What Is a Yak and Where Can Be One Found?
Yak is a large, shaggy coated member of the cattle family which lives in the cold regions. It has long horns which spread out sideways from its head, sometimes to a length of over 1 m (3 ft). Apart from the huge humped back, its body shape is like a cow’s. The yak feeds on the sparse grasses which grow in the region, and is often domesticated for use as a beast of burden and for milk.
The domestic yak (Bos grunniens) is a domesticated bovid found throughout the Himalayan region of the Indian subcontinent, the Tibetan Plateau, Northern Myanmar, Yunnan, Sichuan and as far north as Mongolia and Siberia. It is descended from the wild yak (Bos mutus). A fully grown yak typically weighs between 350-1000kgs (approx. 670-2200lbs), and can stand at the shoulder between 1.6 meters to a whopping 2.2 meters (5.2-7.2ft).
A Tibetan nomad family may have more than 100 yaks, and each one will likely have a name. With so many animals, the names will usually be assigned based on physical characteristics such as “Two-Spot”, “Long-Tail”, or “White-Hoof”.
Yaks are easily trained. When fetching the yaks in for milking, a person can use a slingshot and a stone to throw it near the yaks as their signal that it is time to come home. Once the stone is thrown, the yaks come running because they know what’s expected of them.
The English word “yak” derives from the Tibetan g.yag or gyag – in Tibetan this refers only to the male of the species, the female being called a dri or nak. In English, as in most other languages which have borrowed the word, “yak” is usually used for both sexes.
The ancient Chinese people called the animal Ya Niu. In the Shang dynasty (before 3 000 B.C.), yak name was reduced to a word pronounced as “ya”. Later still, this was mispronounced as “mao” – and many homophones began to appear after the Qin and Han dynasties. These words referred not only to the yak but also to yak hair products (because mao means “hair” in Chinese).
Some people pronounced “mao”, as “li”, and then called the yak Li Niu. The tiny alteration in the script led to a change of name. A distinction between Li and Mao to denote yak was first made in the Compendium of materia medica, published by Li Shizhen in 1578. Li Niu was said to live in the mountains and denoted the wild yak, while Mao Niu was used to denote the domestic yak (Li Ruimin, 1986).
A female yak that is about to give birth will often have homing instincts. If the pregnant yak has been traded previously, the owner knows they need to watch them carefully in the days leading up to birth as they can be a flight-risk. If the mother yak decides to go walk about, they may be found several villages over in their place of birth. As a result, at certain times of the year, someone from the nomad family may simply wait down the road for the wandering yak to take them home!