Temporal range: 5–0 Ma Early Pliocene – Recent
The ancestor of the wild and domestic yak is thought to have diverged from Bos primigenius at a point between one and five million years ago. The wild yak is now normally treated as a separate species from the domestic yak (Bos grunniens).
Wild yaks are among the largest bovids and are second only to the gaur in shoulder height. They are also the largest native animal in their range. Wild yak adults stand about 1.6 to 2.2 m (5.2 to 7.2 ft) tall at the shoulder and weigh 305–1,000 kg (672–2,205 lb). The head and body length is 2.5 to 3.3 m (8.2 to 11 ft), not counting the tail of 60 to 100 cm (24 to 39 in). The females are about one-third the weight and are about 30% smaller in their linear dimensions when compared to bull wild yaks. Domesticated yaks are somewhat smaller.
They are heavily built animals with a bulky frame, sturdy legs, and rounded cloven hooves. The udder in females and the scrotum in males are small and hairy, as protection against the cold. Females have four teats. The fur is extremely dense, long and hangs down lower than the belly. Wild yaks are generally dark, blackish to brown, in colouration. Both sexes have long shaggy hair with a dense woolly undercoat over the chest, flanks, and thighs to insulate them from the cold. Especially in males, this may form a long "skirt" that can reach the ground. The tail is long and horselike rather than tufted like the tails of cattle or bison. The coat is typically black or dark brown over most of the body, with a greyish muzzle, although some wild golden-brown individuals have been reported. Wild yaks with gold coloured hair, known as the Wild Golden Yak (Chinese: 金丝野牦牛; pinyin: Jīnsīyěmáoniú) is considered an endangered subspecies by China, with an estimated population of 170 left in the wild.
Distribution and habitat
Wild yaks are found primarily in northern Tibet and western Qinghai, with some populations extending into the southernmost parts of Xinjiang, and into Ladakh in India. Small, isolated populations of wild yak are also found farther afield, primarily in western Tibet and eastern Qinghai. In historic times, wild yaks were also found in Nepal and Bhutan, but they are now considered extinct in both countries.
The primary habitat of wild yaks consists of treeless uplands between 3,000 and 5,500 m (9,800 and 18,000 ft), dominated by mountains and plateaus. They are most commonly found in alpine tundra with a relatively thick carpet of grasses and sedges rather than the more barren steppe country.
The diet of wild yaks consists largely of grasses and sedges, such as Carex, Stipa, and Kobresia. They also eat a smaller amount of herbs, winterfat shrubs, and mosses, and have even been reported to eat lichen. Historically, the main natural predator of the wild yak has been the Tibetan wolf, but brown bears and snow leopards have also been reported as predators in some areas, likely of young or infirm wild yaks.
Before long I was to see the vast herds of drongs with my own eyes. The sight of those beautiful and powerful beasts who from time immemorial have made their home on Tibet's high and barren plateaux never ceased to fascinate me. Somehow these shy creatures manage to sustain themselves on the stunted grass roots which is all that nature provides in those parts. And what a wonderful sight it is to see a great herd of them plunging head down in a wild gallop across the steppes. The earth shakes under their heels and a vast cloud of dust marks their passage. At nights they will protect themselves from the cold by huddling up together, with the calves in the centre. They will stand like this in a snow-storm, pressed so close together that the condensation from their breath rises into the air like a column of steam. The nomads have occasionally tried to bring up young drongs as domestic animals, but they have never entirely succeeded. Somehow once they live together with human beings they seem to lose their astonishing strength and powers of endurance; and they are no use at all as pack animals, because their backs immediately get sore. Their immemorial relationship with humans has therefore remained that of game and hunter, for their flesh is very tasty.— Thubten Norbu, Tibet is My Country
Wild yaks are herd animals. Herds can contain several hundred individuals, although many are much smaller. Herds consist primarily of females and their young, with a smaller number of adult males. The remaining males are either solitary, or found in much smaller groups, averaging around six individuals. Groups move into lower altitude ranges during the winter. Although wild yaks can become aggressive when defending young, or during the rut, they generally avoid humans, and may rapidly flee for great distances if any approach.
The wild yak is currently classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN. It was previously classified as Endangered, but was downlisted in 1996 based on the estimated rate of population decline and current population sizes. The latest assessment in 2008 suggested a total population of no more than 10,000 mature individuals.
The wild yak is under pressure from several sources. Poaching, including commercial poaching, has remained the most serious threat; males are particularly impacted because of their more solitary habits. Disturbance by and interbreeding with lifestock herds is also common. This may include the transmission of cattle diseases, although no direct evidence of this has yet been found. Conflicts with herders themselves, as in preventative and retaliatory killings for abduction of domestic yaks by wild herds, also occur but appear to be relatively rare. Recent protection from poaching particular appears to have stabilized or even increased population sizes in several areas, leading to the IUCN downlisting in 2008. In both China and India, the species is officially protected; in China it is present in a number of large nature reserves.
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