Due to their unique physiology of having extra large lungs and hearts than their cattle cousins, Yaks are naturally better suited to existing at higher altitudes. It comes as no surprise then that most wild Yaks live in the most mountainous regions of countries such as Tibet, Mongolia and China. While historically Yaks have been known to have existed across whole swathes of the highest regions of central Asia, in modern times Yaks are limited to a concentrated geographical area in what is now southern central Asia; mainly encompassing the outer fringes of Tibet and its neighbouring countries.
While the majority of the wild Yak population exists within this concentrated geographical area, there are many smaller more isolated populations of wild Yak existing in more remote regions such as southernmost Xingjian province in China, Ladakh in northern India and westernmost Qinghai province in China. This is no mere coincidence as most of these regions consist of mountainous plateaus of alpine tundra which is a highly suitable habitat for the wild Yak. Unlike the barren Eurasian Steppe Belt that cuts through northern central Asia, these regions are blanketed in luscious grass; perfect for the modern day Yak to graze upon.
Moreover, while it is true to suggest that Yak are widely seen as wild animals, many are domesticated and used as a form of cattle. This is largely unsurprising based on the simple fact that most breeds of traditional cattle and livestock are physiologically ill suited to the challenging terrain of some of the world’s highest regions. As such, many domesticated Yaks can be found in countries where Yaks have been declared extinct. These countries include Nepal and Bhutan. While wild Yak are still officially declared as extinct in Nepal and Bhutan, domesticated Yak can be found in the highest regions of these countries and provide invaluable support to countless Nepalese and Bhutanese livelihoods.
It is also worth noting that from a historical perspective, it would be inaccurate to assume that Yaks have always resided in this very specific part of southern central Asia for time immemorial. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Recent fossil discoveries in the eastern most regions of what is now considered mainland Russia, have shed light on the possibility that Yaks have not only existed across a much larger geographical area, but that they might have been the ancestors to modern day American Bison. The thought process behind this theory is that at one time a glacial corridor joined what is now Alaska to eastern Russia, thus providing a significant route for these historic Yaks to migrate to the Americas.
Yaks have a long history of populating the most mountainous areas of southern central Asia. From the Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau and from Mongolia to Russia, the unique Yak have managed to survive the most difficult of terrains for centuries. Not only have they managed to exist in these remote areas, but they have also managed to survive and indeed adapt to encroaching human civilisation. On this basis, it is clear that the Yak will continue to exist and perhaps thrive in south central Asia as it has done for many centuries.
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