From Pamir, the heart of Asia and the roof of the world, stretch the mighty Himalayas eastward to Pakistan, India, Nepal and China. For centuries, this exotic land has been abode of many important animals that are rare in other parts of the world. These animals are slowly approaching the verge of extinction.
Yaks are among those rare animals that survive only in Himalayan uplands at an altitude of 2,500-5,000 meters. These animals have adapted to the cold and harsh climate, often below freezing point, where other species struggle to survive.
The yak is instrumental in both nurturing and preserving Himalayan biodiversity and the region is the last place in which wild yaks still survive.
Yaks are unique animals and have religious, cultural, social and economic values in Nepal. In rural areas, people put yak horns and hair over the main door of the house in the belief that they prevent evil spirits from entering.
Traditional faith healers use the manes of yaks to brush away evil spirits from bodies of the patients. In many religious and cultural functions and festivals, yak hair and horns are essential and important commodities. The Sherpas, a community living in the high lands of Himalayas, worship yaks and say that God once came to earth in the disguise of the animal to protect the Himalayan people.
The yak is the most useful animal in Nepal, especially in the high Himalayas. The range of products and services provided by the yak is astounding, though not well understood outside the region. In fact, yaks are the lifeline of people living in high land of Himalayan region both in Nepal and China.
The following are products and services that human beings obtain from the yak:-
Food: milk, meat, cheese, butter and some cured meats.
Clothing: wool and leather, shoes, blankets and bags, plus accessories, rugs, and tents,
Tools: bones for carving a variety of craft products
Transportation: in the high land of Himalayas, where other forms of transport are not available, yaks are used to transport goods.
Financial benefits: yaks are financial assets and provide security for investments (the economic and social status of families depends upon the number of yak they rear).
The yak is also a boon for agriculture and biodiversity and yak manure is highly fertile and used for cultivation. Dung is also used for heating and cooking.
Yak cheese is one of the few edible riches of the Himalayan region of Nepal. Two main kinds of cheese are produced and available in Nepal: buff cheese and yak cheese. People prefer yak cheese because of its taste and high nutritional value. It thus sells at higher price than buff cheese.
Migma Sherpa of Helambu, who rears yaks and produces yak cheese, says, ‘Yak cheese is superior to buff cheese because it has special quality in terms of taste and nutritional value’.
Nepal’s yak cheese is popular not only in Nepal but also in other countries in South Asia. According to Mingma, yak cheese is exported to India and even Europe, yet output is not sufficient even to meet the demand of the local Nepal market. Yak cheese is a must in the major festivals of Sherpas and other Himalayan communities.
Pema Finjo Lama from Jiri says, ‘Unless you do not offer yak cheese and yak meat, God is not happy in the special religious occasion. If God is not happy, he sends miseries to us in the form of drought, famine, landslide and diseases’.
Until the 1970s, yak cheese used to be produced at home for family consumption in the northern belt of Nepal. The commercial production of the cheese began only after 1971 with aid from Switzerland.
Ten factories were set up to produce cheese commercially.
Two of them – one in Chandanbari and another in Jiri – exclusively produce yak cheese.
‘Kathmandu is the main market for yak cheese’, says Keshar Bahadur Jirel, an employee at the Chepring Cheese production center, ‘but we have not been able to meet the demand for the stuff.’
Given the quality of the yak cheese of Nepal, it also has great potential for export. ‘Farmers thus need to be encouraged to rear more yaks and produce more cheese’, argues Jirel.
Yuba Nath Lamsal is deputy editor of the Katmandu daily The Rising Nepal
Photo: two Nepali yaks (http://library.thinkquest.org/10131/nepal_yaks.html)