For those adventurous travelers who make the trek up the peaks of the Himalayan mountains in Central Asia, it's not uncommon to spot a yak — a herd animal that could pass for a large, hunchback cow donning a shaggy skirt and handlebar horns. These hardy, agile creatures can withstand temperatures as low as -40 degrees F (-40 degrees C), and their impressive lung capacity allows them to breathe easier than any hiker they'll encounter — even when carrying out their duties as a pack animal.
For the rest of us who forgo the climb, seeing a yak is still quite possible — in the U.S., for example, small farms in Colorado and some of the northern coastal states are raising yaks in growing numbers. According to Jandy Sprouse, former president of the Colorado-based International Yak Association, they're becoming increasingly popular for their easy maintenance, nutritious food byproducts and valuable fiber.
While yaks share the bovine family tree with cows, they are a different species altogether, and fossil records show they first appeared over 4,500 years ago in the Tibetan plateau. Most are now domesticated, but an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 still live in the wild in Tibet and Central Asia. No longer on the endangered species list, they unfortunately remain quite vulnerable due to the dwindling size of their habitat and increased hunting.
Let's take a look at some fun facts that show why the highly versatile yak is such an important mammal:
1. Yak Butter Is Huge in Tibet
When it comes to providing useful food and goods, these shaggy bovines are a bit of a yak of all trades.
Their super-nutritious milk is used to make a unique cheese that once dried, can be stored for years. But the thick, fatty yak butter is perhaps the most coveted sustenance in the sparse terrain. Mixed with black tea and salt, it creates po cha, known as Tibetan butter tea. The traditional drink is definitely an acquired taste, but it provides loads of vital calories. It's such a big part of the culture that the Dali Lama drinks it daily.
The locals make sure none of the butter goes to waste — it's also used to fuel lamps, bring shine to fur coats and create a base for traditional butter scuplture.
Yak meat has long been another important source of nutrients, and it's slowly growing in popularity around the globe. Low in cholesterol and high in omega-3 fatty acids, it's a healthier alternative to red meat — for us and for the land. Since they're quite efficient at absorbing nutrients, yaks only consume a third of the food that cows do.
2. Their Fur May Just Become the Next Cashmere
There's a new player in the world of luxury fashion: yak fiber. The outer layer is used to make anything from sturdy tents to rugs to the decorative saddles the yaks themselves wear on treks. But the most valuable prize is the super-soft undercoat. As yaks shed this ultrafine layer in the spring, the fiber is combed out and harvested to make warm, oh-so-soft clothing that rivals the luxury of cashmere.
3. Their Poop Doesn't Stink
It's not that they think they're better than everyone else, but when yaks are given sufficient access to water and forage to eat, their dung has little to no odor. That's a big perk for those collecting the dried excrement for fuel. The Tibetan plateaus don't have trees, making yak dung the only easily obtainable fuel.
4. They're Gentle-natured and Intelligent
Yaks are known to be friendly and even playful. They aren't typically aggressive toward humans, but like most mamas, they can get pretty protective of their young.
They're also quite easy to train and are good at surviving harsh elements. The herd will cuddle up together during a snowstorm, always making sure to keep the calves safe in the middle of the pack.
5. They Sound More Like a Pig than a Cow
Despite their cow-like features, there's no mooing here. Known as the "grunting ox," yaks make a low grunting noise to communicate with each other or when they get excited and want to play. Otherwise, they're relatively silent creatures.
6. They Have Large Lungs and Hearts
Yaks are genetically built to survive in altitudes up to 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) — topping the list of high altitude dwelling mammals. Their lungs are so unusually large that they require an extra pair of ribs — a yak has 14 to 15 pairs of ribs instead of 13 like a cow — just to support them. A greater lung capacity along with a greater number of red blood cells allows them to get enough oxygen out of the thin, mountain air.
7. Female Yaks Rule the Herd
The size of a yak herd tends to be relatively small, but it can range anywhere from 10 to 100 yaks. Female yaks, known as a dri or nak, tend to make up almost all of the herd. A few males may join them, but most either travel alone or with a few other bachelors until it's time to track down the females and make those adorable little calves.
A vital part of Himalayan culture and economy, yaks have earned their reputation as highly adaptable and uniquely beautiful bovines. If you don't get to make the trip to Central Asia to see them in action, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a local farm or that oh-so-luxurious sweater.