing mammals that have a distinctive digestive system designed to obtain nutrients from large amounts of nutrient-poor grass—and are members of the cow family. Ruminants evolved about 20 million years ago in North America and migrated from there to Europe and Asia and to a lesser extent South America, where they never became widespread. Cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo, deer, antelopes, giraffes, and their relatives are all ruminants.
As ruminants evolved they rose up on their toes and developed long legs. Their side toes shrunk while their central toes strengthened and the nails developed into hooves, which are extremely durable and excellent shock absorbers.
Ruminants have helped grasslands remain as grasslands and thus have kept themselves adequately suppled with food. Grasses can withstand the heavy trampling of ruminants while young tree seedlings can not. The changing rain conditions of many grasslands has meant that the grass sprouts seasonally in different places and animals often make long journeys to find pastures. The ruminants hooves and large size allows them to make the journeys.
Ruminants chew a cud and have unique stomachs with four sections. They do no digest food as we do, with enzymes in the stomach breaking down the food into proteins, carbohydrates and fats that are absorbed in the intestines. Instead plant compounds are broken down into usable compounds by fermentation, mostly with bacteria transmitted from mother to young.
The cub-chewing process begins when an animal half chews its food (mostly grass) just enough to swallow it. The food goes into the first stomach called the rumen, where the food is softened with special liquids and the cellulose in the plant material is broken down by bacteria and protozoa.
After several hours, the half-digested plant material is separated into lumps by a muscular pouch alongside the rumen. Each lump, or cud, is regurgitated, one at a time and animal chews the cud thoroughly and then swallow it again. This is referred to a chewing the cud.
When the food is swallowed for the second time it by passes through the first two chambers and arrives at the third chamber, the "true" stomach, where it is digested. As the chewed food moves through this chamber microbes multiply and produce fatty acids that provide energy and use nitrogen in the food to synthesize protein that eventually becomes amino acids. Vitamins, amino acids and nutrients created through chemical recombination then move in the intestinea and pass through linings in the gut into the bloodstream.
Yaks and Herders
Yak caravans and herds of yaks are led by a lead yak. Herders communicate with the yaks by making clicking sounds with their tongues. Often you will see young children leading the yaks. Some begin doing this as young as the age of four. The yaks themselves often have names and each animal has a distinct personality. They are sometimes adorned with red ear tassels and headpieces.
When there is too much snow or ice, yaks are fed a broth of tea, flour and nettles by their owners. Uncooperative animals are force fed. Describing the force-feeding of yak, Christome de Cherisey wrote in Smithsonian, "Dawa pushes a horn filled with broth into its mouth. The animal is recalcitrant and tries to get away; the men have to hold it still and pull on its tongue in order to force it to swallow."
A nomadic family’s migrations patterns are often geared towards making their yaks happy. Yaks often sheared of hair in early summer. Each herder has the skill to set broken bones, sear cuts and lance abbesses on their yaks. Wounds are wrapped with bandages soaked in human urine to prevent infection.
Yaks can carry 70 kilograms (150 pounds), about a forth of what a Bactrian camel can carry and about the same as a horse. Yaks are sometimes very unaccommodating pack animals and will try to throw off packs that are placed on their backs. Herders and peasants regards seeing a group of yaks as an auspicious sign but seeing a single yak of a certain color is regarded as bad luck.
Yaks are usually fairly docile but not always. Describing a yak attack, Eric Valli wrote, "One day while trekking with a caravan, a yak suddenly turns on Karma. The charge is so fast, so sudden, that Karma does not have time to move nor I to shout. The yak raises its massive head under my friend's chest, lifts him from the ground, then drops him in a heap...Surely he must have been mortally gored by the sharp, curved horns. But when we strip him we find no bleeding wounds, only a huge bruise over two broken ribs. He is unconscious and appears to be in shock."
When ever you come across a yak on the trail it is a good idea to pass on the inside, mountain side. If you pass on the outside you may find that only thing yourself navigating between a pair of long horns and the edge of a cliff.
1001 Uses for a Yak
Yak meat Yaks are arguably the most important animals in Tibet and the Himilayas. They carry goods, possessions and household goods; they provide food and hair that can be made into tents, clothes and other products. Some nomads ride on their yaks and some farmers use yaks to plow their plots of land. Yak dung is used to make fires in a land where there are no trees (many Tibetan houses have piles of drying yak dung next to the walls).
The undercoat and hump hair is used for making cloth. The skin with hair on it is made into capes, coats and hats. The thick hide provides thick leather for boots and the soles of shoes. Yak meat is eaten. Yak milk is made into butter—which is put in tea and used to light lamps—and cheese and other dairy products (See Below). In Lhasa yak skin is even used for boats. ♠
The rough belly hair is woven into tents and blankets and spun into ropes and made into tent covering. Explaining why he prefers his yak wool tent to a house, one nomad told National Geographic, "In a tent you can hear the yaks at night if they are in trouble. And in the day you can see all around. A house is too dark." Braided black-and-white yak hair rope is highly valued.
Yak hair and fur are sold by herders for a steady income. The soft undercoat is used to make "yak cashmere" sweaters or spun into chara (a kind of felt) that is used to make bags, blankets, The yak heart is used in Tibetan medicine. The bones can made into glue. The Chinese cut off the white tips of yak tails and use them as ornamental tassels. In India the tails are used as flyswatters. In Japan, yak hair is used to make the wigs of Bunkaru puppets. In the 1950s in the United States, yak hair was widely used for Santa Claus beards. There is such a thing as yak cashmere.
A yak race is conducted in Qinghai once a year. The race is slow because the yaks don’t run and stop and eat grass along the away
Yaks as Food
Cooked yak meat Unlike goats and sheep, yaks produce milk all year round. On average a yak produces eight times more milk than a goat, and 16 times more than a sheep. The milk is rich and contains double the protein and minerals of cow’s milk but it spoils in two hours, which explains why it is usually made into butter. Yak milking takes some skill.
Yak curd is both consumed fresh and dried. Some European and Nepalese cheesemakers are teaching Tibetans how to make cheese, which sells for around $14 a kilogram in Beijing and Shanghai. One European food critic who tried the cheese in Beijing said it was “young, piquant, a little dry—comparable to a cheeky Griyere...great with a glass of wine.”
Yak meat is also good but can be very tough and chewy. It is eaten cooked or dried. Although Tibetan Buddhists frown on the killing of yaks and other animals, there is no ban on the eating of yak meat.
Yaks in Mustang are not killed. But once a year they are bled and the dried blood is eaten. The tails are cut off and sold in India as fly whisks. Owners of yaks in Mustang sometimes hope their animals will fall off a cliff. Only then do they get at more than 800 pounds of yak meat. The only people allowed to kill animals are the Shembas—a low status tribe similar to the untouchable in India, who are not allowed to live in the city.⌂
The yak cheese that Tibetans eat is fermented and not very palatable to Western tastes. One NGO called Ventures in Development brought in a cheesecaker from Wisconsin and experimented with producing different kinds of aged cheese with yak milk. Fresh Yage cheese and older Geza gold have been given to chefs at trendy restaurants. Westerners who have tried the Geza say it’s smelly and a bit salty but tastes good.
Yak Butter Products
Yak butter tea Yak butter is probably the most important thing taken from a yak. It is mixed with tea and barley gruel, and sometimes used as a hairdressing, in lamps, and for greasing squeaky prayer wheels and truck axles. Tibetans make incredibly detailed yak butter sculptures and friezes of flowers, landscapes, trees, temples, human figures animals and god and goddesses.
Yak butter stays preserved for a long time in leather bags. When sealed in airtight sheepskin bags, butter will remain edible for up to a year. But it doesn’t always seem that way. The sour smell of rancid yak butter, wrote Theroux "resembles the smell of an American family's refrigerator after a long midsummer power cut. It is the reek of old milk."
A common sound in rural Tibet is the dull rhythmic noise of milk being sloshed into butter in a yak-skin bag. The process also yields buttermilk, which is sometimes boiled down to a thick film, which is then dried in the sun for several days produces chourpi, a cheese which Valli said is "so hard you must chew a wad of it for ten minutes before swallowing."
Butter and cheese are also made from sheep, goats and cattle. Tibetans that were transplanted to Switzerland n the 1960s first used normal butter as a substitute when they couldn't get any yak butter, but when the cost of butter became prohibitively expensive they switched to margarine.♣
Yak Dung and Energy
Yak dung is indispensable for cooking and heating. Generally about the size of a man’s hand, yak dung paddies are laid on a mud wall for drying before they are used as fuel. About 7,000 paddies are needed by a household to get through the winter,
Some Tibetans get electricity from the grid and from solar collectors but still to burn yak dung for heat.
“Biogas converters” are used by Tibetan villagers to produce fuel for heating and cooking from yak and cattle dung. When asked about their smell one NGO workers said the villages that use them smell better than they did when the burned dried dung directly and the piles of dung patties polluted their drinking water.
Image Sources: Tibet train com; Purdue University, Weird Meat blog
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2013