Mongolian herders desperate to save their animals

By Sanna Ra, Finnish Red Cross

A pile of sheep, dead and frozen. Cold grassland wind moves their wool. A skinned goat, so starved it’s all bones. Herder Bayankhand Myagmar, 50, drags her dead animals out of sight with a heavy heart.

“If they die further away in the field, it’s better because then I don’t witness them dying. If they get weak and die in front of my eyes, it’s very, very hard,” she sobs.

During this winter’s dzud, Mongolian extreme winter, she has lost more than 400 of her 700 animals: sheep, goats and cattle. “I feel so sorry for them. I tried to save them but I couldn’t.”

With temperatures dropping as low as -60 Celsius at night in Uvs province, this is the hardest dzud Ms Myagmar has experienced. “We lost some animals in previous dzuds, but it wasn’t like this. Weaker animals were killed in the pens by others stepping on them. We checked them two or three times during the night, but in the morning we found dead animals.”

Last summer’s drought and overgrazing means there is very little to eat under the snow. Animals die of starvation and cold. “We prepared hay quite well for the winter and bought one ton of wheat, two tons of fodder. It all ran out. We also finished hay and fodder from Government, so now we are borrowing cash for fodder, which we will repay in cashmere,” Ms. Myagmar explains.

Mongolia is the world’s second largest producer of cashmere after China. Animal husbandry the backbone of Mongolia’s economy: it gives livelihood to about third of Mongolia’s population. In 2013, the livestock population reached 45 million.

While Ms. Myagmar’s losses may seem small, it’s all she has. “We don’t have any other income apart from my daughter’s disability pension and son’s child support.” There are no savings, because last year the price of animals was so low that she couldn’t sell any. “We thought we could save all animals for next spring and then prepare hay and fodder. I feel ashamed that lost the animals, it’s hard to face other people because of that,” she says, lowering her gaze, wiping tears from her cheeks.

So desperate is she for her animals’ survival that she has started bringing them inside the family home - a ger, or yurt - for the night. One by one, she carries chestnut-coloured goats inside, trying to look for the weaker ones. The smell of animal urine inside the yurt is overwhelming and Ms. Myagmar admits she is risking her family’s health while trying to save her livestock, but adds: “I cannot give up, so I’m continuously trying to save them, day and night.”

That is why dead sheep are not sheared: it is too laborious, and wool too cheap, to bother. Goat hide, a source of cashmere, is still saleable. Since her daughter is physically disabled and husband has leg and joint problems, the whole family operation rests on the mother’s shoulders. She hardly eats or sleeps.

During the dzud crisis, the Red Cross is doing national disaster response emergency fund distribution, which includes food and cash, and is supporting 240 herder households in Uvs province alone. However, some of the most vulnerable people live in areas blocked by snowstorms.

“It was so difficult to visit households that we only delivered to the district centre because all roads were blocked. Also we have a very limited budget for fuel,” says Davaadozj Enkhtaivan, an instructor at the Uvs branch of the Mongolian Red Cross.

According to his estimate, the loss of animals is increasing, as are miscarriages. “That means they will not have any new animals in the spring. If it continues like that, the situation is going to be really bad,” Mr. Enkhtaivan says. During the last devastating dzud in 2010, more than 8 million livestock died.

Right now herders are identifying their biggest needs as hay and fodder for their animals, and food and warm clothes for themselves. “Once they have cash, they can buy hay and fodder from local market. That means if herders have cash, they can buy and feed their animals to save them,” says Davaajargal Baasansuren, Health Promotion Programme Officer at the Mongolian Red Cross.

The Mongolian Red Cross has launched an emergency appeal, which aims at getting more support from international partners and donors in order to expand the ongoing relief operations. “This time of the year is quite critical because animals will give birth. That means lots of animals will die this spring,” Mr. Baasamsuren adds.

But it might be too late for Ms. Myagmar. “I’m very afraid of losing all of them,” she says. “My husband and I are over 50, so nobody will employ us. We will not find any other jobs, we are not yet entitled to pensions,” she adds, and prepares fodder pouches for her sheep and goats. One sheep just lies still, eyes dull. It has lost interest in eating. Ms. Myagmar carries it inside and hopes it will be still alive in the morning.