Changlin Xu grazes 140 yaks in the mountain pastures of the Tibet Autonomous Region. In previous decades, he could count on losing a quarter of his animals to harsh weather rolling over the jagged peaks of the Himalayas every year. But things have changed. Now, as Xu tells a group of indigenous Sami reindeer herders who have gathered to listen to his story, some years as much as 75 percent of his livestock might die annually. More snow is falling in the winter and spring, but come summer, the rains stay away, he says. As a result, the green open meadows that he and other nomadic herders rely on to feed their woolly yaks, and ultimately their families, are disappearing.
Last winter, Xu was one of three herders who traveled from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region to the city of Tromsø, Norway, 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle. The Hindu Kush Himalayas span more than 1.3 million square miles (3.4 million square kilometers) across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, China and Myanmar, and are home to 240 million people — many of whom, like Xu, lead vulnerable subsistence lifestyles and have never traveled far from their homelands. But this journey was important; the yak herders’ polar pilgrimage was intended to ignite a conversation with Scandinavian reindeer herders who are facing similar challenges. For in a warming world, yak and reindeer herders share a common fate: dying animals, rangeland degradation and youth seeking alternative livelihoods.
This meeting of the minds is but one example of the growing relationship between the Arctic and Asia, specifically within the icy high mountains of the Hindu Kush Himalaya known as the “Third Pole” because the region contains more snow and ice than anywhere other than the polar regions. It also serves as the source of 10 major river systems that provide water to more than a billion people.
At the start of 2018, China released its official Arctic Strategy, having previously been granted official observer status of the Arctic Council in 2013. Though much of the attention given to the Arctic and Asia has focused on infrastructure projects — most notably China’s investment in the natural gas fields of Russia’s Yamal Peninsula and the development of the Northern Sea Route that will connect Asia with Europe — smaller grassroots connections between local and indigenous communities are now springing up in unlikely places with the hope that the two regions will be able to share knowledge and best adaptation practices as the climate changes.
Beasts of Burden
Tashi Dorji grew up in a rural herding community in the Bhutanese mountains. “I was very closely connected with the yak,” he recalls. Unlike his peers who moved away from their villages to pursue careers in medicine or engineering, Dorji studied rangeland systems at school and later returned to the high altitudes. Today, based in Kathmandu, he works closely with yak herders in Nepal and Bhutan as an ecosystems specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which is partially funded by the governments of the Hindu Kush Himalaya nations to assist mountain people with the changes brought by globalization and climate change. Dorji’s mission is to bolster the yak, creating luxury markets for yak goods, developing ecotourism projects and restoring rangeland across the Himalayas.
In the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment released by ICIMOD in February, scientists predict that warming temperatures will melt at least one-third of the region’s glaciers by 2100 — even if the world’s most ambitious climate change targets are met. In the Eastern Himalayas, temperatures are already rising and water diminishing. In India, some Himalayan villages have asked tourists to stay away in fear of running out of water.
“The Himalayas — Asia’s water towers — have been a magnet for water, but a regime change is well underway,” says Joel Berger, a wildlife scientist at Colorado State University who has spent much of his career divided between the Arctic and Himalayas, where he studies the ties between people and animals. “As snow grows increasingly patchy … female yaks will need to find new water sources.” That means heading up slope. But when glaciers recede, too, the region’s 15 million yak will have nowhere to go.
Meanwhile, extreme weather is exacerbating the change. Dorji recalls witnessing dying yaks and female yaks aborting during heavy snow and rain in early spring. “Unless we make a serious effort, I think yak farming is at great risk of disappearing in the southern Himalaya,” he says.
If the yak goes, so goes the Hindu Kush Himalaya. At high altitudes, yaks are everything — their thick, woolly coats provide fiber and warmth; their bodies provide meat, milk and transportation; and their dung provides fuel in areas far above tree line. Moreover, yak indicate social status in Tibetan culture—they’re known as “nao,” meaning treasure.
“Human population expansions have heavily relied on yak,” explains Ruijun Long, a pastoral specialist at China’s Lanzhou University. “Without yak, human civilization in the Tibetan Plateau may not have flourished in that remote area.”
This intrinsic link between human and beast can be seen in Sami culture as well. “Like other indigenous cultures, they capitalize on beasts of burden,” explains Berger. “Sami rely on reindeer much like people in Central Asia [rely] on yaks or camels.” But, “such relationships are being expunged or inalienably altered as we confront climate modification and habitat loss, along with increasingly advanced modern amenities.”
In Tromsø, Rávdná Biret Márjá stands at the front of the small carpeted conference room. She wears a traditional red and blue dress, and upturned skaller shoes. Márjá has traveled from Kautokeino in Norway’s Finnmark County to share the trials and tribulations of her people.
The Sami, she explains, are facing threats from all sides: They’re losing grazing land to mining and oil and gas development, they’re losing their traditions due to government modernization, and climate change is exacerbating both.
Frigid winters, for example, are a thing of the past. “We used to have –40 °C [–40 °F] for weeks. Now maybe it’s only –35 [–31] for a few days. Sometimes in the winter we can experience rain, and that has an impact for the pasture and availability of food for our reindeers.”
Reindeer herders are highly organized with cross-border alliances that advocate for the herders and the sustainable development of reindeer husbandry, especially in times of hardship. The Association of World Reindeer Herders was formed in the 1990s, and in 2005, the Norwegian government established the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry in Kautokeino. Through these alliances, reindeer herders have been able to bring their struggles — whether that be energy projects cutting through reindeer rangelands or the loss of traditional knowledge — to the world stage. Asia’s yak herders hope to be able to follow their lead, says Dorji.
One of the core elements of Dorji’s work is to create a network of yak herders and stakeholders across the Hindu Kush Himalayas. “We all know the yak herders are going through challenges. … [W]e want to build capacity so that they have a voice to bring their issues upfront,” he says.
In turn, this could provide more support for yak herders’ interests when policy decisions are being made. For example, although India’s Arunachal Pradesh state announced funding for adaptation and mitigation measures for those involved in animal husbandry in its five-year action plan on climate change in 2013, no mention was made of protecting yak populations and no funds were ever received. Having an alliance to push such concerns to the forefront could be a game-changer.
Pole to Pole to Pole
Much of the discourse around climate change has focused on the poles — the Arctic and Antarctic. But until recently, the cryosphere — the frozen water part of the Earth system — has been largely ignored. In 2009, following the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Denmark, Pam Pearson, a former U.S. diplomat and deputy ambassador to Norway, founded the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative after it became clear there were no organizations focused on climate change in the cryosphere writ large. Today, she serves as ICCI’s director.
“It’s not just that both poles are warming at about twice the rate [of the rest of the world], mountainous regions are as well. It’s kind of an altitude impact in addition to a polar impact,” she explains. “When it comes to human impacts, the Himalaya is unique just because of the large number of people living there and the degree to which they’re so dependent on snowpack and glacier melt, seasonally.”
For years, talk has circulated about creating a Hindu Kush Himalayan Council that would foster discussion and close collaboration among the eight countries of the region, taking a page out of the Arctic’s playbook. The Arctic Council was officially formed in 1996 among the eight Arctic governments, though talks began during the Cold War.
Last November, the First Hindu Kush Himalaya Science-Policy Forum was held in Nepal. On the agenda were presentations by Arctic scientists on the Arctic Council model and how to establish stronger regional cooperation. “The idea was we wanted to share the experiences of the Arctic Council with our decision-makers here,” says Dorji. And this time, the Arctic came to the Himalayas.
Meanwhile, as Dorji reflects on his time in Tromsø — the first time he had been to the Arctic — he says, “The environment was very cold and icy, but the best part for me was a visit to the reindeer farms. I always thought reindeer were wild. But I came to know they are being farmed and herded just like yaks.”
But the question remains: For how much longer? In Norway, human encroachment and energy exploitation have degraded more than 30 percent of reindeer pastures.
At this pace, traditional reindeer herding will largely be gone by mid-century. Meanwhile, the yak populations of Bhutan, India and Nepal have declined precipitously in recent decades, dropping from 200,000 in Nepal in the 1960s, for example, to just 66,000 by 2013. And no one yet knows what the exact long-term consequences of climate change will be for the Sami or Hindu Kush Himalayan herders. By sharing observations and coping strategies, herders from both regions hope they will be able to harness their collective power and combat the changes that threaten to unravel their traditional ways of life.