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Mongolian herders struggle with losses

Fifth of livestock in country killed by harsh winter

A child stood near carcasses piled up at the Zuunbayan-Ulaan district in Mongolia last month. Mongolians must dispose of the more than 8 million animals that died during the severe winter. A child stood near carcasses piled up at the Zuunbayan-Ulaan district in Mongolia last month. Mongolians must dispose of the more than 8 million animals that died during the severe winter. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)
By Charles Hutzler
Associated Press / June 6, 2010

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UYANGA, Mongolia — Before he can fully tend to his dwindling herd, Demberel has to bury the dead cows, goats, and sheep in earth barely thawed from Mongolia’s worst winter in decades.

Fetid and fly-ridden, the carcasses lie stacked by the hundreds around a burial pit dug by Demberel and a dozen fellow herders. A truck brings dozens more carcasses. Others lie in piles or strewn in nearby valleys, potential health hazards for animals and humans alike.

“We’re bitter and sad that we’ve lost all our animals. There’s no income for us,’’ said Demberel, a 50-year-old herder and trained veterinarian. “Gathering and loading these carcasses is difficult.’’

More than 8.2 million animals, nearly a fifth of all livestock in Mongolia, have died in a winter of snow, cold, and gales so severe Mongolians have a special term for it — “dzud.’’ A sense of loss and the stench of decay hang over one broad valley after another across the vast range lands.

The loss of so much livestock is devastating in Mongolia, a poor, landlocked country the size of Alaska. A third of its 2.7 million people are herders, wealth is measured by the hoof, and livestock outnumber people, 15 to 1.

“For many herders, livestock is their main source of income. It’s their business. It’s what they do. That’s why the loss the herders are experiencing is the same as when a company or a bank goes bankrupt,’’ said Purev Zagarzusem, governor of Uyanga, an administrative district and one of the worst-hit areas. “Other countries have tsunamis or earthquakes, for example, and people lose their lives and possessions. In Mongolia a dzud is a disaster on a similar scale.’’

At a time when green shoots of grass sprout from the brown earth and herds should be migrating from winter camps to summer pastures, the animals are too weak to feed and travel. More are dying in sporadic snow squalls and high winds.

Demberel doesn’t dare comb his remaining goats for the fine hairs used to make cashmere, a main source of income, because the already unnerved animals might catch cold and die. His herd, once 140-strong, included yak, cows, and horses, but now numbers fewer than 30.

Demberel’s neighbor down the dry, brown valley lost a pair of goats in a May snow, the last of her herd of 30 cows, goats, and sheep.

“We did everything we could to save the remaining two but in the end we couldn’t. I used up a lot of fodder and fed them all the time,’’ said Lhagva, who like some Mongolians uses only one name. Nearby, a neighbor’s calf wrapped in a light-green blanket wobbles to a standstill, unable to cross a muddy, shallow rivulet of snow-melt.

This dzud is raising uncomfortable questions about the herders’ way of life, as integral to the Mongolian identity as Genghis Khan, whose image graces currency notes and vodka bottles. The constitution enshrines livestock as protected national wealth. Herders form a powerful constituency; parliament rescinded a head tax on livestock to curry favor with them.

The government, in a report last year, identified the unfenced grasslands and the herds that roam there as acutely vulnerable to climate change, citing more frequent droughts and harsh dzud winters.

“We Mongolians did not treat nature properly. Nature is taking revenge. It’s all our fault,’’ said Munkhbat Lhagvasuren, a 34-year-old herder who drove his herd of 1,000 through three different counties in the winter trying to find pasture not buried under snow.

Only 100 of his herd remain, and on a recent day in May another 100 carcasses of brown goats and white sheep are piled up outside his round felt tent, waiting for burial.

Government officials and development experts say herders are contributing to the problem. Since Mongolia dumped the planned economy and its Soviet client-state status for free markets 20 years ago, livestock numbers have more than doubled, to 42 million head.

Much of the increase is in goats valued for cashmere, who eat voraciously, damaging the roots of grasses and other plants that anchor the soil and prevent the pasture from turning to desert.

While the government wants to move herders into other lines of work and decrease herds, an uncontrolled exodus from the steppe is already under way.

After three harsh winters a decade ago, more than 70,000 herders ended up in Ulan Bator, swelling the shanty town fringes of the capital and mainly living on government handouts. The flow is expected to accelerate if the aftermath of the latest dzud is not controlled.

This dzud started with a drought last summer. When October rains came and froze, the ice was followed by snow, sealing the stunted grass away from the animals.

Temperatures plummeted to 40 below zero and colder. In many places, animals started dying in February and then kept dying.

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