Nepal’s wild yaks ‘need more conservation than research’: Q&A with Naresh Kusi

  • In July, researchers Naresh Kusi and Geraldine Werhahn spotted three wild yaks in Nepal, where sightings are rare and the animal was thought to be extinct.
  • Kusi spoke with Mongabay about the importance of the sightings to the distribution of this iconic bovine in the region and the need for conservation.
  • Wild yaks (Bos mutus) are considered the ancestor of the domesticated yak (Bos grunniens) and hold an important place in the culture and history of the region.

KATHMANDU – Wild Yaks (silly cow) It is believed that they once roamed the northern Himalayan regions of Nepal. The iconic large bovine, considered the ancestor of the domesticated yak (Bos grunniens), He is a native of the mountains and had a deep relationship with the people who lived north of the highest mountains in the world.

Yet even sightings of the animal, now categorized as “vulnerable” by the IUCN, the global conservation authority, have been rare in Nepal since the dawn of the new millennium, though they are still found in large numbers in neighboring Tibet. As the red list says their presence in Nepal is uncertain, researchers and wildlife photographers alike are excited to see them.

naresh kusi
Naresh Kusi in Upper Mustang during a wild yak research expedition in 2017. Image by Prajwol Manandhar

Researcher Naresh Kusi is no exception. He, along with researcher Geraldine Werhahn, were delighted to come across three wild yaks (known as cock in Tibetan) in the Humla district of Nepal in July this year. This was a sight to behold for the duo, who were the first to see the animal in 2014, decades after it was thought to be extinct. Following their findings, the IUCN plans to reassess the animal’s range map to possibly include Nepal.

Kusi, now country program manager at the Himalayan Wolves Project, has tirelessly studied wild yaks since 2014. Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi recently met with Kusi in Kathmandu to discuss the status of the species in Nepal, its cultural importance and what it takes to keep it.

Mongabay: Let’s start with the photo of the three wild yaks you took earlier this year. Could you tell us about it?

Naresh Kusi: Yes, the sighting was quite interesting. When we showed the photo to experts such as Professor Joel Berger and George Schaller, some of them suggested that of the three animals in the photo, one was a female with her young male calf and the other was an older, larger male.

The possible presence of the female yak was very exciting to us as it is an indication that yaks are breeding in Nepal, and not just in Nepal as seasonal migrants.

However, veteran Nepali conservationist Karan Shah said that as the trio look similar in physical gait and body size and have thick, broad horns, they could all be males of different age groups. He said that if we have males in the area, there is an equal possibility of the presence of females.

mongabay: How does your photo add to existing knowledge about the status of the animal in Nepal?

Naresh Kusi: In the early 2000s, the IUCN species assessment indicated that the animal may have become locally extinct in Nepal. Fortunately we detected it in Nepal in 2014 and I am co-author of a study in the journal mammals in 2015. However, doubts were raised as to whether the yak was actually a wild yak, as people in the Himalayas tend to let their male yaks roam free except during winter. There is also the practice of offering male yaks to the gods and releasing them.

The only wild yak sighted in the Gyau Valley of Upper Humla in July 2015. The researchers collected the freshly shed dung sample from this individual for genetic analysis. Image by Naresh Kusi

We had to submit genetic evidence to prove that the yak was truly wild.

So, between 2015 and 2018, I ran a wild yak research and conservation project in Nepal to assess their status and provide much-needed genetic verification. In 2017, the government of Nepal recognized the work we did and released a new 5 rupee note containing the photo of the wild yak taken by our team in 2015.

The new five rupee note issued by the central bank of Nepal in 2017. Image courtesy of Himalayan Wolves Project

During the course of the project, we also managed to collect DNA samples from the animal. We published the study results in 2021, which reveal that wild yaks in Upper Humla, Nepal, are genetically similar to wild yaks found on the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau in neighboring China.

mongabay: Has the development already caught the attention of IUCN?

Naresh Kusi: We have been informed by the IUCN Wild Livestock Specialist Group that they will be conducting an updated red list assessment for the wild yak between 2021 and 2024. We hope this will help put wild yaks in Nepal back on the map global distribution.

mongabay: What is the difference between wild and domestic yaks? Why is it important to save wild yaks?

It is like the case of dogs and wild dogs. Wild dogs were domesticated long ago and developed as a separate species. Similar is the case with yaks, some of which were domesticated in the Holocene.

The wild yak is around 1.5 times larger than the domestic yak and belongs to a completely different species. There are millions of domestic yaks in different Himalayan countries, but wild yaks are limited to a few thousand.

As conservationists, we want to conserve wild yak, as they have a different gene pool than domestic ones.

There is a myth among some communities that crossing wild yaks with domestic yaks would produce offspring that would produce more milk. However, they have now realized that domestic female yaks go through excruciating labor pain if they mate with a wild yak. Also, the chances of a miscarriage are quite high. This doesn’t make sense, as female yaks cost more than 15,000 rupees ($115). So herders try to protect themselves from hormone-charged wild male yaks whenever they see them.

They even castrate domesticated male yaks to tame their aggression.

mongabay: Yaks are said to have played an important role in people’s lives for a long time. What did people say during your interactions with them?

Wild yaks have always had a special place in Tibetan culture. During weddings, the hair of wild yaks is used to make arrows that have special meaning in the ceremony. Also, whenever the water sources dried up, people offered locks of yak hair to the gods to appease them and refill the springs with water.

The other interesting practice is related to “reverse altitude sickness”. We have seen that whenever people from the lowlands head for the mountains, they get altitude sickness. But the same goes for people who live in the highlands when they get to lower altitudes. Back then, the Tibetan people carried tablets made from yak heart blood to treat symptoms they had while traveling to the lowlands. Wild yak hair is also used to make tents.

The 2015 field research team. From left: Tashi Namgyal Lama (mule keeper), Geraldine Werhahn (Director, Himalayan Wolf Project), Pema Rikjin Lama (expedition cook and camp director), Naresh Kusi and Pemba Dorje Tamang (local field guide, Upper Humla). Image courtesy of Naresh Kusi

mongabay: The animal’s very wide utility suggests that they may have been very abundant in the area in the past.

Naresh Kusi: Yes, it is very possible.

Mongabay: What could be the possible reasons for its decline?

Naresh Kusi: I think the main reason is large scale killing and hunting. We have heard that the head of a wild yak was considered a symbol of prestige and people used to hang it on their doorsteps.

Wild yaks also meant free meat. The meat of free-range yaks is believed to be more delicious than that of domesticated ones. A yak can produce about a hundredweight of meat that can feed a family for weeks.

Like I said before, people don’t want wild male yaks to mate with their domesticated female yaks. So whenever wild male yaks get close to domesticated female yaks, farmers retaliate, and that could lead to [the yaks’] death.

mongabay: But doesn’t the increase in sightings of wild yaks suggest that their population is increasing in Nepal?

Naresh Kusi: I think it was during the last five or six years that the situation became favorable for the yaks to return to Nepal. In part it was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed people to stay in their homes. Similarly, people’s livelihoods have changed and local governments are doing their part by protecting the pastures where yaks graze. In July, we saw three wild yaks, but people have told us they’ve seen as many as six.

mongabay: The Limi Valley in Humla, where the yaks were found, is considered the last refuge of wild yaks in Nepal. Is there a possibility that wild yaks are present in other parts of the country?

Naresh Kusi: We have reason to believe that they may have developed a population in an area of ​​Mustang where people have not set foot in the last three decades. When people set foot on Ghami Lake some three decades ago, there was a blizzard followed by a drought. The people related this event to the wrath of God and prohibited the movement of people in the area. Since it provides a conducive habitat for yaks, they may have already arrived there from across the border.

A domesticated yak in Nepal. Image by travelwayoflife via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

mongabay: What do you think should be done to protect yaks in Nepal? Is it possible to reintroduce them by bringing some yaks from Tibet?

Naresh Kusi: If we make sure that the habitat is conducive to yaks, they will automatically come from Tibet, breed here and stay in Nepal. That is a better approach to conservation than reintroduction. We have seen this in the case of Himalayan wolves that have already returned in recent years.

Mongabay: How about the impact of climate change?

Naresh Kusi: Yes, climate change is a huge threat to biodiversity in general. However, in the case of yaks, there are other factors that pose more immediate threats. For example, poaching, pollution and habitat fragmentation are more important issues that need to be addressed.

mongabay: In terms of research, what should be the next step?

Naresh Kusi: At the moment, we need more conservation than research. That being said, we need to focus on the dynamics of the disease, the hybridization of the existing wild population. For example, are wild yaks being affected by disease? Is the disease transmitted to or from domestic animals?

We hope that reassessment of wild yak distribution based on our research will add Nepal to their range. This will bring more attention to the species and its conservation.

Banner image: Three wild yaks sighted in the Sakya khola valley of Upper Humla in July 2022. Image by Naresh Kusi

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