Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Transhumant Pastoralism in Yak Production in the Lower Mustang District of Nepal

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Transhumant Pastoralism in Yak Production in the Lower Mustang District of Nepal

Article excerpt


There are thirty yak herd owners, all men and mainly Thakalis, between Jomsom and Lete in Lower Mustang. Transhumance is used in herding yaks, which migrate seasonally between winter pastures at about 3,000-4,000 metres and summer pastures at about 4,000-5,000 metres above sea level. Absentee herd ownership, in which shepherds (usually members of a non-Thakali ethnic group) herd only yaks and do not own any animals themselves, is common. Yaks are raised primarily for meat and milk, though substantial income is realized from selling blood during two blood-drinking ceremonies and from selling yaks as pack animals. Milk is used for products such as butter/ghee and a dry, hard curd cheese (chhurpi), which are mainly sold but also used for home consumption and for making 'salty butter tea'.

Yak wool has little commercial value today but is used to make rope and tents. Yak owner estimations of how much of their income is derived from their herds range widely between I0 percent and 90 percent, but average about 50 percent. Additional income is made from the sale of seasonal crops, in particular apples, potatoes, maize, millet and barley that are produced on the owners' land. Owners also raise chickens, cows, buffalo, oxen, horses and goats. Two of the herd owners owned hotels that were run by their families. In this study, annual earnings from yaks totalled approximately Nepalese Rupees (N.Rs) 72,780 and total income for the herd owner was about N.Rs 145,560 (U.S. $2,079).

We concluded that for these herd owners, yak raising is not a subsistence economic activity but rather part of a market economy based on speculative investments and accumulation. Moreover, yak production is a very high-risk enterprise as disasters can decimate large proportions of a herd quickly.

Keywords: Nepal, yaks, transhumant pastoralism, Lower Mustang, absentee herd ownership


Economies in mountain societies are often based on livestock production which, in general, entails covering large distances to suitable pastures. In the Himalayas, in particular in remote areas, yaks are often the livestock of choice and can be a symbol of wealth (Wu 2006). Yaks are generally raised by transhumant pastoralism, which Kreutzmann (2004) defined as 'seasonal migrations of herds between summer pastures in the mountains and winter pastures in the lowlands'.

The value of yaks in high mountains is well illustrated in the Langtang Valley in Nepal and on the Tibetan Plateau in western China. In the Langtang Valley, yaks and hybrids account for 79 percent of all domestic livestock, sheep for 15.5 percent, horses for 3.5 percent and goats for 2 percent (McVeigh 2004). McVeigh (2004: 109) states that 'yaks and yak-cow hybrids dominate Langtang's pastoral landscape. They are by far the most important domesticated animal in terms of absolute numbers owned, the number of households who own them, the economic contribution they make to the household and village economy, and the social arrangements necessary to maintain them'.

On the Tibetan Plateau, Tibetan nomads raise yaks and their hybrids, sheep, goats and horses (Miller 2000). According to Miller:

   [A]lthough Tibetan Nomads also raise other animals, they place so
   much value on the yak that the Tibetan word for yaks, nor, is also
   translated as wealth. The yak makes life possible for man in one of
   the world's harshest environments. There is little doubt that the
   presence of wild yaks, and their later domestication, was the
   single most important factor in the adaptation of civilization on
   the Tibetan Plateau. (2000: 89)

The Yak

The yak (Poephagus grunniens) belongs to the family Bovidae, together with bison (Bison), buffalo (Bubalus) and cattle (Bos), and is the only species of its genus. Initially, the yak (the female is called 'nak') was named Bos grunniens due to its relationship to cattle, but was then placed into its own genus, Poephagus, because of its distinctness from other bovines (Zhao 2000a). …

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