Sunday, February 25, 2024

Himalayan Yak

Himalayan Yak UPSC

The Himalayan yak (Bos grunniens) is a large, domesticated bovine species native to the Himalayan region of South Central Asia, including countries like India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and parts of China. 

Yaks have been domesticated for various purposes by local communities in the Himalayan region. They serve as multipurpose animals, providing milk, meat, wool, and hides. Their dung is also used as fuel, and they are utilized as pack animals for transporting goods across difficult terrains.

The Himalayan yak plays a significant role in the livelihoods and culture of the people in the region, serving as a reliable source of sustenance and support in the challenging mountainous terrain.

Table of Contents

  • Himalayan Yak Characteristics
    • Classification
    • Scientific Name
    • Habitat
    • Physical Appearance
    • Diet
    • Behavior
    • Reproduction
    • Lifespan
    • Importance
  • Himalayan Yak in India
  • Protection Status
  • Conservation
  • Threats
  • Himalayan Yak UPSC Question

Himalayan Yak Characteristics

What are the characteristics of a Himalayan yak?

The Himalayan yak possesses several distinctive characteristics that enable it to thrive in the challenging environments of the high-altitude regions. Here are some key features:

1. Classification:

The Himalayan yak belongs to the family Bovidae and the genus Bos. Specifically, it is classified as Bos grunniens. Here is its classification at different taxonomic levels:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Artiodactyla
  • Family: Bovidae
  • Genus: Bos
  • Species: Bos grunniens

The domestic yak (Bos grunniens) is closely related to the wild yak (Bos mutus), and both species are found in the Himalayan region. Yaks are part of the subfamily Bovinae, which also includes other cattle such as domestic cattle (Bos taurus) and bison (Bison spp.). 

2. Scientific Name:

The scientific name of the Himalayan yak is Bos grunniens.

3. Habitat:

The Himalayan yak is adapted to harsh, high-altitude environments and is primarily found in the mountainous regions of South Central Asia, including the Himalayas. Their habitat spans across countries such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and parts of China. The specific features of their habitat include:

1. Altitude:

Yaks are well-suited to high altitudes, often inhabiting regions above 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) and reaching up to 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) or more. They are particularly well-adapted to the thin air and low oxygen levels of these elevated environments.

2. Mountainous Terrain:

Yaks thrive in rugged and mountainous terrains with steep slopes and rocky landscapes. Their sturdy build and strong hooves enable them to navigate such challenging topography.

3. Pasturelands:

Yaks primarily graze on alpine meadows and pastures found in the high-altitude regions. These areas provide the grasses and vegetation necessary for their diet.

4. Cold Climate:

The thick, shaggy coat of yaks is an adaptation to the cold temperatures of their habitat. The coat provides insulation against the harsh weather conditions, including snow and low temperatures.

5. Nomadic Lifestyle:

In many cases, yaks are part of nomadic pastoralist communities that move seasonally in search of suitable grazing grounds. This lifestyle allows yaks to access different pastures as the seasons change.

4. Physical Appearance:

The Himalayan yak (Bos grunniens) has a distinctive physical appearance, characterized by features that enable it to thrive in the high-altitude environments of the Himalayan region. Here are some key aspects of their physical appearance:

(i). Size and Build:

  • Yaks are large, robust animals with a sturdy build, well-suited for the rugged and mountainous terrain they inhabit.
  • Adult males (bulls) are generally larger than females (cows).

(ii). Weight:

  • Males weigh 350 to 585 kg; females weigh 225 to 255 kg.
  • Wild yaks can be substantially heavier, with bulls reaching weights of up to 1,000 kg.

(iii). Height:

  • Domestic yak males are 111–138 cm at the withers; females are 105–117 cm.

(iv). Coat:

What color is a yak?

  • Yaks have a dense, long, and shaggy coat that provides insulation against the cold temperatures of high altitudes.
  • Fur hangs down lower than the belly, sometimes touching the ground.
  • The coat can vary in color, including black, brown, or white. The coloration may differ between individual yaks.

(v). Horns:

Do female yaks have horns?

  • Smooth and generally dark in color.
  • Both male and female yaks typically have long, curved horns that extend outward from their heads.
  • Males have longer, sweeping horns (48 to 99 cm) that curve backward.
  • Females have smaller, more upright horns (27 to 64 cm).
  • The horns are often used for defense and may be a distinguishing feature between males and females.

(vi). Head:

  • Yaks have a broad and square-shaped head.
  • Their facial features include a wide forehead, a strong jaw, and a slightly drooping nose.

(vii). Hump:

  • Yaks have a noticeable hump over their shoulders, which is more prominent in males. 
  • This hump is composed of muscle and fat and is an adaptation for storing energy.

(viii). Tail:

  • Yaks have a bushy tail, often with a tuft of hair at the end.

(ix). Hooves:

  • Yaks have strong and well-adapted hooves that provide traction on rocky and uneven terrain.

(x). Adaptations for High Altitude:

  • Physiologically, yaks have adaptations to thrive in high-altitude environments, including larger hearts and lungs to extract more oxygen from the thin mountain air.
  • It can tolerate temperatures as low as-40 degrees Celsius.

5. Diet:

What do Himalayan yaks eat?

Yaks are herbivorous animals with a diet primarily consisting of grasses, sedges, herbs, and dwarf shrubs. Their feeding habits are adapted to the high-altitude environments where they are commonly found. Here are some key aspects of the yak's diet:

(i) Grazing Herbivores:

Yaks are classified as grazing herbivores, meaning they predominantly feed on vegetation found on the ground.

(ii) Grasses and Sedges:

Wild yaks and domestic yaks alike feed on grasses and sedges that grow in alpine meadows and pastures. These grasses provide essential nutrients for their diet.

(iii) Herbs and Dwarf Shrubs:

In addition to grasses, yaks may also consume various herbs and dwarf shrubs that are available in their habitat. This diversity in plant sources helps meet their nutritional needs.

(iv) Efficient Nutrient Extraction:

Yaks have a specialized digestive system adapted to their diet. Compared to domestic cattle, the rumen of yaks is unusually large relative to the omasum. This adaptation allows them to consume greater quantities of low-quality food at a time and to ferment it longer to extract more nutrients.

(v) Foraging Behavior:

Yaks are known for their ability to forage in challenging terrains, including steep slopes and rocky landscapes. Their sturdy build and hooves enable them to navigate these environments in search of suitable vegetation.

(vi) Daily Food Consumption:

Yaks consume the equivalent of 1% of their body weight daily. This is a lower percentage compared to domestic cattle, which typically require around 3% of their body weight to maintain condition.

6. Behavior:

The behavior of the Himalayan yak is influenced by its natural habitat, which includes high-altitude, mountainous regions. Here are some key aspects of the behavior of yaks:

(i) Social Structure:

Yaks are social animals and typically form herds. These herds may consist of both males and females, with a dominant bull leading the group.

(ii) Herding Instinct:

Yaks exhibit a strong herding instinct, which helps them navigate the challenging terrain of their habitat. The herd provides protection and facilitates mutual defense against predators.

(iii) Nomadic Lifestyle:

In many cases, yaks are part of nomadic pastoralist communities. These communities move seasonally in search of suitable grazing areas for their yaks.

(iv) Territoriality:

Yaks may exhibit territorial behavior, especially during the breeding season. Dominant bulls may establish and defend territories to attract and mate with females.

(v) Vocalization:

While not known for the characteristic lowing (mooing) sound of cattle, yaks communicate through grunts and squeaks. The scientific name for the domestic yak variant, Bos grunniens, reflects this grunting behavior.

(vi) Migration:

Nomadic herding communities may lead their yaks on seasonal migrations to find new grazing areas. This movement allows yaks access to fresh pastures and helps prevent overgrazing in a particular area.

(vii) Protective Instinct:

Yaks are known to be protective of their calves, and the entire herd may exhibit defensive behavior if they sense a threat.

(viii) Interaction with Humans:

Domesticated yaks are often used by Himalayan communities for various purposes, such as transporting goods, providing milk and meat, and serving as essential components of the local economy.

7. Reproduction:

How long is a yak pregnant?

(i) Mating Season:

Yaks mate during the summer months, typically between July and September, depending on the local environment.

(ii) Female Estrus Cycle:

  • Females enter estrus (heat) up to four times a year.
  • Females are receptive for only a few hours in each cycle.

(iii) Bull Behavior:

  • During the non-breeding season, many bull yaks may wander in small bachelor groups. As the rut (breeding season) approaches, they become more aggressive.
  • Bulls engage in various behaviors to establish dominance, including non-violent threat displays, bellowing, scraping the ground with their horns, and direct competition such as charging and sparring.

(iv) Wallowing and Scent-Marking:

Bulls, similar to bison, wallow in dry soil during the rut. This behavior is often accompanied by scent-marking using urine or dung.

(v) Gestation Period:

  • The gestation period for yaks lasts between 257 and 270 days.
  • Calves are typically born between May and June.

(vi) Birth and Behavior of Calves:

  • The cow finds a secluded spot to give birth, but the calf can walk within about ten minutes of birth.
  • Calves are born as singletons.

(vii) Weaning and Independence:

  • Calves are weaned at one year of age and become independent shortly thereafter.

(viii) Reproductive Frequency:

Both wild and domestic female yaks typically give birth only once every other year. However, more frequent births are possible if the food supply is abundant.

(ix) Maturation and Reproductive Fitness:

  • Females generally give birth for the first time at three or four years of age.
  • They reach their peak reproductive fitness at around six years.

8. Lifespan:

What is the maximum age of yak?

The lifespan of the Himalayan yak can vary depending on factors such as whether they are in the wild or domesticated, the quality of their living conditions, and other environmental factors. In general, yaks can live for more than twenty years in domestication or captivity.

In the wild, their lifespan might be somewhat shorter due to natural challenges such as predation, harsh weather conditions, and competition for resources. However, estimates suggest that in their natural habitat, wild yaks can live up to 25 years.

9. Importance:

The Himalayan yak holds significant importance, both culturally and economically, for the communities in the high-altitude regions of South Central Asia, including the Himalayas. Here are several aspects highlighting the importance of yaks:

(i) Cultural Significance:

Yaks play a vital role in the traditional cultures and lifestyles of the Himalayan communities. They are often considered sacred animals and are integral to religious ceremonies and rituals. According to Tibetan legend, the first yaks were domesticated by Tibetan Buddhism founder Guru Rinpoche.

(ii) Economic Livelihood:

Yaks are a cornerstone of the economic livelihoods of many Himalayan communities. They provide a range of products and services, including milk, meat, wool, hides, and dung. Yak herding and husbandry contribute to the sustenance of local economies, providing essential resources for daily life and trade.

(iii) Transportation:

Yaks serve as pack animals, helping communities transport goods and supplies across challenging terrains where other forms of transportation may be impractical. They play a crucial role in the movement of goods in mountainous regions.

(iv) Food Source:

Milk: Yak milk is a nutritious source of food for the local communities. According to the nutritional analysis, yak milk contains 78-82% water, 7.5-8.5% fat, 4.9-5.3% protein, 4.5-5.0% lactose and 12.3-13.4% solids-not-fat. The products which are traditionally produced from yak milk are churkum, churpi, ghee and paneer.

Meat: Yak meat is also a valuable source of protein, especially in areas where other livestock may not thrive due to the harsh environment. The meat contains 74.8% moisture, 21.7% protein, 1.5% crude fat and 1.2% ash.

(v) Textiles and Craftsmanship:

The wool from yaks is used to create textiles, including clothing and blankets. Yak wool is known for its warmth and insulation properties, making it suitable for the cold climates of the Himalayas. Yak hides are used for crafting traditional items such as tents and various leather goods.

(vi) Environmental Contribution:

Yaks are well-adapted to high-altitude environments and contribute to the maintenance of ecosystems by grazing on vegetation in alpine meadows and pastures.

(vii) Tourism:

Yaks are often a draw for tourism in the Himalayan region. Tourists may encounter yaks and may even experience yak rides, adding to the local economy through tourism-related activities.

Himalayan Yak in India

The Himalayan yak is found in various regions of India, particularly in the northern and north-eastern parts of the country, where the Himalayan mountain range extends. 

1. Geographical Distribution:

Himalayan yaks are primarily found in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. These areas are characterized by high altitudes and mountainous terrain, providing a suitable habitat for yaks.

2. Cultural and Economic Importance:

Yaks are of significant cultural and economic importance to the local communities in these regions. They are integral to the traditional way of life and livelihoods of many people, especially those engaged in pastoralism.

3. Utilization for Multiple Purposes:

Yaks in India are utilized for multiple purposes, including milk production, meat, wool, and as pack animals for transportation in the challenging terrains of the Himalayas.

4. Population in India:

According to a census in 2019, India has some 58,000 yaks. The yak population in India has seen a significant decline, with a reported drop of about 25% from the livestock census conducted in 2012 to the census in 2019. This decline is alarming and may have implications for the cultural, economic, and ecological aspects associated with yak herding.

Himalayan Yak Protection Status

1. IUCN Status:

The wild species of yak is classified under Bos mutus and is listed as "Vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List. This designation indicates that the species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild.


Yaks are listed under CITES Appendix I. This classification includes species that are threatened with extinction, and international trade in specimens of these species is generally prohibited.

3. Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972:

Yaks, likely referring to the wild species, are listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. Schedule I includes species that receive the highest level of legal protection under the Act, implying stringent measures against hunting, poaching, and trade.

Himalayan Yak Conservation

Conservation efforts for the Himalayan yak involve a combination of strategies aimed at protecting both the wild and domestic populations. Here are key aspects of yak conservation:

1. Habitat Protection:

Preserving the natural habitats of wild yaks is crucial. This includes measures to protect high-altitude grazing areas, prevent habitat degradation, and maintain the ecological balance of the regions where yaks roam.

2. Anti-Poaching Measures:

Implementing and enforcing strict anti-poaching measures are essential for protecting wild yak populations. This includes patrolling protected areas, implementing surveillance technologies, and engaging local communities in wildlife protection.

3. Research and Monitoring:

Continuous research on yak ecology, behavior, and population dynamics is vital for informed conservation strategies. Monitoring programs help assess population trends, identify threats, and measure the success of conservation initiatives.

4. Community Engagement:

Involving local communities in yak conservation is crucial. Collaborative efforts with nomadic herders, who have been traditionally involved in yak rearing, can ensure that conservation initiatives align with local needs and practices.

5. Livelihood Diversification:

Supporting and promoting alternative livelihoods for communities dependent on yak herding can reduce pressure on yak populations. Diversification into sustainable agricultural practices or eco-tourism ventures can provide economic alternatives.

6. Genetic Conservation:

Preserving the genetic diversity of domestic yak breeds is essential for maintaining their adaptability and resilience. Initiatives such as breed improvement programs and maintaining diverse herds contribute to genetic conservation.

7. Awareness and Education:

Educating local communities, herders, and the general public about the importance of yaks, their ecological role, and the threats they face can foster a sense of responsibility and garner support for conservation efforts.

8. International Cooperation:

Collaborative efforts at the international level, involving neighboring countries that share yak habitats, can enhance conservation outcomes. Sharing information, coordinating research, and implementing joint conservation initiatives contribute to a more comprehensive approach.

9. Legislation and Policy:

Strengthening and enforcing legislation related to yak conservation, both at the national and international levels, provides a legal framework for protecting yaks and their habitats.

10. Climate Change Adaptation:

Recognizing and addressing the impacts of climate change on yak habitats is crucial. Implementing adaptation strategies that consider changing weather patterns, grazing conditions, and potential shifts in yak distribution can support long-term conservation.

11. Sustainable Grazing Practices:

Promoting sustainable grazing practices that prevent overgrazing and degradation of alpine meadows helps maintain the health of yak habitats and ensures a balanced ecosystem.

12. Food Animal:

The recognition of the Himalayan Yak as a 'food animal' by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), after recommendation from Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying (DAHD), is a significant development with potential implications for conservation and sustainable utilization. Categorizing the Himalayan Yak as a 'food animal' opens avenues for diversification of livelihoods for communities traditionally engaged in yak herding. It may enhance economic opportunities for herders by integrating yaks into the mainstream food industry.

13. Population Conservation:

The move is expected to contribute to the conservation of the Himalayan Yak by integrating it into the conventional milk and meat industry. This recognition may provide economic incentives for the conservation of yak populations.

14. Role of National Research Centre on Yak:

The establishment of the ICAR-National Research Centre on Yak in Arunachal Pradesh underscores the importance of scientific research in understanding yak husbandry. Research institutions play a crucial role in informing policy decisions related to the utilization and conservation of yaks.


The Himalayan Yak faces various threats, both in the wild and in domesticated settings. These threats contribute to challenges in maintaining and conserving healthy yak populations. Here are some key threats to the Himalayan Yak:

1. Habitat Degradation and Fragmentation:

Human activities such as agriculture, infrastructure development, and urbanization can lead to habitat degradation and fragmentation. Loss of grazing land and disruption of migration routes can impact the availability of suitable habitats for yaks.

2. Climate Change:

Climate change poses a significant threat to yak populations. The increasing trend of environmental temperature at high altitudes is resulting in heat stress in yak during warmer months of the year. This, in turn, is affecting the rhythms of physiological responses of the animal.

3. Inbreeding:

As wars and conflicts have led to the closing of borders, the yaks outside borders are thought to be suffering from inbreeding due to the lack of availability of new yak germplasm from the original yak area.

4. Overgrazing and Competition with Livestock:

Overgrazing, especially when coupled with an increase in the number of domesticated livestock sharing grazing areas with yaks, can lead to degradation of alpine meadows. Intense competition for limited resources may negatively impact the health and nutritional status of yak populations.

5. Poaching and Illegal Trade:

Poaching for their meat, hides, and other body parts, as well as illegal trade, pose threats to wild yak populations. The demand for certain yak products can drive illegal activities that threaten the survival of yaks in their natural habitats.

6. Predation:

Predation, particularly by large carnivores like snow leopards, is a threat to yak calves. Losses due to predation can impact the reproductive success and overall population dynamics of yaks.

7. Limited Market Access:

In the context of domesticated yaks, the limited market access for yak products, such as milk and meat, can be a challenge. This limitation may discourage herders from continuing yak-rearing practices, contributing to a decline in domestic yak populations.

8. Traditional Practices:

Certain traditional practices, if not managed sustainably, can contribute to environmental degradation. For example, traditional burning of pastures or excessive use of certain grazing areas can negatively impact the ecosystem.

9. Inadequate Veterinary Care:

In regions where yaks are domesticated, the lack of access to veterinary care and disease management can pose a threat to yak health. Infectious diseases, parasites, and inadequate nutrition can impact the well-being of domestic yak herds.

10. Lack of Economic Incentives:

The lack of economic incentives for yak herders, coupled with the challenges in accessing markets for yak products, may contribute to a decline in interest among younger generations to continue traditional yak-rearing practices.

Himalayan Yak UPSC Question

Q. What is a Himalayan yak?/What animal is called yak?

A. The Himalayan yak (scientifically known as Bos grunniens) is a large, long-haired mammal native to the Himalayan region of Asia. It is well-adapted to the harsh, high-altitude environments of the Himalayas, including parts of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and surrounding areas. 

Q. Where is Himalayan yak found?

A. The Himalayan yak (Bos grunniens) is primarily found in the high-altitude regions of the Himalayas, spanning several countries and regions, including parts of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and surrounding areas. 

Q. Which state belongs to Himalayan yak?

A. In India, Himalayan yaks are found in the following states, particularly in the trans-Himalayan and high-altitude areas:

  • Jammu and Kashmir
  • Himachal Pradesh
  • Uttarakhand
  • Sikkim
  • Arunachal Pradesh

Q. What is yak called in Ladakh?

A. In Ladakh, yaks are commonly known as "Dzo" or "Dzomo." The term "Dzo" refers to the male hybrid offspring of a yak and a domestic cattle (usually a cow or a hybrid), while "Dzomo" refers to the female hybrid offspring.

Q. Is yak the main animal of Ladakh?

A. While yaks are present in Ladakh, they are not the main domesticated animal in the region. The main domesticated animals in Ladakh are a crossbreed of yak and domestic cattle known as Dzo or Dzomo. Dzos are well adapted to the challenging high-altitude environments of Ladakh and are used for various purposes by the local communities.

Q. What is the scientific name of yak?

A. The scientific name of the yak is Bos grunniens. Yaks belong to the genus Bos, which also includes other domesticated and wild cattle species. The wild species of yak is classified as Bos mutus, while the domesticated form is referred to as Bos grunniens. Yaks are well-adapted to the high-altitude environments of the Himalayas and other mountainous regions in Central Asia.

Q. What is the IUCN status of the Himalayan yak?/Is Himalayan yak endangered?/Is yak endangered or extinct?/Is yak endangered in India?

A. The wild species of yak, scientifically known as Bos mutus, is listed as "Vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The domesticated form of the yak, known as Bos grunniens, is not separately assessed on the IUCN Red List as it is considered a domestic animal.

Q. What is yak hair used for?

A. Yak hair has various uses, both traditionally and commercially, due to its unique properties. Here are some common uses of yak hair:

1. Textiles and Clothing: Yak hair is used to produce textiles and clothing items. The long, coarse outer hair of yaks, known as guard hair, is often used for weaving durable fabrics. The undercoat, which is softer and finer, can be blended with other fibers to create textiles with improved warmth and softness.

2. Rope and Cordage: The strong and durable nature of yak hair makes it suitable for the production of ropes and cordage. Traditional communities in the Himalayan region use yak hair for making ropes, which are essential for various purposes, including herding and construction.

3. Yarn and Knitwear: Yak hair is spun into yarn for knitting and crocheting. The soft and warm characteristics of yak fiber make it desirable for producing cozy knitwear, such as sweaters, scarves, and hats.

4. Tents and Shelter Materials: In the Himalayan region, yak hair is traditionally used for making tents. The hair is woven into durable, weather-resistant materials that provide shelter in the challenging high-altitude environments.

5. Brushes and Brooms: The coarse guard hair of yaks is suitable for making brushes and brooms. The stiffness and durability of yak hair make it effective for sweeping and cleaning purposes.

6. Traditional Crafts: Yak hair is used in various traditional crafts, including the creation of intricate textiles, rugs, and other handmade items by communities in the Himalayan region.

7. Upholstery and Home Decor: Yak hair can be used in upholstery for furniture and other home decor items. The natural colors and textures of yak hair add a rustic and authentic touch to such products.

8. Art and Crafts: Yak hair is sometimes used in art and crafts projects for its unique texture and visual appeal. It may be incorporated into sculptures, wall hangings, or other creative endeavors.

Q. What is the color of yak milk?

A. Yak milk is typically white in color, similar to the milk from other dairy animals like cows and goats. The color of milk is primarily influenced by the presence of proteins, fats, and other components. Yak milk, like cow's milk, contains water, proteins, fats, lactose, and minerals. The specific composition of yak milk may vary, but its appearance is generally white or creamy. The color can be influenced by factors such as the diet of the yak and the presence of pigments in the milk. However, in its natural state, yak milk is a whitish liquid.

Q. Is Himalayan yak accepted as food animal by FSSAI?/Is a Himalayan yak a food animal?

A. Yes, the Himalayan yak has been accepted as a "food animal" by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). This designation means that the Himalayan yak is recognized as a source of food, and its products, such as milk and meat, can be considered for inclusion in the conventional food and meat industry.

This move is expected to help address the decline in the population of Himalayan yaks by making them a part of the mainstream food industry. By categorizing the yak as a food animal, it facilitates the integration of yak products into the conventional dairy and meat market, potentially providing economic incentives for herders and contributing to the conservation of the Himalayan yak population.

Himalayan Yak

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