Yak in Nature
The Tibetan yak, Bos grunniens, is a large hairy ox, closely related to bison. Although domesticated yaks have been a part of life in the Himalayas for generations, in the wild they are found only in remote and isolated areas of Tibet between 4,000m - 6,000m, and are considered to be endangered.
The wild yak is a massive, strangely magestic beast ideally suited to grazing the frigid, windswept Tibetan Plateau. The males, which are larger than the females, may stand 2m at the shoulder, and weigh as much as 1,000Kg.
High shoulders and relatively short legs give them a unique profile: their shoulders seem too high, their heads seem too low, and their rear ends seem to dissolve into the ground. Blanketed with long, thick, dark-brown hair from nose to tail, they move across the winter landscape like ghostly haystacks.
Yaks do not low like cattle, as one might expect; they produce low, gutteral, grunting sounds.
Their bulk and towering, powerful shoulders are similar to the North American bison, but their broad flat heads and wide upward turning horns more closely resemble the African buffalo. They could fairly, if uncharitably, be described as a composite of the two; but the whole of a yak definitely exceeds the sum of its parts.
Yak and Man
For generations, Yaks occupied a place of singular importance in the lives of Tibetan people. They have been the stalwart companions of everyday life. They are the traditional and principal means of transporting goods in a rugged landscape. Chinese 'modernisation' notwithstandinding, they are still an essential part of life in the Tibetan hinterland.
Yaks have been cross-bred with cattle to produce smaller, gentle-natured beasts of remarkable utility called dzo. The colour of their shaggy coats is of a broader palette, representing all the shades and combinations introduced by the genes of their low-land ancestors. Male dzo are infertile, but females can be bred again.
Strength and endurance
Yaks are the ultimate beast of burden on the Tibetan Plateau.
Yaks give a very rich milk, from which Tibetans churn an excellent butter.
Rope and cloth
Yak hair is braided into strong rope and woven into fine, durable cloth.
Yaks produce excellent leather.
Yak meat contains less fat than beef and is excellent dried or roasted .
Yak bones may be carved into exquisite decorative items and art objects, which age to a rich honey colour.
Yak dung is an important fuel, where trees are too valuable to burn.
Gifts from a yak:
Yaks and the Western World
Sadly, to most Westerners, the intelligent and personable yak is little more than a funny name. Slang use of the name describes such unpleasantness as vomiting or inane chatter. It has been borrowed by singing groups and businesses wishing to be identified with adolescent goofiness.
There are, however, those who have come to appreciate the strength, versatility, and charm of this fine animal. Recognising the traits that make a perfect trekking companion, Yaks are being bred for a new niche in a modern world.
Yaks can carry as much as a horse, require no special feed, and are content to lie quietly when their human friends are tired of walking.