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The yak is a distinctive shaggy Himalayan ungulate, or hoofed mammal, which roams Tibet and parts of China. Yaks are differentiated into a smaller domesticated species and a large, extremely wary wild version. The wild yak is at risk due to destruction of habitat, diseases from domestic yaks, and hunting. The yak is a vital work and food animal in Tibet, where other ungulates could not survive the extreme conditions.
Wild yaks can weigh up to 2200 pounds (1000 kilograms), and stand six feet (two meters) at the shoulder. Domesticated yaks are smaller, but both types of animal have long, shaggy coats and muscular bodies. The yak is also a very surefooted animal, able to navigate extremely hostile terrain in search of food. Yaks are very strong and have a great deal of stamina, sometimes traveling miles to find grazing areas.
Domestic yaks are used to pull loads and plow fields, and are combed for their fur, which is spun and woven into various fiber products. Yak milk is a popular animal product in southern China and Tibet. In some areas the yak is slaughtered, yielding a substantial amount of meat which can be cured and dried for later use. The yak has been used as a domestic animal in Tibet for over three thousand years, and is found widely scattered across Tibet and China. Many zoos display domesticated yaks, which are smaller and more docile than their wild counterparts.
Wild yaks roam in herds of ten to one hundred, and can be found in remote areas where humans have not yet penetrated. They are extremely shy animals, and will gallop at the sign of any disturbance. The hardy animals can survive temperatures below -40 Fahrenheit (-40 Celsius). Wild yaks have a very large lung capacity, which pairs with their thick coat and increased blood circulation to keep the animals warm in extreme conditions.
Due to hybridization with domesticated yaks, the numbers of wild yaks are dwindling. In addition, wild yaks are susceptible to diseases carried by domestic yaks, and to habitat disturbance. Increasing human pressure has caused a decline in viable habitat for the wild yak, and may ultimately cause the yak to disappear in its wild form.
The yak is sometimes called the buffalo of Tibet, because the rugged all-purpose animal has become such a crucial part of Tibetan society. If given good care, a yak can live into its twenties and become a valued member of the family. Females generally produce a single calf in alternate years. The yak is often used in religious ceremonies as well, recognizing the importance of the animal to survival in the extreme environments of Tibet.
The people of China and Tibet think of yaks almost like Americans do cattle, because they depend on them for food. However, yaks are also important to the people of these regions for transportation through cold weather and rough terrain.