Transhumant pastoralism in a changing world: Challenges and opportunities to sustainable yak farming in Bhutan

Nedup Dorji

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


In the high altitude of Bhutan, yak farming is the main livelihood of transhumant pastoralist communities living 2500 m above sea level. Yak farming in Bhutan, however, is under pressure due to socioeconomic developments, policy and climate change. There is a lack of knowledge on: i) how and to what extent these pressures affect yak farming practices and the health and welfare of yaks; ii) what factors influence the future plans and decisions of the herders on yak farming, and iii) what solutions may be needed to sustain yak farming under these pressures. Therefore, the aim of this thesis was to assess the impact of external factors and management on yak farming in Bhutan, with a focus on past developments, the current situation (including the health and welfare of yaks) and future perspectives in yak farming.

The future of yak farming in Bhutan is unsure or might even be at risk because its current situation and recent developments are not very well known to policy makers. Chapter 2 provides a comprehensive overview of the current situation and developments of yak farming practices over the years from the perspective of livestock professionals (n = 28) and yak herders in three regions (east, n = 25; central, n = 20; west, n = 22). Overall, yak-based communities experienced several threats to their way of living, which are exacerbated by external factors and may include, but are not restricted to, i) socioeconomic developments in the form of access to modern education for children, and alternative sources of income affecting the motivation and interest of young pastoralists to stay in yak farming; ii) nature conservation policy (e.g. Forest and Nature Conservation Act 1995 of Bhutan) in the form of shrub proliferation in the rangelands causing forage shortage; and iii) nature conservation policy in the form of predators attacking and/or killing yaks. Additionally, some factors affecting forage availability were specific to certain regions, for example, competition with the horse population (west), cordyceps collection (west and central), cattle and cattle-yak hybrids (east) and prohibited burning of shrubs around rangelands (east and central). These findings demonstrated that a one blanket-policy will be not effective to preserve yak farming for the future.

The health and welfare conditions of yaks are unknown and are presumably at risk due to feed scarcity, predators, out breaks of diseases and parasites, limited possibilities for monitoring, and limited accessibility to veterinary and health services. In order to improve the living conditions of yaks, health and welfare assessments are necessary. In Chapter 3, a welfare protocol and assessment procedure based on elements of the Welfare Quality® protocol for cattle was applied, which allowed assessment in the open field under mountainous conditions. In general, yaks in Bhutan experience high levels of welfare under existing management systems during autumn and early winter. In the visited yak herds, clinical issues, such as dirty body parts, lesions, ocular and nasal discharge, diarrhoea, lameness and subclinical mastitis were virtually absent. In some herds a relatively high level of self-grooming, scratching and rubbing was observed, which may be associated with limited treatments against ectoparasites. Moreover, the traditional bull castration and piercing the nasal septum of animals around weaning without the use of analgesic were prominent identified welfare issues that needs attention. This chapter also emphasises a need to assess health and welfare of yaks in spring / early summer after a challenging winter period with poor forage and weather conditions.

In general, farmers are more likely to give up farming when they experience several constraints and challenges in farming and also have a better alternative source of income. In Chapter 4, therefore, associations between perceived concerns around yak farming and preferred source(s) of income of herders and their future plans and decisions were investigated. Although concerns of herders around yak farming have increased over the years, most herders (82%) wish their children to continue yak farming in the future. Nonetheless, over half of herders (58%) and most livestock professionals (96%) think that the number of yak farming families will decline in the future. Furthermore, herders’ preferred source(s) of income had no relation with herders’ opinion on the number of yak farming families in the future and herders’ wish for their children to continue yak farming. This suggests that the herders have confidence that yak farming will remain a reliable source of income.

Although the Bhutanese government aims to support yak farming in transition, there are several cross-cutting policies and issues that probably affect successful implementation of interventions. In Chapter 5, the challenges and opportunities to sustain yak farming and related trade-offs around problems and solutions were assessed through individual and focus group interviews with six stakeholder groups (i.e. yak herders from two regions, livestock extensionists, park rangers, livestock officials and forest officials). The results reiterate the decreasing labour availability (i.e. successors), decreasing forage availability in the rangelands, and increasing yak predation by wild animals were the main threats to sustainable yak farming; the market to sell yak products was the least threat. However, most problems and solutions that were identified in the focus group interviews differed between, and sometimes within, the stakeholder groups. This implies that there are several challenges and barriers to sustaining yak farming. There is a need for a multi-stakeholder dialogue aiming to discuss problems and solutions together with different stakeholders. Also, stakeholder groups mentioned that the government should streamline socioeconomic development by supporting and improving basic facilities in yak farming villages (e.g. better access to communication and health services), pay attention to human-wildlife conflicts and forage shortage, and explore sustainable income based on yak farming. These policy and interventions to encourage yak farming probably also improve the living conditions of the yaks.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Groot Koerkamp, Peter, Promotor
  • Bokkers, E.A.M., Co-promotor
  • Derks, Marjolein, Co-promotor
Award date21 Oct 2020
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463954464
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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