Mongolia’s herders face a bleak future in the face of livestock losses

Published: 11 April 2016 7:41 CET

By Hler Gudjonsson

Thousands of herder families are losing their only livelihood on the Mongolian grasslands this year as an unusually severe winter, known locally as dzud, continues to decimate their livestock. In response to the rapidly deteriorating situation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched an emergency appeal to support the Mongolian Red Cross Society in providing food and cash to 5,100 vulnerable herder families, including the elderly and handicapped who are losing most or all of their animals and have no other means of survival.

“I cried for many days when my only horse died,” said Dogoonoo, an elderly woman who lives on the vast grasslands of Tsagaanuur sub-district in Uvs province, one of the coldest parts of Mongolia. “I had a herd of 230 cows, sheep and goats last autumn, but now I have less than 20 animals,” said the 72-year-old grandmother. A single tear rolled down her weathered cheek as she looked at the heap of frozen carcasses that was once her flock.

A serious drought in the province last summer severely affected the growth of grass in pastures, and Dogoonoo’s animals were too thin and weak to cope with the extreme winter that followed. “For several months the snow was so thick that the animals could hardly find food,” she added. “The temperatures were abnormally cold, down to -60C some nights, and the sheep and goats would huddle together in big heaps to keep warm. Many weakened animals suffocated under the weight of those lying on top of them.”

Dogoonoo, is not alone in fighting for her survival. She belongs to a tight knit group of five families, a total of 14 people, who have been herding their livestock together, helping each other to cope with the disaster. Just a few months ago their combined herd amounted to 800 animals, but it is very likely that most will not survive by the end of winter. “Only 300 animals are still alive now, and the most difficult period is still ahead,” said Sirma, Dogoonoo’s daughter in law. “Even if the coldest months have passed there is no grass left underneath the snow, and the animals will continue to starve.”

“I cannot even think about what will happen if I lose all my animals,” said Amardat, Dogonoo’s neighbour. “I am already 44 years old and herding livestock is the only thing you can do on the grasslands. I have been a herder my whole life and I don’t know how to do any other type of work. Who is going to hire me in the city?”

His concern about the future is a reflection of the bitter everyday reality that a vast number of former herders have to endure. The severe winter of 2010 killed an estimated 6 million animals and thousands of families were forced to move to urban centres. Many still struggle to survive in extreme poverty and terrible living conditions.

Meanwhile, surrounded by the wide expanses of the steppe and the white mountains on the distant horizon, Dogoonoo has sworn to continue fighting for the lives of her animals until the very end.

“Even if I have only one animal left, I will do everything in my power to keep it alive,” she said, hugging a new-born calf that she has taken into the family ger, with hopes of keeping it warm and alive until summer.