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Global warming: Yaks moving to higher altitudes

Even as the world talks about melting of ice in the Arctic,the Antarctic and the Himalayas,one animal species — yak or Bos grunniens...

Even as the world talks about melting of ice in the Arctic,the Antarctic and the Himalayas,one animal species — yak or Bos grunniens — is already beginning to bear the brunt of global warming — be it in the Northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh or in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir. While the yak population is declining sharply,the animal is being gradually pushed up the Himalayas,with scientists fearing that the time is not far away when there will be no more “comfort zone” left for it to survive. Only four states in India have yaks — Arunachal Pradesh,Sikkim,Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

Arunachal’s yak population has almost halved,from about 13,000 in 1997 to about 7,000 in 2003. In Himachal,it has come down from 6,000 to 2,000 in 10-12 years. Sharp population decline has also been reported from Sikkim and J-K.

“It’s a serious case of impact of climate change and global warming. Farmers are increasingly reporting that their animals are unable to bear the rising temperature in altitudes that were comfort zone for centuries,” said K P Ramesha,senior scientist with the National Research Centre on Yak (NRCY),the only centre of its kind in the country.

Yaks can live only in altitudes starting from 7000 feet upwards,and while 5-13 degrees Celsius is its thermo-neutral or comfort zone,it is also the only animal that can survive even at minus-40 degrees Celsius. But rearers are now moving upwards beyond 8,000 feet in order to save their animals.

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“Our researchers and field teams are getting more and more reports that the brokpas (as yak herdsmen are called) are shifting northwards to higher altitudes along with their herds to save their animals,” Ramesha said,pointing out that the trend was the same in all the four states.

While yaks are herbivores,they survive on whatever little grass they can find under the snow during the winter months,and meet their water requirement by eating snow. The plant-growing period in the high altitudes favourable for yaks ranges from 120 to 180 days,with the period of relatively vigorous plant growth even shorter. The situation is more precarious in Sikkim,where the authorities have imposed a ban on grazing activity in the high altitudes in West Sikkim. The ban has been ordered to prevent forest destruction,with yaks becoming the first casualty.

Scientists are worried about what would happen to the yaks as the temperature continues to rise. “There is a limit to the Himalayas. Where will the animals go after say 30 to 40 years?” ask scientists at the NRCY. “It is not just in Arunachal. Brokpas in Himachal and Ladakh have said that they are compelled to move up their herds due to temperature increase in altitudes,” Ramesha said.

First published on: 20-10-2009 at 11:54:50 pm
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