Wild yaks make friends with their domestic cousins, but can they do so with local herders?

When wild yak conservationists first met local herders and explained they were here to help, they were met with disbelief: "Help whom? Wild yak already get help from laws, but people don’t. Wild yak deserves protection, but what protection is there for local people? " The project hence started with a research phase aiming to better understand local perspectives. 

 

Hybrids in the wild Photo: Xuchang Liang / WCS

On the remote mountains of Tibet, deep inside the Changtang Nature Reserve, the Garco community solely relies on animal farming, with almost 37,000 animals, 9% of which are domestic yaks. Despite being regarded as the most profitable animal to breed, domestic yaks are also the most problematic both for the herding community and the ecosystem, mostly because of the interference between domestic and wild species and the competition for good pastures. In this region, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) initiated with funding from SOS a conservation programme specifically benefiting Tibetan wild yaks.

According to research conducted by the project team, the level of interference and conflicts has been increasing in past years along with the growth of the domestic yak population. Numbers of domestic yak grew 9.4% in 2012 alone and now outnumber wild yaks by 3.5 times, occupying 88% of wild yak pasturelands around Garco. This translates into the marginalisation of wild yaks and higher rates of interbreeding, which threatens the genetic purity of the Tibetan wild yak population.

Research also showed that a vast majority of local inhabitants held a negative attitude towards wild yaks, with over 88% regarding them as highly problematic. “Wild yaks often severely interfere with our work. They mate with our livestock, leading to irascible hybrid calves, and prevent us from getting closer in order to collect the milk.” says Chimi Basang, a Garco herder. Domestic animals escaping to join wild herds further fuel this conflict between humans and wildlife.

However, the project team identified the low level of public awareness and education on nature conservation topics as the key cause of conflict. Surveys reported that three quarters of respondents regarded the wild yak hunting ban and the increase in their population as the only reasons behind this situation, whereas none of the interviewees were aware of the damage caused by inappropriate herding activities and techniques or habitat degradation due to climate change. Consequently, almost half of the respondents suggested aggressive measures against wild yaks, while only one in ten suggested adjusting current herding sites among the possible solutions.

Following these findings, the project team will engage in a thorough firsthand assessment of the severity and distribution of human-wildlife conflicts in the region around Garco. In parallel, it is researching incentive strategies to mitigate the perceived and real risks of herding sites relocation, such as fears of livestock loss and reduced milk production. The resulting pilot project proposal and mitigation measures will be discussed with local communities and authorities.

It is believed this will enable wild yaks to claim back portions of their original habitat and at the same time promote a sustainable local development. As the Dalaï Lama once said, "“the creatures that inhabit this earth--be they human beings or animals--are here to contribute, each in its own particular way, to the beauty and prosperity of the world.”

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