The Amu snow mountain area in Garcuo territory. An escaped domestic yak (first from the right) has now chosen to live together with a group of wild yaks.
“How far is still home?” – Lobu asked while struggling to spot out the right way back to Gacuo after a day spent in the field to locate wild yak habitats and seasonal livestock pastures among Tibetan mountains.
It was winter in Changtang, the longest of all the seasons here on the Plateau. Frost crystals covered every leaf and every stone. Lobu Jainde is 32 year old passionate leader of Gacuo community. That night Lobu was our magnificent guide to the wild Tibet.
The moon was full that night, a big bright dish almost at reach of our numb fingers. The iced Changtang Lake was sparkling in silvery moonlight among the dark surrounding mountains. Snowy peaks towered majestically, the only witnesses to the secret flow of glaciers.
Ancient travelers reporting about Changtang mentioned that it was common to see groups of over 1,000 wild yaks grazing together. When they were running, spirits seemingly played drums in the underground and a rolling cloud of dust was erupting from the valley. With my mind I could see herds grazing peacefully in the fields, calves amusing themselves and the sunshine painting everything in gold.
Panorama outside Gacuo, Changtang, Tibet.
At that time, wild yaks were unaware that in a few centuries a fierce and challenging neighbor would have moved closer to their pasture. In 1970s around 300 herdsmen with all their livestock migrated 270km up from southern regions. Wisdom, courage, strength and luck were everything they were relying upon. To face the challenges of the unknown, these newcomers opted for a collective lifestyle where everything was shared among the community, from livestock to accommodation. This largely survives still nowadays, Gacuo district hosts around 100 families and a population of 3'200 domestic yaks other than several thousands of other livestock.
On the day we arrived in Gacuo the “Gongfen” – a yearly work performance evaluation – was taking place, with discussions over the salary and food allocations among all the families. Our host was Ms. Chimi Basang, 42 years old, one of the yak-herding team leaders of Gacuo. For the past three years she has moved to six locations each year in order to herd the 230 domestic yaks of the village assigned to her team. In most of these locations she has to live in tents, like her ancestors have done for generations. When herding, every morning she wakes up at 5am for milking, around 10am she sends the yaks to grazing and then works on producing dairy products. Before the sunset she gathers the herd and brings it back to the campsite for the night.
Herding yaks is regarded to be more convenient than sheep or goats. In fact, they are easy to look after and yield larger revenue to the village (around 175 Euro each per year). Eventually, this allows yak teams to earn more “Gongfen” and have a larger income. In 2012, Chimi's family earned over 2,200 Euro between cash and meat allocations.
WCS is interviewing an experienced yak herder in Garcuo. There are 12 groups, each of them is of 3-5 people and herding 200-300 domestic yaks.
When she was asked about wild yaks, she showed her mixed feelings. Deep in her heart she does not want to hurt those wild neighbors, but they often interfere with her livestock, especially during the mating season. Hybrid calves are irascible and difficult to manage and turn domestic adults away making herders unable to milk the livestock for several weeks.
Chimi reported that wild yaks are like bandits to her. While we shared with her the need to protect wild yaks, she asked in reply: “They cause so much economic loss to us, even hurt human lives, how could we protect our livestock from them?” “Honestly”, I replied, “This is why we are here to seek potential solutions which may be good to both you and wild yaks.”
“How far is still home?” – Lobu repeated waking me from my thoughts on Chimi’s question. “Around 20 kilometers.” – We were at 5,500 meters, in the middle of uninhabited wilderness, hearing the wind blowing with slow crescendos and watching the red clouds gathering together at the sunset.
“Why do you like animals so much?” I asked Lobu. “Because I have grown up from a family of shepherds. When I was a kid, I liked climbing up on the rocky hills, searching for the nests of eagles, and see mothers feeding their babies. I liked roaming along the massive riverbed, indulging with a group of Tibetan antelopes and running after them.”
I gazed at the bright moon and at the white mountains far northwards. At this moment, maybe a wild yak was looking downhill at the lights of the village. How do you feel my dear? You are also missing your home, aren't you?
A lonely male wild yak - Gaize County, CNNR, Tibet.
With SOS support, in 2012 the Wildlife Conservation Society has started a pilot project in Gacuo township to identify viable solutions for a community-based wild yak conservation program in Changtang National Nature Reserve. Climate change and human expansion are progressively narrowing suitable habitats, so that over 700 wild yaks have been observed in Gacuo area. This often leads to resources competition and interbreeding with domestic yaks, which results in interactions and conflicts with local herders.
During winter 2012, WCS project team (Liang Xuchang, Wan Zhikang and Tsering Paldron) performed a feasibility study through a number of interviews with local people and authorities. Meanwhile, we have carried out an intensive on-site investigation to identify grazing sites for every domestic yaks each month, and locate wild yak groups across 6,000km2 of mountains and valleys. At present, we are working on a strategy of incentives aimed at mitigating the human-animal conflict and diversifying local livelihoods. This will help wild yaks claim back portions of their original habitat and will also promote a sustainable development of local communities.
WCS project team wishes to thank for their generous support and assistance Gacuo local authorities, the Southern China Institute of Endangered Animals (SCIEA), the Chinese Academy of Science, and the Forestry Bureaus of Ali and Naqu Prefectures of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. None of this could have been possible without the farsighted financial support from Save our Species.
Written by: Liang XuChang （梁旭昶）
Edited by: Ramacandra Wong
Pictures: WCS/Liang XuChang（梁旭昶）