The Yak – also known as the Tartary Ox, in an animal well respected in its native lands. It is a symbol of life in the high-altitude regions of Asia, and an example of resilience in the harsh wild. Domestic Yaks are scientifically known as Bos grunniens. They are one of two species in the subgenus ‘Poephagus‘, the other being Bos mutus which are commonly known as Wild Yak.
Closely related to cattle (Bos taurus), this subgenus exists within the main genus of ‘Bos‘ in which there are a total of 5 species alive today – or 8 when domestic and wild species are classed as seperate – as with the Yak.
These animals have roamed the cold, rugged terrains for centuries. The domestic yak has been a core part of human civilization in the mountains, while the wild yak remains a romanticised symbol of the untouched wilderness. Both are native to the Himalayan mountain range, around Tibet, Nepal, Tajikistan, Mongolia and some domestic yak can even be found in Siberia.
Appearance & Characteristics of the Yak
Yaks are built for the altitude and climate in which they live. Their robust bodies have evolved to withstand the harshest of weather, and are covered in a dense, long fur. This fur covers their whole body, including their bellies from the harsh elements. In males, it often grows so long that it sweeps the ground.
Yaks can look a bit similar to Highland Cattle that you may find in the Scottish Highlands, with thicker coats than domestic cattle, and long horns. But even then, the Yak has a more developed, broader and more massive physique.
Their fur can range in colour and while wild yaks are typically dark (blackish to brown), domestic yaks have more variety. Ranging from pure black to white, and even shades of grey and piebald. The males, as with other Bovidae animals, are known as bulls and can be exceptionally large. Domestic Yaks tend to be much smaller than Wild Yaks.
Here are the size details for each gender and type of yak:
|Type of Yak
|Average Height at the Withers
|350-585 kg (772-1,290 lb)
|1.1 – 1.4 meters (44-54 inches)
|225-255 kg (496-562 lb)
|1.05 – 1.17 meters (41-46 inches)
|500 – 1,200 kg (1,100–2,600 lb)
|1.6 – 2.05 meters (62 – 79 inches)
|250 – 360 kg (550 – 780 lb)
|1.12 – 1.45 meters (45 – 56 inches)
You can see here that males are more massive than females, and wild yaks are much bigger than domestic yaks. It’s not just the bodies but also the horns that can be significantly different between the sexes too.
Males have long sweeping horns that curve backwards at the ends. These grow to between 48 to 99 cm (19 to 39 inches) in length. Female horns are much smaller, by as much as half, ranging from 27 to 64 cm (11 to 25 inches). They are also more upright and don’t curve backwards at the end like the males.
Males have small scrotums and females develop small udders, which is also an adaption to their cold environment. These are also usually covered with a good amount of hair to keep them warm.
Like the domestic cat or rabbit, there is only one species of Domestic Yak, but there are 36 recognized breeds, which all have their own identifiable traits. Some are larger than others, and some have specific colouration, or thinner coats for example. These breeds are all native to more specific regions across the range – from Eastern Russia and Siberia, to the mountains of Pakistan.
Distribution – Location and Habitat
Wild Yaks are primarily found in the Tibetan Plateau, or into western regions of China, and are known to be high altitude animals, living between 2000 and 6000 meters high. Domestic Yaks area widely found in parts of China, Mongolia, Nepal, and Central Asia. Some breeds of domestic Yak are also kept in Siberia.
They are usually found in the alpine tundra with its rich, thick layers of grassland and sedges. Wild yaks in particular, live mostly in these treeless upland plateaus. However, yaks are adaptable. They migrate to lower regions during the colder months, ensuring they have a steady food supply.
Outside of their native areas, the domestic Yak has also been introduced as a cattle breed in North America – both Canada and the USA – as well as parts of Europe and New Zealand. They have adapted well in these new environments so far. That being said, they have to be kept at high altitude and relatively cold temperatures. They have such thick coats that in low altitudes and warmer temperatures they can suffer from heat exhausture.
The Lifestyle & Behaviour of the Yak
Despite the harsh life of the mountains, Yaks have evolved to be social and cooperative creatures. They often form (or are formed into) herds, which can range from a few Yaks to hundreds of individuals. These herds are not just for company; there’s safety in numbers. But mostly, they are formed into herds for farming.
Males, especially outside the breeding season, might prefer solitude or form smaller bachelor groups. For bovine species, Yaks display some more complex communication than other cattle. Instead of the mooing we associate with cows, yaks communicate through a series of grunts and squeaks, each having its own meaning.
For thousands of years, yaks have been domesticated, living side by side with humans. Often in nomadic communities, which still roam the wilds of Mongolia today. They are integral to many Himalayan cultures, serving as beasts of burden and a source of food.
Yak milk for example is a major resource in the Himalayas, as it has many uses: it is made into cheese and butter, and can be used for making medicines. Yaks are also domesticated for their meat, leather, and wool. Yak hair is used to make ropes and tents, while their manure can be used as fuel.
This hardy species has proven itself to be an invaluable part of the ecology, culture and economy in its range countries.
Diet & Nutrition of the Yak
Yaks are primarily herbivorous grazers. They like to eat the grasses, mosses, and lichens that their alpine tundra provides. As winter approaches and food becomes scarce, they migrate to lower regions to find plants to graze on. Some of their favourite native plants include carex, stipa, kobresi and some herbs.
Their strong digestive system allows them to extract nutrients from even the toughest plants. And when water sources freeze, yaks have a unique adaptation: they eat snow to quench their thirst!
Predators & Threats to the Yak
There are not many animals that can brave the harsh high-elevation wilds that the Yak prefer. But unfortunately for the Yak, there are some pretty mighty predators that can. They are a formidable foe, but their young or lame can be an interesting challenge for the likes of the Himalayan wolf, which is believed to be their most prolific predator. The snow leopard and brown bear are also believed to be keen predators of the Yak, and are comfortable in the same, mountainous terrain.
Over the years, humans have also been a significant threat. Despite the ancient animal husbandry practices, hunting yaks for their meat and fur has, in some places, been just as popular as keeping them as domesticated cattle.
Poaching remains a significant risk, especially for the wild yak, and interbreeding with other cattle species is not only a risk to the genetic stability, but also to disease and other health risks.
Mating generally occurs in late summer for the Yak, and after a gestation period of about nine months, females give birth to a single calf, usually in a secluded spot for safety. The birth of twins is not unheard of but it is rare.
These calves, like other cattle species are up and walking in just a few minutes! By the time they’re a year old, they’re weaned off their mother’s milk and ready to face the challenges of the mountainous terrain. Sexual maturity is reached usually around the age of 3 or 4 years old.
Lifespan of the Yak
Life in the wild is unpredictable, but domestic yaks, on average, live for 20-25 years if allowed to live into old age. Their life is marked by several stages, from playful calves to the more solemn adults and then the wise old yaks. For wild yaks, each stage has its challenges, from avoiding predators as a calf to finding food and shelter as an adult.
While domestic stock still have their challenges, there is usually much less chance of predation, and more stability in the availability of food. Even in nomadic herds, these protections are significant.
Population and Conservation
While domestic yaks are not at risk, the wild yak populations are not so fortunate. The various challenges they face, from overhunting and habitat loss in particular, have had a significant impact on their population. However, it’s not all doom and gloom.
In the 1990’s the wild yak was listed as ‘endangered’, but in 2008 that was changed to ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN red list. The listing was downgraded due to the rate of population decline slowing, and in some areas increasing. It is thought that this is the result of efforts to reduce the illegal poaching of these animals. At the latest assessment by the IUCN in 2014, the wild yak maintained its vulnerable status.
So while populations appear to be stabilizing, they are still low, and consistent effort is needed if they are to recover.
5 Fun Yak Facts for Kids
- Yaks have a special stomach that helps them digest tough mountain plants.
- Baby yaks are called ‘calves’ and are very playful
- Yaks have been domesticated for thousands of years, helping mountain people with transportation and farming.
- A yak’s fur is so thick that it can keep them warm even in the coldest temperatures.
- Yaks have a special ability to breathe easily even in places with very thin air, thanks to their large lungs and heart.