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To keep each other warm, the yaks were found mostly in clusters of 20-50 when their carcasses were found in the end of April
To keep each other warm, the yaks were found mostly in clusters of 20-50 when their carcasses were found in the end of April|EastMojo image
IN-DEPTH

Why are yaks dying in hundreds in North Sikkim?

Starvation is said to have killed over 1,000 yaks, even though official figures put it at 300, as the Himalayan state witnesses record snowfall this year. Here’s the big picture

Pankaj Dhungel

Pankaj Dhungel

Gangtok: Over 1,000 yaks have reportedly died due to the unprecedented snowfall in the cold desert region of North Sikkim over the course of January until the roads cleared in the end of April.

The place in contention includes Munguthang, Tso Lhamu, Kala Patthar, Chopta Valley and other regions which collectively make up the Kanchenjunga National Park and Biosphere Reserve and Singhba Rhododendron Sanctuary. Yaks, which qualify as an endangered species, are catered by herders who are called as Dokpas locally, a traditional practice since ancient times. Numbering about 1,600-2,000 in the region, they are owned by residents of Lachung and Lachen valleys along with those from Gangtok.

The official count released by the North Sikkim district administration puts the death toll to be around 300, but local herders argue that the number could reach as high as 1,000 as many of the higher regions above Munguthang are still inaccessible. The numbers are more towards the Lachen Valley belt rather than the Lachung Valley belt, as Lachung has grazing grounds in the lower belt in comparison to Lachen.

Yaks traverse across the cold desert region of North Sikkim in search of grazing grounds
Yaks traverse across the cold desert region of North Sikkim in search of grazing grounds
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Why so many deaths?

Since January 24 until late April, North Sikkim was marred by unprecedented snowfall with many regions receiving as much as 10 feet of snowfall. In an attempt to keep each other warm, the yaks clustered themselves in groups of 50-60. Soon, the diseases started to spread and all the animals started dying, informed a local herder from the region.

"The biggest issue in the region has been of lack of grazing grounds for the animals, with most of the fertile or good grazing grounds being taken over by the Army for building bunkers, trenches or mine fields. Even road construction has catapulted in the region further reducing the grazing grounds for these peaceful animals. The state government has been unable to counter the call for national security which supersedes the need for a natural habitat for these animals,” said a wildlife expert requesting anonymity.

"Excessive snowfall is the reason for the mass death, as snowfall in the cold desert area has been happening since January 24 till the end of April, which is almost seven to nine times more than the previous year. There is still about 10 ft of snow in these places. In such a scenario, the yaks tend to stay in just one place instead of grazing and they tend to do so in groups of almost 20-30 in order to keep themselves warm,” offered a North Sikkim district official.

With the snow melting, many of the carcasses were found burnt
With the snow melting, many of the carcasses were found burnt
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Lachung Biodiversity Conservation Committee chairman Hishey Lachungpa said, "The proper snowfall of January or February couldn’t have affected the animals as much, but the late snowfall of March and April, which was higher this year, has to be the reason for the yak deaths. As in winters, there cannot be as much grass, so they tend to rely on early spring when fresh vegetation sprouts after the snow melts. The fodder being less in the winters make the yaks weaker, and then late snowfall wiped out the vegetation making the yaks weaker.”

The cold desert of North Sikkim borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region and is manned by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

Head count of yaks

On an average, each family lost an average of 60-70 yaks in Munguthang alone. There are 15-20 families of Dokpas in the Chopta Valley and Munguthang; and 10-12 households in Lachung. But with the grazing zones being in the lower belt near Lachung, there were lesser number of yaks dying there; they come down as well. The numbers could be higher from Lachen Valley as yaks cannot come below Thangu Valley. So, when it snows heavily, they are stuck there. Lachung has lesser number of yaks -- an average of 40-50 yaks per household. Munguthang may have an average of 350 yaks per household where the Dokpas tend to live, informed a source.

The numbers are set to increase with further higher reaches of Tso Lhamo get accessible after the snow melts. 
The numbers are set to increase with further higher reaches of Tso Lhamo get accessible after the snow melts. 
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Many of the bodies have not been found. If a count is taken for the higher regions it should go as high as 1,000 yaks. "In 1994-95, the year when such record snowfall was experienced, taking an average of 80-90 yaks per shed, only 10-12 had survived then. Since 1995, such a huge number of yaks had not died, there were a few deaths due to cold. It was since January-end till mid-April that the animals couldn’t get fodder,” said a local herder.

"Lachenpas and Dokpas may collectively be 30-50 families, with each family having an average 150-180 yaks. Lachen has more, but the manpower is less. So the numbers are coming down substantially. Livestock grazing is tough, so they have to rely on outsiders. The practice has died with children being well educated in each of the families. There was a time in 1960s, when there were close to 800 sheep per family, as per a survey. Every family used to have livestock,” stated Lachungpa.

Herders attempt

"Some of the residents like us in the higher regions could save only a few giving kholey, while the rest made their way towards the army camps to seek refuge. But due to such snowfall, neither the men nor the animals could move about. If I have to count just my own, around 60 yaks died out of 180 yaks. I have deputed another herder owing to my age. Some of the yaks are still weak, so some more could end up dying. The animals could neither be brought down to Thangu nor could they be taken anywhere as Tibet borders us,” informed another herder.

Some of the yaks are still weak, so some more could end up dying, said a local herder
Some of the yaks are still weak, so some more could end up dying, said a local herder
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"We used to take them to places such as Jhanak, Bindu Gaon and Nako along the Tibetan border which are warmer places in comparison. There are heavier yaks in Jhanak I and II, Tongbey, Goma Chu where Teesta River begins we take them there but there is a lot of windstorm. There were six herders in Munguthang under me but they were immovable under the snow. There could have been more than 1,000-1,600 yaks, the higher reaches like Tso Lhamo could have an equal number. But there are more in Munguthang, though,” added another herder.

Repeat of the mid-1990s

The current batch of yaks that have died can all be traced back to the 1990s, when a similar late winter had triggered a huge number of livestock deaths. It was only after that every household collected 10-15 yaks and that has been the number that has grown to this date.

Previously, they used to domesticate the Tibetan blue sheep as well but the animal is nearing extinction cutting down the numbers substantially. Now there is only one family that has Tibetan blue sheep in Lhasar Valley numbering about 150.

Lack of herders and dying culture of Dokpas also affected. 
Lack of herders and dying culture of Dokpas also affected. 
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Dokpas today are mostly from Nepal and West Sikkim, almost every family has one or two from outside North Sikkim. The families live in those terrain with parents living side by side the Dokpas. "People stay warm with fire but yaks of such unprecedented number cannot be fed by hand, nor is it a possibility to provide them fodder away from grazing grass. Weaker ones are fed, but all can't be catered".

Reach attempt

The North Sikkim district administration, even under the previous district magistrate Karma R Bonpo, had tried to reach the regions of Munguthang, Chopta Valley and Tso Lhamo to airdrop grass for the yaks taking the help of Army helicopters. "However, the Army had already stationed their rations in advance which give them lesser reason to be interested in airdropping materials for animals and herders. Herders could keep themselves warm and had rations at their disposal, but not the animals that are in such huge numbers with each herder and Tibetan Mastiff dogs manning as many as 200 yaks. The numbers failed to make a count for such a huge count of livestock,” said Chungthang sub-divisional magistrate Subash Ghimiray.

There is no denying the fact that the North Sikkim district administration along with the ITBP made at least three attempts at reaching the higher reaches through Army helicopters. The SDM clarified, "The weather just went from bad to worse in February-March. The animals are scattered across a huge distance across the cold desert. It’s tough even to find them when they are covered in 10 feet of snow. Choppers from the Army are smaller for higher altitudes, which meant enough relief materials couldn’t be transported. All that could be managed was one bunch of grazing grass or maize plants, or other things like oil, atta, and salt to prepare 'kholey' for the yaks.”

The weather just went from bad to worse in February-March and the animals are scattered across the cold desert
The weather just went from bad to worse in February-March and the animals are scattered across the cold desert
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"The district collector tried to air drop the relief materials but the helicopters couldn’t go. The army had to pay for such trips but the state government could not chip in such amounts of money for so many animals. Later, the DC got 50 bags of atta through the Army. The former DC tried a lot, as even the Army had brought the resources through private wholesalers. The ITBP gave 50 bags as loan around February. After he did the same, the DC was later transferred,” said herder Tsogyal Bhutia, a veteran in the field at 66 years of age.

"Starvation is being cited as the reason for the death of the animals, as they were unable to graze in the snowfall. They could have survived if there wasn’t such excessive snowfall. We had head surveyor, disaster management team along with us, we had been attempting since January. We could reach only some higher reaches of Chopta Valley but anything beyond it seemed impossible. The final attempt at surveying was carried out by our team on May 7 and returned on May 10 afternoon, after which the carcasses and the death toll could be assessed,” the SDM of Chungthang added.

The chopper ride by the Army happens for such supply, but with the army stationing their rations in advance, the same couldn’t happen this time. Moreover, the same scenario had not happened in the previous years, as despite the snow, there would be very few cases of yaks dying and provisions could be made for the choppers to be landed at a location if the weathers cleared. But, this year the weather continued to turn from bad to worse before we could take action. Choppers are mostly small, so they cannot carry a huge load for the animals in such huge numbers. The snowfall increased after January 24, it was informed by the herders and the meteorological department. In February, in a tie up with ITBP some of the yaks could be saved after the fodder could be taken to the lower belt, it was informed.

Choppers are mostly small, so they cannot carry a huge load of fodder for the animals that number in a few thousands 
Choppers are mostly small, so they cannot carry a huge load of fodder for the animals that number in a few thousands 
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The bigger issue

Taking in the reason of fear with the border with China, a large part of the cold desert has been lost over to road networks. The forest department had proposed the area to be a cold desert conservation reserve way back in August, 2004. The proposal was made to protect the ecological, floral, geomorphological, and zoological importance of Sikkim's cold desert. The proposal then were for areas adjacent to Kanchenjunga National Park and Biosphere Reserve and Singhba Rhododendron Sanctuary, which were to be declared as Tso Lhamo Cold Desert Reserve by the state forest department.

It was not merely the forest and wildlife department but all the stakeholders including the locals, the Army and biodiversity management committee to contribute for the preservation of the cold desert reserve. "For national security, the state government cannot go against the same. They had cited that they needed the land for road construction. From roads to tunnels and trenches, all have been constructed. Munguthang had been given access as the yaks were being used by the Army as well with airdrop facilities, but what about other regions,” asked a wildlife expert.

Now with the carcasses being littered everywhere, there will be more food for the stray and feral dogs
Now with the carcasses being littered everywhere, there will be more food for the stray and feral dogs
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The aftermath

Now with the carcasses being littered everywhere, there will be more food for the stray and feral dogs which have grown in huge numbers affecting the locals and their livestock, more so in recent years. The feral dogs are mostly used by the Army for their protection. This problem will multiply and it is all linked issues, the same issue is happening across the country with states bordering China.

Yak is already an endangered animal, the wildlife branch of the state forest department has been trying for their protection as those regions are the last unprotected region in the state. The forest department has not been allowed to carry so many such activities with the lakes being dried up and various other environmental issues in recent years. "These are all issues that could have been avoided. Yaks are the only source of income in the cold desert as farming cannot take place in such regions. A compensation of Rs 30,000 is a miniscule amount as one yak could costing that much is incalculable,” added the wildlife expert.