Big, shaggy and horned, yaks are surprisingly iconic creatures that reside in the Himalayas and much of northern Asia. Images of these creatures often involve mountains in the background and brightly colored harnesses, and the only part of the yak you can’t use is its characteristic grunt — a noise that was so unexpected that the yak was described as the grunting ox by Linnaeus.

Where Are Yaks Found?

Almost any picture of Tibet has to include a Buddhist monk, a monastery or a yak, with latter being distributed across northern India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Mongolia and Siberia. Yaks can survive with extremely low-quality grass, only requiring around 1% of body mass in grass per day, and they have much larger lungs and hearts than cattle to deal with higher altitudes. Cattle, on the other hand, require around 3% of body weight per day in grass just to survive.

Yaks have a dense layer of subcutaneous fat around their bodies for lower temperatures, but this also means that they tend to suffer from heat exhaustion above 60°F. Their lack of sweat glands means that yaks can’t cool themselves very easily. As temperatures warm, yaks are forced higher. 

Yaks and Their Calves

Yaks resemble cattle quite closely, although they are probably closer to bison genetically. As with most cattle, their offspring are called calves, and they tend to have one or two each year. Gestation takes about nine months and typically begins in the summer, with calves born the next spring.

Yak milk is famously rich in cream and is easily turned into cheese, yogurt and butter. Calves are eventually weaned at one year old and generally start reproducing at the age of three. They can live for up to 20 years in captivity.

When cattle are crossbred with yaks, you get an infertile male, known as a dzo, or a fertile female, known as a dzomo. The female can be crossbred again. Yaks are also compatible with bison, the South-East Asian banteng and the Indian guar, although these variations are less likely to occur naturally.

How Are Yaks Used?

There are around 12 million domestic yaks and perhaps 10,000 wild yaks. Their dung is turned into fuel, and their hides are used as clothing. Yak meat is highly prized, whether fresh, turned into sausages or dried, and the blood is also made into sausages. The bones are turned into glue and bone meal, or they can be carved into instruments, tableware or decorations.

Yaks are often used as draught animals, providing power to pull plows, carts and wagons. There’s even a product called milk wine, which is an alcoholic beverage made in Mongolia by fermenting yak milk. What it tastes like is unclear. Not knowing may be an advantage if you ever have the chance to taste it.

Yaks in Popular Culture

Those who were preteens in the early 2000s may remember Yakkity Yak, an odd Australian-Canadian animated TV series on Nickelodeon. This starred the ever-versatile Lee Tockar (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Johnny Test) as Yakkity Yak. Of course, because yaks don’t work well at low altitudes and film stars don’t generally like altitude sickness, it’s rare for yaks to appear in films about Tibet or the Himalayas.

Yaks do occasionally feature in zoos, but their habitat has to be carefully maintained, because they do not tolerate heat well, and they can suffer from issues if the grass is too rich. Yaks also do not eat grain.

Yaks are an important part of Tibetan, Nepalese and Himalayan life, and they are indelibly associated with this area. These creatures are crucial to livelihoods in the region, and without them, there’s a good chance that no civilization could have emerged.