From yak butter tea to yak wool, the mighty bovine has been an integral part of Tibetan life for generations.
With an average elevation above 16,000 feet and winter temperatures that drop well below zero, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.
Most crops and livestock can’t survive these harsh conditions, but one animal has become crucial to human life here: the yak.
Often found at altitudes above 20,000 feet, yaks have adapted to the low-oxygen, food-scarce environment of high elevations.
As a result, Tibetans depend on yaks for transportation, warmth, and as a food source. Their wool is used to make clothes, blankets, and even tents.
The animal is so prized that the Tibetan word for yak—nuo—translates to “treasure.”
How yaks became the ‘treasure’ of the Tibetan Plateau
Yaks are almost uniquely adapted to the environment of Tibet.
Their heavily-built, compact bodies use energy efficiently, and an outer layer of thick hair helps conserve heat. A large heart and lungs allow them to thrive in low-oxygen environments.
They are also not fussy eaters, grazing everything from coarse shrubs to short grass. Their thick hooves can easily navigate Tibet’s mountainous terrain.
All these attributes have made them man’s best friend—on the Tibetan Plateau, at least.
Chinese records from as far back as the eighth century B.C. suggest yaks were domesticated by the Qiang people who inhabited the Tibetan Plateau.
(Read more: A rare look inside a Tibetan horse-racing festival)
Most of Tibet’s yak population today consists of a domesticated species called Bos grunniens, which descended from a wild species called Bos mutus.
The wild yak population, though, is considered vulnerable, due to human development and poaching.
Just how useful is the yak?
Yaks are an integral part of daily life in Tibet. Farmers use them to transport heavy loads, as much as 500 pounds, and yak racing is a popular spectator sport at traditional festivals.
But the yak’s importance to Tibetan culture is most apparent in the cuisine.
Yak milk is used to make cheese and butter. The butter, especially, is known for being an integral ingredient in yak butter tea, a popular breakfast drink.
Yak butter is also pounded together with salted tea and toasted barley flour to make tsampa, a staple high-calorie dish of Tibetan nomads.
Even yak dung is used to fuel fires for boiling water and cooking.
And when the yaks die, they’re consumed.
“Tibetans eat so much yak meat that we are healthy and rarely get sick,” insists Tenzin Dundrup, head chef at Makye Ame, a Tibetan restaurant in Lhasa popular with locals and tourists. His restaurant serves a yak meat dish that uses a half-fat, half-lean cut.
Although they may not be sacred animals, the yak still holds a special place in Tibetan culture.
“When I feel down or stressed and I see a yak, my heart feels full and at ease,” Tenzin says.