Harsh winter wipes out millions of cashmere goats
Mongolian herders are used to cold winter, but very few if any remember one like this one, the harshest in living memory. Khurmatai, who like many herders goes by one name, told Eurasianet that even when it was very cold, like in 2001, "there was grass under the snow.” However, “This year there is nothing but sand”.
With little access to pastureland and limited fodder stores, herders must take a measured approach to protecting their animals. Khurmatai keeps the weakest animals in a stone corral next to his home, a meagre pile of hay spread on the ground. He fears they will not survive until spring.
On a recent day, he lost 20 goats, huddled in the corral, covered with snow. Though 200 animals remain in his flock, "before spring we will lose most of them for sure, if the weather continues like this”.
Other herders have left their weakest animals to die in an attempt to keep the best ones alive. When they die, they skin the animals and sell the hides, even though that will bring in less than half of what they would make were they to sell wool sheared from live animals in the spring.
Herders left without a flock to shepherd by spring would have little choice but to move with their families to a village or a city to look for a job.
According to the United Nations, 19 of Mongolia’s 21 provinces have been hit by what officials call a “humanitarian disaster”.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that as many as four million of 144 million animals nationwide could die before spring. Families with smaller herds are particularly vulnerable.
An eight-province assessment mission by FAO found that 21,000 herding families had suffered losses of 50 per cent or more.
Several countries, including China and Australia, have sent emergency aid to Mongolia, but herders generally live in vast regions that are hard to reach, partly because of heavy snowfalls that isolated entire villages.
Scores of herding communities, their flocks devastated, migrated to the capital and provincial cities after the harsh winter in 2001.
Many families did not find employment and were thrust into poverty. Others fear this year might bring the same.