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Yaks are the lifeline of Tibetan traditional nomadic life. Tibet is too high, too cold, too dry to produce anything. These animals are incredible.
The ultimate “survival machine,” the sturdy yak is in its element even in the harshest Himalayan winter conditions. However, it is not adapted to deal with the threats of hunting, habitat disturbance, and competition from its domesticated relatives. Yaks are the eastern equivalent of the American bison, and they are among the hardiest mammals on earth. Between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago the yak’s ancestors were successfully domesticated and used for milk, beef, and wool production. Domestic yaks were also used as pack and draft animals, and their dried dung served as fuel on the Tibetan plateau, which has no trees. Today the world population of domestic yaks is probably over 12 million. By contrast, wild yaks are now extremely rare: Recent estimates have put the population at just a few hundred animals. An immensely hardy animal, the yak survives seemingly without difficulty on the hostile, high plateaus of the Himalayas, enduring winter conditions among the harshest on earth. Temperatures in this area can fall to as low as -15°F (-26°C). The yak uses heat generated by plant material fermenting in its intestines to help keep warm; adult yaks are also covered in thick, woolly hair. However, with such adaptations to the extreme cold yaks are not so tolerant of warm temperatures. Herds that move to lower pastures to bear young in spring retreat as summer arrives, returning to altitudes of about 15,000 feet (4,550 m), where there is snow all year round. Yaks are social animals, and most individuals will spend their lives as part of a herd. The largest herds are made up of females and young, with bachelor males forming smaller bands. There are obvious advantages to living in a group; formidable as fully grown yaks are, they still have at least one serious natural predator, namely, the Tibetan wolf.