Rinchen Tashi

2019 Severe Snow Disaster in Dzatoe, Tibet

Dzatoe snow disaster

A herd of yak covered in snow in Dzatoe.

In the past three months, there have been multiple heavy snowfalls in Yulshul Prefecture. Among its six counties, Dzatoe, Dritoe, Chumarlep and Tridu counties have been affected badly by the consecutive snowstorms. Dzatoe County is the most severely affected county from all Tibetan areas in this winter.

Dzatoe is a pure pastoral county which has an area of 30,161 square kilometers. Since the end of October last year, when the winter started, there have been 30 snowfalls in Dzatoe, and currently deep icy snow sheets cover 70% of its territory. The accumulated snow on the ground has gotten harder and harder as the temperature has gone lower and lower.

Affected grazing lands are covered by 8 inches and more of icy snow, which has put livestock and wildlife in a difficult situation for a prolonged time. As a result, not only have a large number of yaks and sheep died, but also a large number of wild animals, including blue sheep, white lipped deer, Tibetan gazelles, wild yaks, and several species of birds such as Tibetan snow cock starved to death. The situation there has been getting worse.

Dzachen, Aktoe, Mogshung, Tradham and Kyitoe are the most affected 5 townships in Dzatoe. Many nomadic families from 18 nomadic villages of the above listed five townships have already lost all of their livestock. Nearly 20,000 head of livestock died in Dzatoe County by March 1st, 2019, and most of them were yaks. Because there is no grass to eat, the starved yaks even ate the fur of dead yaks as seen in an online video clip.

It is common that more yaks die than sheep, goats, or horses do when animals have to struggle to get grass from deep snow as in this disastrous winter. This is due to the different strategies of grazing methods used by those animals in the snow. A horse, sheep or goats uses its nose and front legs to stroke and dig snow to get grass. A yak only uses its nose to stroke the snow to get the grass underneath, but it is not capable of using its front legs to dig. On these grazing methods in the snow by the horse, sheep and yak, we have folk story as the following:

Long, long ago, after creating the world and all creatures, Sipai Phamani, the couple who were parents to all, decided to send the yak, the horse and the sheep to live on Tibetan Plateau forever. They told the three that Tibetan Plateau is pleasant to live in summer, but the winter is long and snow a lot there, and asked the animals how they will get grass from snow-covered pastures. The horse answered, “I am going to use my nose and long front legs to stroke and dig the snow to get the grass.” “I will use my nose and short front legs to stroke and dig the snow to get the grass as well,” the sheep said. The yak laughed at the sheep and the horse, and then said, “I can get the grass more easily than those two, using only my powerful nose. My nose will blast out heat to blow off or melt away the snow.”

Sadly, the yak has never been able to do such a thing.

Even some herders in severely affected areas in Dzatoe have reached the predicament of not having enough food to eat. They pastures are located in remote places and far away from towns. They normally go shopping in the towns by horseback with pack animals. Even though there are no formal roads or highways for vehicles, some nomads, especially young people, like riding motorcycles or driving cars to travel between their homes in the pastures and the towns. However, in situation like this, almost no pasture in the affected areas is accessible by cars or motorcycles at all.

Yak dung is the only fuel for herders who live in high-altitude areas such as those affected 5 townships in Dzatoe where no tree grows. Herdsmen rely on yak dung for cooking and heating. It has been very difficult for herdsmen to get dried yak dung to make fire, because of the three-month long low temperatures and consecutive snowfalls; dung becomes frozen in the cold and snow.

So far, local herdsmen have received little assistance from the Chinese government. The Chinese authorities have kept saying that they have been concerning the welfare of those Tibetan people in the snow disaster affected areas dearly. They say, however, remote locations of those nomadic families and the accumulated snow on the roads made them difficult for transporting relief supplies to the affected areas. Some Chinese officials even urge herdsmen to slaughter or sell all of the remaining yaks and sheep while they are alive to avoid greater loss. What local Tibetan herdsmen really need is getting help to save their remaining livestock, but not slaughter or sell them in time like this.

Some local Lamas, such as Karma Gyume Rinpoche of Dzogchen Monastery in early February bought 31 big trucks of hay from some other region to distribute them to local nomad’s families. Tibetans from Derge County gathered 20 trucks of hay, barley and dried turnips and brought them all the way to Dzatoe County. However, these are far from meeting the need for disaster relief.

Even their yaks and sheep had died and are dying; local Tibetans spared the hay they have to needy animals in the wild. Tibetan monks and lay people carry hay to the mountains to feed blue sheep, deer, Tibetan gazelles and others herbivores.

Nomads in Dzatoe are in a difficult situation. They are struggling to survival in the biggest snow disaster ever since 1953 and really need help.

Sheep, the White Haired Treasure

Today is the first day of the Tibetan New Year, Losar. This new year, 2142, is the Wood Sheep Year in the Tibetan lunar calendar. The photo below caused me to reflect on sheep and their significance to Tibetan nomadic people. Because Tibetans think of sheep as “the white haired treasure” the year of the Wood Sheep is considered especially auspicious.

Tibetan sheep

Tibetan sheep prefer to live at high altitudes of 3,000 – 5,000 meters (9,800-16,000 feet). The Tibetan word for sheep is luk, however, sheep are often called yangkar, which means “the white haired treasure” because of how valuable they are. Sheep have been raised by Tibetans for thousands of years. For pastoral communities in Tibet, sheep and yak are the main sources of economic activity.

There are various regional and local cultures within Tibetan nomadic communities. Thus, ways of herding, keeping and using domestic animals, including sheep, vary from one community to another. This piece describes some aspects of the practice of the sheep herding culture in the nomadic community of Gedrong Dzatoe in Kham, Tibet.

Gedrong Dzatoe is geographically located at the heart of the Tibetan Plateau, and the Mekong and Yangtze Rivers originate in this region. It has an average altitude height of 4,200 meters (~14,000 feet). Tibetan nomads there have been herding yak, sheep and horses on their vast, highland pastures for generations, 4,000 years or so.

This was one of richest pastoral areas in Tibet in terms of the quantity of livestock. In the good old days, as one of local folk songs from centuries ago says, “There are many happy places in this world. However, the happiest place is my hometown. The painting like scenery that you see is not the haven, but it is my pasture. The flock of thousands of sheep is grazing on the grass hill; the heads of hundreds of yaks are grazing on the vast meadow.”

Wealthy nomadic families used to have 1,000 to 2,000 sheep. The nomads there don’t mark any of their sheep. Marking sheep is a big taboo for Gedrong nomads. Every member or some members in a family recognize all of their sheep. Most of the sheep have names as well. People generally don’t count their sheep, but they know how many sheep they have by a glance at the flock. If any individual sheep is missing, a herdsman can easily find out by looking at the flock for a few seconds.

Lambs are mainly born in late February and March, sometimes, 100 to 200 lambs can be born in a single night. It is a sleepless season for herdsmen of Gedrong Dzatoe. People have to take turns to guard the flock overnight. Many small cozy rooms called tsekhangs are built to place new born lambs. Tsekhang means “play house”. Generally one tsekhang can house 10 to 20 lambs. If a new born lamb is left outside, it can die from the cold weather. As soon as a lamb is born, the shepherd will put some butter in the mouth of the lamb and place it in the tsekhang for the night. The next morning, when the sun rises, lambs are taken out from the tsekhangs and put to their mothers sides one by one. Even though the person saw those lambs only once in the previous dark night at the moment they were born, she or he recognizes which lamb is born to which ewe.

Herdsmen in Gedrong Dzatoe don’t use numbers to count a sheep’s age. There are special terms to count the age of a sheep. A few examples are, lukgu for a newborn lamb, lakga for a one-year-old lamb, tsere for a two-year-old female lamb, thung-nge for two-year-old male lamb, sukpa for three-year-old sheep, and nyipa for four-year-old sheep.

Tibet’s rich nomadic traditions are very important to preserve.