Visit to the National Research Center on Yak, in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh, India

By: Peter Hackett and Ruth Higdon

On March 7th 2016 we flew from Delhi to Guwahati, in Assam State, where we hired a car and driver and in two days of treacherous driving reached the small town of Dirang. The Brahmaputra River separates Assam State from the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is a special permit area. This area was the site of the Indian-Chinese war in 1962, and the northern boundary with China is still disputed; there is a heavy Indian military presence and many check posts.  There are very few tourists, mostly Indian nationals. The state is sparsely populated, mountainous, and bordered by Bhutan on the west, China to the north, and Myanmar on the east. The ICAR-National Research Centre on Yak is situated here because of the local population of yak herders, who are mostly trans-migratory, with lower-altitude winter farms (8-11,000 ft) and higher altitude summer pastures (12-18,000 ft). The Monpa people are the main ethnic group, although there are about 30 different tribes, and they are mostly Tibetan Buddhists in religion and culture. There is a robust trade of yaks and goods with the Bhutanese, less so with the Tibetans. The Indian government has committed to assisting this population with research that emphasizes yak farming as a viable economic enterprise and a stabilizing factor for this rural subsistence population. Their purpose is to improve the health and fecundity of yak, to reduce inbreeding and improve genetic diversity, to develop new marketable products or improve existing ones, such as dairy and fiber products, and to teach the local farmers scientific approaches to herd management. There is no yak meat industry, but there is local limited consumption. We received differing opinions on whether yak have the same status as cattle in India; i.e., sacred and never to be killed. It seemed that although it was prohibited to butcher yak in this area, it was less for religious reasons than for social ones.  We were impressed with the motivation of the center and their personnel; all their efforts were directed to practical applications for the benefit of the local farmers and herdsmen.

The National Research Centre on Yak is in Dirang, at 5000 ft, and their yak farm is in Nyukmandung at 9000 ft, about 20 miles distant. Most of the laboratories are in Dirang. This is their mandate:

1.Survey for genetic resources, management practices, production level and problems associated with production.

2.To establish a small herd of pure yaks to carry out observations on performances under range and semi-range systems of management.

3.To conduct research on improvement of yak and its products through selection and breeding with exotic frozen semen.

4.To conduct research on nutrition, physiology, production and management aspects under semi-range and confinement.

5.To conduct research on fodder and development of pasture at mid and high altitude for yaks.

6.To provide complete health coverage through proper therapeutic and prophylactic measures based on clinical and laboratory findings on the prevalent diseases of yak.

The research center is staffed with 12 Ph.D. principal scientists, and 26 technicians, support personnel and administration. Our hosts were Dr S.M. Deb, the Director, Dr. Vijay Paul, senior scientist, and Dr. Pranab Das, a senior scientist who had recently completed his post-doctoral studies at Texas A&M. Laboratories are as listed below. They are quite productive scientifically, with over 126 publications in the last 5 years. In addition, they have programs developing yak fiber garments and actively promote their economic development.

This describes their labs:

The Institute has one Central laboratory and other specialized/specific laboratories viz., Nutrition laboratory, Genetics laboratory, Health and Medicine laboratory, Parasitology laboratory and Physiology laboratory etc. The laboratory is equipped with Rotary Microtome, Kjeltec Protein Analyser, Rotary Evaporator Semi Auto Analyser, ELISA Reader, ELISA Plate Shaker, Vortexer, Thermal Cycler for PCR, SDS PAGE Unit, Micro Oven, Gel Documentation Unit, Benchtop Micro Centrifuge, Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer, Image Analyser, HPLC System, UV Visible Spectrophotometer, Cryostat, Vertical Slab Gel Electrophoresis system, Western Bloting Apparatus, Gel Drier, Automated Blood Analyser, Leica Microsystem, Stereo Zoom, Speed-vac concentrator, Fluorescent Microscope, Phase Contrast Microscope, Geranium Oil Extraction Unit, Auto Dilution and Dispensing system, GLC, HPLC accessories, Progammable Bio Freezer and Computer Aided Semen Analyser and Feed Milling Plant etc.

Yak population in India is 76,237 in 2012 (19th Livestock Census), which was 7.6% lower than the previous census. Distribution: Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir (54,398), Arunachal Pradesh (13,758), Sikkim (4,036), Himachal Pradesh (2,895), West Bengal (1,088) and Uttarakhand (62).  Five phenotypic strains of yaks are documented: the Common type (used for milk & meat; 56% population), Bisonian type (used for draught; 29% population), Bare back yak (used for milk & draught; 14% population), Hairy forehead yak (used for milk & draught; <1% population) and White yak (used for milk; <1% population).

The common type: black with a white face and white dorsal stripe, can have some other white markings as well, such as tail and socks

The white yak, about 1% of the population. This one below is polled (has no horns), which occurs in about 20% of all their yaks.

The bisonian type. This yak has a more pronounced hump, can be different colors. Note in this picture how long the animal is, reminiscent of the photos from the 19th century explorers.

Hairy forehead type. These are similar to what we call super wooly in North America, but the heavy hair growth is more on the forehead than the entire body.

Bare back type.

The “golden yak” accounts for approximately 6-8% of the population, but they do not recognize it as a separate phenotype. In general, they do not place much emphasis on colors to differentiate yaks, other than the white yak. They do not use the terms trim, royal, imperial, grey nose, or native black. They recognize nine different coat color variations and nine different horn patterns.

Golden yak in it’s natural habitat

The yak researchers are doing studies on the genetics of coat color, but do not yet have definitive results.They do think, however, that the variety of colors is not due to hybridization with cattle. They consider the white and golden yaks purebred yaks, with recessive genes and with variable penetrance. The local farmers prize the white yaks and they are worth more.

The genetic studies of the Center have to do with identifying polymorphisms specific to yak, in order to determine introgression of other species, and to assess genetic diversity and inbreeding. Their technology for assessing introgression, however, is not as robust as what IYAK is doing. They also study the genetics of disease susceptibility and resistance, and have generated data for yak sperm and testis transcriptome. They have not done whole genome sequencing. See the list of publications below.