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Recent results of yak research in Western High Asia

H. Kreutzmann

Institute of Geography, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg, FRG


In this paper four case studies are introduced from Western High Asia, i.e. from the Western Kun Lun Shan and Pamir mountains. Yak keeping has been an important survival strategy for nomads and agropastoralists practising combined mountain agriculture (Ehlers and Kreutzmann 2000). During the 20th century significant transformations of production strategies took place, which have affected animal husbandry in general and yak keeping in particular. Recent results of fieldwork in different mountain communities in Western High Asia show the influence of political transformations and economic reforms. The main emphasis is put on the role of yak breeding within the specific production system.

Keywords: Agropastoralism, central Asia, mountain agriculture, nomadism, Pamir, yak keeping


The importance of yak keeping in high mountain pastoralism can only be judged by taking into account its share in the overall agro-economic activities within mountain societies. The two major adaptive strategies of utilising the pasture potential of Western High Asia (Figure 1) under given ecological constraints occur in nomadic animal husbandry and in the livestock sector of agropastoral systems.

Figure 1. Yak keeping in Western High Asia.

Nomadism embodies the advantage of mobility. Traditionally nomadic groups were able to exploit natural resources at dispersed locations. Great distances in the order of several hundreds of km separated economically valuable mountain pastures from winter campsites, with areas of less economic interest lying in between. The functional migration cycle involved seasonal stays in high-altitude summer pastures and low-lying basin pastures in the northern foothills or plains of the Inner Asian mountain ranges during the winter. In these areas the nomads relied on neighbouring communities to tolerate their presence and paid grazing fees, if necessary.

Agropastoralism has the advantage of fodder production in the permanent homestead areas to sustain herds during the winter months. These animals are then taken to high altitude summer pastures. The limiting factor here is the provision of sufficient feed during the critical winter period, forage that must be produced on limited private or common village lands. Their permanent habitations are located at the upper levels of single-crop farming. The access to the Pamir pastures involves shorter migrations and some mobility within the summer pastures. Summer grazing is comparatively plentiful but only available for a short period; feed storage and transport to the homesteads are of limited importance.

Both approaches can result in competition for natural resources in the same location and have frequently been discussed from that perspective. The ecological aspect has been expanded to the debate about conflicting economic strategies (Ehlers and Kreutzmann 2000). In the discourse of modernisation and social change, the system of nomadism is often replaced by crop-based agriculture. The extensive utilisation of marginal resources is thus superseded by intensification.

Case studies from Western High Asia

The following case studies highlight historical developments that relate to the transformation of economies based on pastoralism.

Soviet sedentarisation programmes and recent developments in middle Asia

As the majority of the Pamirs is located within the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast of the Tajikistan Republic, they were involved in the sedentarisation process of nomads during Stalinist modernisation programmes in the 1930s. At that stage nomadic production systems and associated life-styles were declared as backwards and in need of change. Since then the system of pasture utilisation has shifted to Kolchoz and Sovchoz settlement-centred seasonal migration of herds (Monogarova 1978).1  As Dachslejger (1981) and Giese (1983) have pointed out for the Kazakhstan Republic, an overall advance in the productivity of agriculture followed a long period of decline (1930–1960). In addition to the extension of cultivated lands, fodder production was increased and improvement of the breeds and their health condition. Permanent winter stables with adequate infrastructure, veterinary treatment and sufficient fodder contributed to the development of the livestock sector and remnants of this system can still be seen today in existing Pamirian pastoral systems.

1. The Soviet collectivisation strategy created Kolchoz (Kollektivnoe Chozjajstvo = co-operative societies for agriculturalists who own the livestock and the agrarian means of production) and Sovchoz (Sovetskoe Chozjajstvo = state farms with employed agricultural labourers). In both cases the farmland is property of the government and the enterprises are state-run.

In the eastern Pamir, part of Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan district, Kirghiz shepherds and a few Wakhi still keep yak herds around traditional supply stations like Murghab (formerly Pamirski Post) and Langar in Rajon Ishkashim from where they undertake seasonal migrations to the higher elevated summer pastures (Table 1). However, traditional nomadism was converted into a form of mobile animal husbandry under the conditions of Soviet-style collective resource management. Concurrently, agropastoral systems were also adjusted to the prevalent socio-economic set-up.

Table 1. The regional distribution of the Pamirs.

Eastern Pamir

Gorno Badakhshanskaja Avtonomnaja Oblast (GBAO) Republic of Tajikistan
Khargushi Pamir (Pamir of the hare):
The basin of lake Kara Köl (black lake)
Rang Köl Pamir (Pamir of the coloured lake):
the basin of the lake with the same toponym
Sariz Pamir (Pamir of the yellow trail):
part of the Murghab valley up to the settlement of Murghab (previously named Pamirski Post)
Alichur Pamir: the valley of the river with the same toponym


Wakhan Woluswali, Badakhshan
Republic of Afghanistan
Chong Pamir: Great Pamir or Pamir-e Kalan:
the headwaters of the Pamir Darya and the basin of Zor Köl (big lake)
Kichik Pamir: Little Pamir or Pamir-e Khurd:
the headwaters of Aksu river including the lakes Chakmaktin Köl and Besh Ötök Köl


Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County
Uigur Autonomous Region Xinjiang, P.R. China
Taghdumbash Pamir: headwaters of river with same name and Karachukur River

Source: Kreutzmann (1996).

Under Soviet rule, Tajikistan's economy was completely integrated into the system of a regional division of labour, which attributed each republic specific tasks. Significant effects were felt even in the remote mountain areas, as the case of Gorno-Badkhshan reveals. The Wakhi members of sovchoz roi kommunizm (literally meaning state farm 'path of communism') in Rajon Ishkashim kept yak in the upper parts of the Amu Darya valley and in Khargushi Pamir. The whole agricultural system was devoted to animal husbandry, and all other food supplies were imported from outside. Even high-protein fodder was brought in to sustain yak herds throughout the year in the Pamirs (approximately 50 tonnes/450 yak).

With the independence of Tajikistan and the subsequent transformation process, individual ownership of land (1996–1999) and cattle were re-introduced. Yak herding is organised through farmers' associations. Shepherds keep 70% of their production while the rest belongs to the association. The Wakhi of Ishkashim are the only non-Kirghiz yak herders of the western Pamir and still control a herd of 300 yak.

The Soviet state-run economy had selected the eastern Pamir as the prime yak producing region and mainly Kirghiz pastoralists had been involved. Even today nearly 14,000 yak are kept in Rajon Murghab. To date, the majority of yak herds are controlled by state-run enterprises or farmers' associations, which are the follower organisations of Kolchoz and Gozchoz.2 The adverse economic conditions of the transformation period have impoverished the Kirghiz herdsmen, as herds are small, food supplies meagre and additional food from the market expensive. Consequently, the vast majority of agriculturists in Gorno Badakhshanskaja Avtonomnaja Oblast (GBAO) are dependent on humanitarian aid. The situation was aggravated by substantial losses of livestock in February/March of 1999 when, in Rajon Ishkashim alone, 5000 heads of yak were lost to unexpectedly high snowfall. The socio-economic transformation process has forced the majority of people to follow a subsistence strategy based on agricultural and livestock resources. The present income levels are far below previous ones and it remains to be seen if this resource-based strategy will succeed.

Kirghiz exodus from the Afghan Pamirs

The Great and Little Pamir within Wakhan Woluswali of Badakhshan Province (Afghanistan) have been studied extensively up to the so-called 'last exodus' of the majority of Kirghiz nomads to Pakistan in 1978. Their fate is one of the more prominent cases where border delineation has interrupted traditional migration patterns and where the term 'closed frontier nomadism' was coined (Dor and Naumann 1978; Shahrani 1979; Shahrani 1980; Shahrani 1984).

Impoverished Wakhi farmers utilising the Pamirs for summer grazing competed with rich Kirghiz nomads who controlled most of the grazing resources of the region. Consequently, the Wakhi became shepherds for Kirghiz herd owners and turned eventually to nomadic strategies (Kreutzmann 1996). At the peak period prior to the exodus, the share of yak was about 8% of the total community's herds, which amounted to about 42,000 animals (Shahrani 1979).

In 1978 a group of 1300 Kirghiz (280 yurts) fled to Pakistan. Not all members of the Kirghiz group of Rahman Kul—the leader (khan) of the community and most influential person of the Afghan Pamirs—joined him after four years of exile in Pakistan to eastern Anatolia. Rahman Kul alone had to leave 16 thousand sheep and goats, more than 700 yak, 15 horses and 18 Bactrian camels behind, while the whole community of the Afghan Pamirs possessed no more than 42 thousand animals. Of this only a small herd of 6000 could be taken to exile in Pakistan, and eventually none ever left Pakistan. Rahman Kul migrated with a group of 1132 Kirghiz in August 1982 to Turkey. He became the village head of the community in Ulupamir Köy, 1800 metres above sea level (masl), as a member of a government resettlement scheme, which provided each household with 10 sheep and goats and three head of cattle. Rahman Kul died there in 1990 and the leadership was transferred to his son. Presently this community has grown to 2000 members practising sedentary agriculture and animal husbandry with their herds of 7000 sheep, 1000 goats, 6000 cattle (no yak) and 70 horses (Gundula Salk, Berlin; Bernard Repond, Marsens, Switzerland, personal communication). A small group of 200 Kirghiz returned to the Little Pamir from Pakistan by October 1979 (Shahrani 1984). The community under the leadership of Abdurrashid Khan had grown to 102 yurts in Pamir-e Kalan (Great Pamir) and 135 yurts in Pamir-e Khurd (Little Pamir) by 1999. The number of cattle ranges around 1400 compared to nearly 9000 sheep and goats, 160 horses and 90 Bactrian camels. Any form of animal husbandry has been limited to subsistent survival strategies in recent years as traditional migration and exchange patterns have been interrupted due to adverse political conditions. Currently the Kirghiz are engaged in yak breeding and in limited barter trade with entrepreneurs from neighbouring Hunza in Pakistan. The itinerant traders supply basic necessities in exchange for yak and yak products. Nevertheless, humanitarian aid from outside is regularly needed for basic food supplies.

Competition between nomads and mountain agriculturists in the Pamirs (Sarikol)

The Taxkorgan or Sarikol (name of the former principality) area comprises three different ethnic groups: Sariqoli, Wakhi and Kirghiz (the latter less than 5% of the population). The former two groups (82% of the inhabitants) are agropastoralists with seasonal utilisation of Pamir pastures, while the Kirghiz solely specialise in livestock husbandry. All three groups traditionally move their flocks within the Taghdumbash Pamir and paid tribute to the Mir of Hunza who exercised control on these pastures until 1937 (Kreutzmann 2000). While Kirghiz permanently resided in the higher elevation areas, Sariqoli approached from the northern low-lying villages. The Wakhi founded their settlement of Dafdar, 3400 masl, in the heart of the Taghdumbash Pamir about a century ago, with the consent of the Chinese authorities. All three groups compete for the fodder resources.

After the Chinese revolution in 1949 and the formation of the Tajik Taxkorgan Autonomous County in 1954, collectivisation took place and rural communes were established in the villages. Basic infrastructure has been provided to all communities of the Taghdumbash Pamir such as schools, police posts, health posts, medical facilities, commune administration and shops, mosques etc.

The number of livestock increased by a factor of 4.75% up to 128,800 heads in post-revolution times (Figure 2). During the following decade the growth slowed down, and in 1994 the number of livestock ranged at about 147,586. This figure covers all livestock types: Bactrian camels, horses, donkeys, yak, other cattle, sheep and goats. Natural grazing provides the most important local forage resource. The area covered with grasslands extends to 6.09 million mu (1 hectare = 15 mu) of which 98% belong to natural grazing while 0.13 million mu are irrigated meadows (Table 2). More than two-thirds of the income of Taxkorgan County is derived from animal husbandry, e.g. in 1984 2.75 million RMB Yuan (US$ 1 = 3.7 Yuan in 1984), compared to 1.18 million Yuan from crop production alone (Kashgar Prefecture Chronicle 1985).

Source: Livestock Department, Taxkorgan, Aqto Täzkirisi (1991).

Figure 2. Cattle in Aqto and Taxkorgan Country 1954–1990.

By 1960, for the first time since the Chinese Revolution, self-sufficiency in food and fodder production was achieved in Taxkorgan County (Xinjiang). Since 1982 the majority of the eleven townships and former people's communes (Renmin Gongshe) has been equipped with a veterinary station supplying vaccines and extension services to the farmers. Experiments with fat-tailed sheep (dumba, dumbash) have been executed and their share in the regional flocks has been increased (Schwarz 1984). In the heart of the Taghdumbash Pamir a veterinary station specialised on yak breeding was established in Mazar (south of Dafdar along the Pakistan-China Friendship Highway) by utilising the local knowledge of Tajik and Kirghiz shepherds who found employment there. About 400 persons reside in Mazar breeding farm, which contains about 5000 sheep and 500 yak (Schaller et al. 1987). The Wakhi and Kirghiz of the Karachukur Valley that drain the westernmost part of the Taghdumbash Pamir kept much bigger herds of yak. This side of the valley has become the only Kirghiz-dominated pasture region of the Taxkorgan County. The number of yak grew from 5909 in 1981 to 8147 in 1990, the highest figure since 1976. The trading and export value of yak have been limited, only rarely small consignments of yak were exported to the neighbouring Hunza valley in Pakistan. In recent years this transborder business has ceased to exist. Yak are now mainly used for local purposes, principally milk, butter, qurut (dehydrated buttermilk which can be preserved and stored), hair and meat. Additionally, their transport capabilities and adaptability to the harsh terrain are regarded as major assets in the Chinese Pamirs.

Table 2. Potential fodder availability of pastures in the Pamir regions.


Grazing area

Available grazing potential


Not used


Total area (ha)








Western Pamir


















Eastern Pamir









Total Pamir









Sarikol (Taxkorgan)






Source: Walter and Breckle (1986); and data from Taxkorgan county administration 1991, 1998.

Kirghiz pastoralists in Kara Köl

The Kirghiz of Kizil Su followed traditionally a long-distance nomadic migration cycle between the summer grazing grounds in the Pamirs and the irrigated oases of the mountain forelands. They spent the winter engaged with herding and other business in the towns of Kashgar and Yarkand. The former pattern has changed within the last 50 years (Figure 3). Nowadays the Kirghiz nomads are confined with their herds to the Pamir regions year-round. They now only leave their mountain abodes and travel on foot with their flocks or on trucks down to the markets of Kashgar and/or Yarkand. The herds cover the distance of 280 km easily and without great loss of weight.

Design: H. Kreutzmann.

Figure 3. Mobile livestock economy and change relations of Kirghiz pastoraliss in Kara Kól.

The pasture system has changed to reflect the prevailing socio-economic conditions. The herds of the Kara Köl Kirghiz consist on average of 1.5 horses, 1.4 donkeys and 2.5 Bactrian camels per household. These animals are preferable for transportation and travelling purposes. Additional livestock comprise on average 12.2 yak, 98.2 sheep and 40.1 goats (Kreutzmann 1995). In comparison, in 1976, the people's commune of Subashi (Karakul) owned only 0.5 horses, 0.3 camels, 3.5 yak and 74.9 sheep and goats per household. The total number of livestock ranged around 10,300 animals in this period (Myrdal 1981), of which households in the commune privately owned a small amount. The carrying capacity of accessible pastures was estimated to be 40 thousand animals. By 1991 the number of heads had reached 30 thousand. The growth of livestock in Kara Köl is out of proportion in comparison with the overall livestock development in Aqto division where livestock numbers grew by 1.3% from 1976–91 and cattle numbers by 1.65%, respectively (Aqto Täzkirisi 1994). In the remote, high altitude yak and sheep-breeding area, the livestock numbers grew three times faster. In this area relaxed attitudes of the Chinese authorities towards agricultural and livestock production and especially since the reforms of 1978 have led to an increased market orientation. The quality of pastures was improved by irrigation and fencing of meadows. Grass is cut by scythe and winter fodder is stored to cover the long period of meagre natural grazing in the winter settlement (kishlok) of Subashi at an altitude of 3600 masl.

Administratively, the Kara Köl grazing zone forms part of the Aqto division, which is one of the four subunits of the Kizil Su Autonomous Oblast where the majority of China's 119,300 Kirghiz reside (data of 1994). The majority of the Kirghiz of Kizil Su have become sedentary agriculturists while the inhabitants of the higher Pamirs continue to follow mobile livestock rearing. The kishlok of Subashi is equipped like other communes with infrastructure institutions as well as a veterinary post controlling the quality and health status of animals. Despite the harsh environmental conditions animals raised in these productive pastures compete very well in the profitable markets in the urban oases along the southern Silk Route (Tarim basin).

Role of yak

In all four cases presented, yak keeping has played a major role as yak are well adapted to this high-altitude environment. Our observation is that wherever animal husbandry is a persistent economic feature yak remain an important component of the herds. The data available basically show steady figures for yak while the remaining stock varies much more widely.

An important exception has been observed in northern Pakistan where in the Hunza region yak numbers have risen in recent years (Kreutzmann 1986; Kreutzmann 2000). Within the last decade stocks of yak have been expanded through the import of female yak from the Taghdumbash Pamir in Xinjiang (China) across the Khunjerab Pass and the Karakoram Highway into the Northern Areas and mainly Ghujal subdivision of Hunza (Figure 1). In 1989/90 alone more than 500 yak were imported of which one-third was retained for breeding purpose and the rest replenished the consistently deficient meat market of Gilgit. This deficit has enticed local entrepreneurs to rear yak herds to market them in the meat bazaars of the Northern Areas. The quality of locally raised yak is by far higher than the appalling low-quality meat of water buffaloes imported from down-country Pakistan. In recent years, yak have been bartered with the Kirghiz of the Afghan Pamirs. The supply of fresh meat has resulted in the opening of butcher shops in villages such as Gulmit where such a business existed never before. This exceptional feature puts yak into the picture as a marketable resource. However, in most of the cases the role of yak is quite different. Only the extreme deficit in meat supplies has affected the pattern observed in Pakistan.

In general, yak herds are primarily kept for subsistence purpose and as a risk-adverse investment. With comparatively low labour input, substantial live meat reserves are kept in these yak herds. Besides that, there are further spin-off effects in milk and hair processing, and other enterprises. Thus yak keeping complements combined mountain agriculture as part of a multi-faceted survival strategy under high altitude conditions. The higher the settlement regions the more importance placed on crop-livestock production. These agropastoral systems are characterised by the cultivation of well-adapted cereal crops, integrated with inputs from livestock, which provide dung, fuel and traction power and human food. Yak play a prominent role in this respect when the search for security during difficult times is of high priority.

Other bovines and especially sheep and goats are predominantly kept for marketing purposes. Consequently their numbers have varied much more under changing socio-economic conditions. In the context of planned economies a shift to fat-tailed sheep and goats is observed, a trend that has gained in momentum after the relaxation of rules and regulations. These animal herds are basically responsible for dramatic changes in vegetation cover and for land degradation. In the Kara Köl Pamir their numbers have tripled since the reforms of the late 1970s and fat-tailed sheep are in great demand in the urban markets in the foothills of the mountain ranges.

Yak keeping seems to be a less important indicator for socio-economic change in Western High Asia. Nevertheless, yak play a vital role in the domestic economy, especially as a subsistence base during times of duress. Livestock keeping has always been a risky undertaking in high mountain regions. The safety factor is best served if yak herds are maintained, as they are the best animals to utilise the marginal pastures in the remote Pamirs.


The author gratefully acknowledges the generous financial support of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), which enabled fieldwork in Tajikistan, Xinjiang (P.R. China), Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s. Special thanks to Bakhtibek Otambekov for local support, livestock specialist of the Mountain Societies Development Project (MSDSP) in Ishkashim and to his colleague, Targaiev Turdobai in Murghab, GBAO, Tajikistan. Ali Mawji of Focus Humanitarian Assistance provided valuable data on the situation in the Afghan Pamirs. Thanks to the county administration of Taxkorgan that provided data on livestock development in 1991 and 1998. Thanks to Dr M. Friederich in the Kizil Su district for gathering data and information during the Sino-German fieldwork in the Oytagh region which was partly sponsored by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (MPG).


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