A team of American and Chinese conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and University of Montana recently counted nearly 1,000 wild yaks from a remote area of the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau. ( Joel Berger/WCS/University of Montana)
Yaks, a Himalayan icon, make a return

Yaks are coming back. At least they are in a remote reserve on the Tibetan Plateau.

Researchers recently counted nearly 1,000 wild yaks in a rugged northern area of the plateau known as Hoh Xil, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which helped conduct the census.

Decimated by hunters in the middle of the 20th century, wild yaks are listed as “vulnerable” — one step above “endangered” — by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The animals once ranged in huge numbers throughout Tibet, Nepal, India and western China. Now the population across their entire range may be about 10,000. The animal is protected in several areas, inlcuding Hoh Xil.

The yak, the third-largest beast in Asia after the elephant and the rhino, lives in alpine tundra, grasslands and the cold desert regions of the northern Tibetan Plateau, ranging from 13,000 to 20,000 feet in elevation, according to the IUCN.

“Wild yaks are icons for the remote, untamed, high-elevation roof of the world,” researcher Joel Berger, who led the yak-counting expedition, said in a statement. “While polar bears represent a sad disclaimer for a warming Arctic, the recent count of almost 1,000 wild yaks offers hope for the persistence of free-roaming large animals at the virtual limits of high-altitude wildlife.”

Berger and his team found more of the wild yaks near glaciers, which feed adjacent alpine meadows and provide food for the beasts, the conservation group noted. It added that fewer than 1 percent of the yaks varied in color from the rest, suggesting that they aren’t mixing and hybridizing with domestic yaks, as is often the case in more populated areas of Tibet.

Very little is known about wild yak biology, such as how often the animals breed and how many young yaks survive to adulthood.

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— OurAmazingPlanet, which is affiliated with LiveScience