‘If we lose our livestock, we will lose everything’
When my sister and I were little, our mum would point out animals in the fields when we were driving on long car journeys. “Look, sheep… Horses… Goats,” she’d say, trying everything and anything to stop the pair of us fighting in the back seat.
Now 20 years later, I find myself playing the game driving though the Mongolian steppe. Except it’s not quite the same game. These sheep, goats and horses aren’t cantering through the green fields of rural eastern England. They lie dead where they fell, half covered in snow and ice, sometimes a whole intact carcass, others just white, jutting bones entangled in dirty fleece.
These are the victims of the dzud that’s currently affecting most provinces in the country, mainly to the west and north. So far, more than 260,000 animals have died this winter and estimates put the daily death rate at around 1,000. If herders hadn’t slaughtered their animals en masse in the Autumn, the figure would now be in the millions.
Dzud is a slow-moving natural disaster and occurs when an abnormally harsh and cold winter follows a summer draught. Due to the lack of rain, there is not enough grass for animals to eat and put on weight for the winter months. This problem is also caused by overgrazing and the lack of grass available to eat.
Over four days last week, the UB Post traveled with the Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS) and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to deliver food aid and cash grants to herding families in Uvs Province, more than 1,300 km west of Ulaanbaatar.
Uvs is the second-worst hit province and it hasn’t rained there since July of last year. This winter’s temperatures regularly dropped to -50 degrees Celsius. So far 24,000 animals have died in Uvs alone. Many herders have lost more than half of their livestock, which are their only source of income and are relied upon for milk, meat and heating. Many families have moved multiple times to try and find better pastures but with little success.
Herders often live hundreds of kilometers apart and hours from the nearest district center or market. As the livestock death figures rise, many are in despair and have no idea how to save their animals.
In Undarkhangai, the MRSC and IFRC handed out essentials such as cereal, wheat flour, rice, sugar, tea, and salt, along with cash grants of 64,000 MNT to families who do not have regular or easy access to markets. Others, who live closer to shops, were given 192,000 MNT.
The IFRC launched an emergency appeal in February to raise 830,000 USD to enable the MRCS to help 25,500 people, or around 5,100 families, with food aid, cash grants and new opportunities for 12 months. It will focus on food security, nutrition, community preparedness and risk reduction.
Our first visit was to Dogoonoo and her family, who live around 70 km from the provincial center in Tsagaannuur bag. So far, this winter she has lost 210 of her 230 animals.
She lives amongst five households and they have lost 500 animals all together from a herd of 800. The majority of the lost animals were sheep and goats, which are less resilient than cows and horses.
The 72-year-old has been herding since she retired 17 years ago, and says this is the worst dzud she has experienced.
A hundred yards or so from the family gers lies a pile of frozen dead sheep, goats and cows. Some have been skinned and the fleeces sold, but other animals are still intact. Without the fleece it’s easy to see just how thin these animals were. On one side of the pile, two chestnut-colored goats are eating the stomach of a skinned carcass.
Some of the remaining animals mill around outside the ger, nuzzling through the dusty ground, looking for something to eat. One goat chews a piece of cardboard. Inside, over milk tea, Dogoonoo explains how hard the winter has been on the family.
“We were just catching up from the 2009-2010 dzud, when we lost two-thirds of our animals, when this one happened,” said the mother of nine who also has “around 20” grandchildren.
“But this one is worse because it has gone on for longer. Many herders are getting depressed. We are trying everything to keep the animals alive.”
One of her worst experiences of this dzud was when her horse died. “I cried for days,” she said, but now so many animals have died she doesn’t cry anymore.
The family, which consists of 14 people, has converted one of their gers into a shelter for the animals to try and protect them from pneumonia.
Dogoonoo says she wishes someone would give her some specialized knowledge about how to save her animals.
“I’m trying to be strong,” she added, “But watching them die is tearing us apart.”
We get up to leave and thank Dogoonoo for her time. Outside, one of her grandchildren, a little girl who looks to be around three years old, is boisterously playing with a small calf wearing a cloth blanket. She shrieks and laughs as she pushes and chases the calf, who butts her with its head and runs away. Her giggles are the only happiness in the bleak landscape.
We get back in the jeeps and travel for a further 70 km until we reach M.Bayankhand’s ger on the top of a mountain.
The 50-year-old leads us to one of three mounds of dead animals scattered about both sides of the mountain. She starts to cry as she tells us she has lost 431 of her 700 animals to the dzud.
She takes us back to her ger, where four sheep are tied to the floor outside to stop them walking about. They are alive – but only just. Their bodies spasm as they take their last breaths, watched over by a small crowd of cows, horses, and goats.
Inside the ger, between 20 and 30 animals are living with M.Bayankhand and her family. They are the weakest members of her flock, which she is trying to save.
“But they are still dying anyway,” she says, sitting on a stool in front of them and wiping tears away from her eyes with her hands. “If we lose all of them, we will have nothing to live on.”
Bayankhand tells the UB Post how in order to save her animals she has sold the family’s car, which they used to transport the weaker animals to better grasslands, to buy more hay. She says she has also run up debts at the local market buying animal feed.
“We are putting the livestock above ourselves,” she said. “Mentally it breaks us down. What will we do if we lose all of them?”
The next day we head out again through the flat, empty, snow-covered steppe. Two hours later, on the border of Zavkhan Province, we reach the first family. The first thing I see, before I’ve even left the jeep, is a dead brown horse laying on the ground.
The family are given a package of clothes from the Finnish Red Cross Society and donated from people in Finland, along with their other aid.
They have already moved three times this winter. We are shown a pile of dead animals, once again, some skinned and some not. We are told that they have managed to sell the fleeces for one USD. They have lost at least 250 animals from their herd. We don’t stop for long, and soon head off to the next herder.
Another couple of hours of driving follows. In this part of the region there’s less snow, making it easy to see how dusty and unhealthy the soil is. There are a few spikes of straw growing out of the ground and thorny bushes, but nothing that would enable an animal to graze from the land. We see at least one dead animal every 10 minutes.
Next, we stop to speak to D.Orgonbaatar in Butsaikhan bag. Riding his chestnut horse, the 33-year-old shows us to a pile of dead animals several hundred feet away from his ger. His wife, G.Lkhagvakhana, 28, and three-year-old son A.Amartur are given a blue plastic package from the Finnish Red Cross and pose for pictures.
More than 270 of his cows, sheep, and goats have died this winter. They started the season with 570. We drive on again.
In the shadow of a huge sandstone rock set against the clear blue sky, we find D.Baatar’s ger. The 51-year-old herds 70 animals, mostly sheep and goats, with his neighbor. This year, they have lost 10 animals so far.
Sitting on the floor of his ger on a green carpet he talks to the Red Cross and the UB Post about how this winter has affected his livestock.
“If we lose anymore animals it is going to be hard for us,” Baatar said. “We are working very hard to keep all the animals alive. But they are weakening day-by-day.”
He added that he is also trying to diversify his skills and has been doing woodwork to bring in more money. But he said learning any more new skills would require financial support, which the family lacks.
“If we lose all the animals, we will move to the town,” he said. “But we want to stay here as long as possible.”
The next day, we drive six hours back to Ulaangom to fly back to Ulaanbaatar. The snow gets deeper and deeper and seems to go on forever in every direction. We pass many herders with livestock – everybody seems to be on the move, looking for better grasslands. I can’t imagine how they are going to find them.
As we round a bend, our driver slams on the brake and pulls over. Next to a bridge, a family of herders and their five camels have stopped for a rest.
The herders, whose names I don’t catch, have already travelled 100 km looking for new pastures. A man and his wife are busy packing up everything they own onto the backs of their camels.
There’s the wooden support structures from their ger, two intricately painted chest of drawers, two of the weakest goats, children’s toys, and, finally, two cradles. One holds a little boy who looks to be about two years old who glares angrily at our cameras. On the other side of the camel, peeping out of a pile of blankets with huge shiny black eyes, is a four-month-old baby.
Our guides tell us it is lucky to see a family on the move like this.
Suddenly, I am reminded of the Red Cross Society Uvs Branch briefing we went to on our first night in Ulaangom three days ago.
“These herds are not just important to the herders now, they are their future too; their children’s school and university fees,” we were told by E.Dulamsuren, secretary of the branch. “Without them they have nothing.”
As the camels and herders move slowly off towards the mountains on the horizon, I hope that some of the luck we were supposed to gain from seeing them, rubs off on them too. They are going to need it more than us.
Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=18877