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Yak pastoralism in Pakistan

G. Rasool,1 B.A. Khan2 and A.W. Jasra3

1. Belour Advisory & Social Development Organization (BASDO), P.O. Box 501, Gilgit-15100, Pakistan
2. Karakoram Agricultural Research Institute for Northern Areas (KARINA), Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), Juglot, Gilgit, Pakistan
3. National Aridland Development and Research Institute (NADRI), Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock, Islamabad, Pakistan

Summary

This paper provides information on the status of domesticated and wild yak in the northern areas and Chitral of Pakistan. Yak breeding is common in some parts of the northern highlands of Pakistan (i.e. Astore in Diamer district and Skardu and Ganche districts in Baltistan). The animal has great economic potential in this part of Pakistan and for this reason; their crossing with domestic cows has evolved, producing many different hybrid types. When male yak are crossed with cows, the male offspring, which are locally called Zo, are used as draft animals and are more resilient to lower altitudes than their yak parent. The female offspring, which are locally called Zomo, produce more milk than pure yak. The role of yak in the highlands of the northern areas of Pakistan is similar to that of camel in the deserts as a beast that provides pastoralists a means to survive during lean times and prosper during good.

Keywords: Feral, hybridisation, yak, zo, zomo

Introduction

There have been negligible efforts to document yak pastoralism in Pakistan, and very little is known about them. Thus, we may say that it is the domestic animal species, which has been the most neglected by researchers in Pakistan. The Karakoram Agricultural Research Institute for Northern Areas (KARINA) and the National Aridland Development and Research Institute (NADRI) have jointly initiated a field survey to document preliminary information on yak husbandry and its production system in the northern areas of Pakistan.

Yak pastoralism in Pakistan is confined to the higher altitudes of the northern areas and Chitral. The northern areas cover 72.5 thousand km2 on Pakistan's north-eastern frontier with Afghanistan, China and India. It is one of the most mountainous regions in the world with more than half of the area lying at an altitude of 4500 metres above sea level (masl). In valley bottoms, temperatures range from 45°C in summer to 10°C in winter. Rainfall rarely exceeds 200 mm annually in areas below 3000 masl, but at higher altitudes, snowfall up to 2000 mm per annum are registered. Most of the mountain slopes are without vegetation.

Yak, the largest and heaviest of all Tibetan animals, belongs to the Mammalia class, the Artiodactyla order, the Bovidae family, the Bos genus and the grunniens species. The native name for wild yak is 'Dong' in Baltistan, 'Bapoo' in the Gilgit and Astore areas, and 'Terminy' in the Hunza, Nagar and Gojal areas.

Yak population and distribution

Cai and Wiener (1995) reported a total of 25 thousand yak and 0.1 million yak-cattle hybrids in northern Pakistan. However, Khan (1996) estimated that there were only 6000 yak in all of Pakistan. A recent census indicated that the total population of yak in Pakistan's northern areas was 14,914 head. Males accounted for 5603 of the total, among which 3752 were 3 years old and above, and 1851 were below 3 years of age. The female population totalled 9311, where 7015 were 3 years old and above, and 2295 were below 3 years of age. Skardu district has the highest yak population (7045 head), followed by Ghanche district (2532 head), Ghizer district (2355 head) and Gilgit district (1982 head) (Anon. 1998). No data is available for Diamer district, especially the Astore subdivision.

In Chitral, a total of 140 households keep yak, though the yak population of only 60 households has been reported (accounting for 484 head). Of these, 154 were adult males, 119 adult females and 211 young. Most of the yak population is found in the Broghol valley, 250 km north of Chitral city. The Broghol valley encompasses the villages of Broghol, Vedin Koch, Pechuch, Arguan, Chilma Rabat, Chikar Ishkarwaz, Garill and Laskhar Gaz. These villages are located at an altitude of 3387 masl.

Wild yak

There is no report or documentary evidence available confirming the existence of wild yak in Pakistan. Nevertheless, a herd of fifty feral yak, belonging to the Raja of Punyal, reportedly exist in the Sher Gilla water stream of Ghizer district.

Habitats

Domestic yak are most suited to elevations between 4000 and 5000 masl, where they forage throughout the year. Below 3000 masl, yak tend to loose vigour. Yak avoid broken ground, rocky places and glaciers, but are good swimmers. A newly-born calf can easily cross icy mountain streams by attaching firmly onto the tail of elder yak. They live in herds of 20 to 200 animals, including female yak and calves, though the average herd size ranges between 20 and 100 animals with only a few farmers having larger herds. Old male yak are solitary and sometimes live in herds of five. In early spring, herds increase in size and are found around grassy grounds, where they are attracted by newly sprouting grasses. With the advancement of the warm season, they move into the upper reaches until autumn. They return back to lower elevations in the valleys and water logged areas and wander for grasses in wastelands during winter.

Body weight

The body size of domestic yak is smaller than wild yak. The body weight of mature domestic yak ranges between 380 to 400 kg for males, and between 260 to 270 kg for females. Birth weights vary between 10 to 16 kg. Weight gain continues up to six months of age, at which time body weight ranges from 200 to 250 kg. The dressing percentage of male yak averages 44. Owing to its high haemoglobin and low fat content, yak meat is characterised by an intense red colour, and is devoid of marbling. It is coarse fibred but very suitable for sausages. Yak fat owing to its high carotene content (19 mg/kg of fat) is deep yellow in colour.

Yak breeding

A pure breed of yak is kept by herders in upper Hunza, of Gilgit district, as there is no tradition of cross breeding yak with local cows. This is also true in other subdivisions of Gilgit and Ghizer districts (e.g. the Nagar, Haramosh, Gupis, Phundar and Yasin valleys). Similarly, cross breeding is not practised in the Wakhan areas of Afghanistan, adjacent to Pakistan's Ashkoman valley. The vocabularies of the Bursho and Wakhi languages do not include any words for cross breeding and the pure breeds are known as 'Terminy'.

Yak herders in Baltistan, however, do cross their breeding male and female yak with domestic cows and ox, a practice that has been going on since time immemorial. Hybridisation is more common in Shiger, Ghanche, and Hoshe in Baltistan, as it is in Ladakh to the east. It is also practised in Astore, Rattu and other areas of Diamer district, where one or two male yak are kept in each village for crossbreeding with local cows. These breeding males are highly valued by villagers and can go to any field for grazing. They are also fed special foods like butter and eggs, and are considered sacred. Their hybrid offspring have special local names and are used for specific purposes. Male hybrids are called Zo and the female Zomo. Zo make good draft animals and Zomo are considered the best producers of milk and butter. The feed requirements of hybrids are relatively low compared to cattle and are easy to keep even in the most unfavourable climatic conditions. Female yak, locally called 'Yakmo', are also crossed with ox. Their offspring are locally called 'Tul' (male) and 'Tulmo' (female), (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A commonly followed breeding scheme to produce hybrids of yak and cow.

Yak health and hazards

In Chitral, Black Quarter has been reported as the major disease affecting yak, sometimes causing mortality as high as 15%. Haemorhagic septicemia is another fatal disease. Foot and Mouth disease also has a high reported infection rate. The wolf is reportedly the main predator of yak, and acts as a major threat to the local yak population. In the northern areas, abortion, lung swelling and diseases related to poor nutrition and management also have been observed. There are no veterinary services available.

Economic importance

The role of yak in the highlands is much the same as that of camel in the desert. A staff representative of the National Geographic Society, who was leading a Trans-Asiatic expedition to China along the traditional silk route remarked, 'Yak seem to do everything except lay eggs'. Yak are used for many purposes in the northern areas of Pakistan, namely meat, wool, leather and draft. Female yak make poor milking animals, and reportedly produce 1 to 2 litres of milk daily for 4 to 5 months. In eastern Pamir, the average milk yield during the peak lactation period of 150 to 170 days was estimated at 300 litres, in addition to 200 litres suckled by calves. However, Cai and Wiener (1995) reported the average milk production of yak in Pakistan at 600 litres per lactation of 200 days. Yak milk is a rich golden colour and has a high fat content, with fat globules of 4 to 5 micron in diameter. Solid non-fat content is also high. Butter made from yak milk has a typical aromatic flavour and does not turn rancid.

A wet hide constitutes approximately 8% of the live weight. Adult yak yield 750 to 1400 g of hair and 500 g down fibre per year. Hair is used for making tent covers, grain sacks and ropes. Down coats are made into felt. Tails are tied with a handle and utilised as dusting brushes. Dried yak dung provides the most common fuel on the high plateaus of the northern areas of Pakistan.

In the northern areas of Pakistan, yak are considered excellent pack and riding animals for mountain travel. They are capable of carrying loads of up to 150 kg, and even with relatively poor feed, they can carry 50 to 75 kg loads for 13 to 16 hours a day for months. In difficult mountain terrain, yak are superior to mules in finding their way, and skilful in moving through snow.

References

Anon. 1998. Livestock census, northern areas. Agricultural Census Organization, Statistic Division, Government of Pakistan (GOP), Gulber Lahore, Pakistan. 29 pp.

Cai L. and Wiener G. 1995. The yak. FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand. pp. 191193.

Khan R. 1996. Yak production and genetic diversity in Pakistan. In: Miller D.G., Craig S.R. and Rana G.M. (eds), Proceedings of a workshop on conservation and management of yak genetic diversity held at ICIMOD, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2931 October 1996. ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development), Kathmandu, Nepal. pp. 5760.

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