Drought followed by harsh winter spells disaster

By Karen Percy in Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Updated Wed May 26, 2010 4:07pm AEST

Disaster zone … A herder on the way to the local burial ground in the Zuunbayan-Ulaan district of Mongolia. (ABC News: Karen Percy)

It is an awe-inspiring sight: the vast plains of Mongolia where animals roam free. Local men and women are wearing the traditional deel, or robe, as they go about their work. It is a timeless image – romantic and rustic.

But as we get closer to the scene, upon a gentle slope there is a mass grave. The herders of the Uvurkhangai province in central Mongolia are burying the carcasses of hundreds upon hundreds of goats. There is a cloud of melancholy over the group. The stench is overwhelming.

Mongolia is counting the cost of one of the harshest winters on record. Across the country an estimated 8.5 million goats, sheep, horses, camels, yaks and cows have died of hunger or succumbed to the freezing conditions. That’s one in five of the entire national herd.

They’re the victims of what the Mongolians call a zhud – a condition where a summer drought is followed by a very cold and snowy winter. There were poor grass yields in the summer of 2009 in central Mongolia. Then winter hit early and with a vengeance.

“In the wintertime we had the situation here where it was -40 to -45 degrees celsius. So we made the decision to declare a disaster zone. It was a situation no one could deal with,” says Togtokhsuren Dulamorj, governor of Uvurkhangai province, which is one of the worst affected areas.

Freak snowstorms were also reported, claiming the lives of 16 people. The National Emergency Management Agency’s small provincial team saved more than 80 others who had been trapped or lost in the snow.

Frozen to death

In the Uyanga district, 450 kilometres south-west of the capital Ulan Bator, 45 per cent of the flock is dead because of the zhud.

Byambatseren Dondov, 51, shows us the rustic wooden shelter which should be buzzing with the sound of shearing. She lost her entire herd of about 30 sheep and goats, and ten cows. Only her neighbour’s animals remain.

“The livestock were frozen on the pasture. They froze while they were being carried back to the shelter. We had taken precautions but just couldn’t cope with the conditions,” she says.

Across the district she and her fellow herders are cleaning up under a cash-for-work project being overseen by the United Nations Development Program. They will earn from $60-90 for removing and burying the carcasses. It’s much needed money at a time when debts are due and food and other supplies are running low.

The spring conditions have been unpredictable and the work has sometimes been disrupted by snow storms, or extreme winds.

“It makes it difficult to reach the affected families. And then when the snow melts it is very slippery therefore it’s not possible to continue using vehicles and we have to stop for a while,” says Gunsen Bayarsakhan the UNDP’s office overseeing the project in Uvurkhangai province.

The clean-up is expected to be completed by the end of May.

Then the really hard work begins – trying to rebuild the industry and people’s lives.

The government has declared disaster zones in 15 of 21 provinces and through the United Nations is seeking $21m to assist in the immediate clean up of the dead animals. Australia has contributed $1m so far.

The money will also be used to rebuild the lives of the 800,000 herders who have been affected.

“People are taking it very hard. They are very depressed. Some have gone a bit crazy because of it,” says Zagar Buyumbadrakh, district governor of Zuunbayan-Ulaan, where two thirds of the livestock were wiped out.

Changing practices

This zhud has exposed huge problems in the way the livestock industry is run in Mongolia. Until 1995 it was controlled by government collectives and regulations. These days there is little thought to land and water management and last year there were 44-million animals roaming the land – well above the carrying capacity of the pastures. This has led to tensions among the herders.

The privatisation of the business also led many young, inexperienced herders to buy animals. When prices for cashmere wool hit $40 a kilogram three years ago, herders took on more goats – voracious eaters which tread heavily. Once goats made up 20 percent of the national herd. Now they account for 80 per cent.

As a result of these developments, and the effects of climate change over the same time period, the land is now suffering from degradation and desertification in some parts. Water supplies are being affected as well.

So part of the UNDP’s ongoing work will be to introduce better herding practices – with a focus on fewer, better-quality beasts, and keeping them inside during the worst parts of the winter.

Families are being offered land to establish vegetable plots, and communities are exploring small-scale businesses such as dairies or wool processing.

These might seem like simple aims, but they would have a big impact on the nomadic nature of Mongolia. The UNDP’s country director, Akbar Usmani, says it’s time for change.

“The key issue is how do we get some of these best practices out there? And doing some advocacy work in trying to change this way of thinking, to change this way of lifestyle. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be a big challenge,” he says.

Some families have already left the countryside for the bigger centres in the hopes of finding other work. Those who remain are hoping to qualify for a government-run restocking program. And several local governors across Uvurkhangai province say there is interest in the alternative programs being offered.

While the herders have fiercely defended their way of life for thousands of years, there is now a sense that they are ready to try something different. They’re already using modern day tools such as motorbikes, satellite dishes and solar power. What are needed now are updated practices that will preserve the best traditions and ensure Mongolia’s nomadic herders last long into the future.

Karen Percy was given rare access to the situation earlier this month during a UN-backed media trip to the hardest hit areas of Central Mongolia.

First posted Wed May 26, 2010 4:00pm AEST

Herders contribute to conservation in the Altai Mountains in Mongolia

20 May 2010

By Onno van den Heuvel, Environment and Energy Programme Officer

The Altai Mountains are home to a variety of endangered species such as the snow leopard and the world’s largest wild sheep altai argali. Inhabited mainly by nomads, these mountains – stretching from the Gobi Desert in the south to the Siberian Tundra in the north, and forming a border between Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China – hold several biodiversity hotspots mostly located in remote areas with limited access.

In the Mongolian part of the Altai Mountains, herders still live a traditional nomadic lifestyle. They live in harsh conditions, with temperatures commonly below the freezing point for most of the year and basic services often not available within a 100km distance. Up to 1990, these herders depended on centralised planning system for their grazing patterns and steady income. In the 1990’s, a wave of liberalisation led to the removal of strict regulations which resulted in land degradation, unrestricted hunting and habitat loss.

To protect the biodiversity in the region, the Mongolian Ministry of Environment with the support of UNDP launched, in 2009, the Altai Sayan Ecoregion Project, which involves herders in conservation of the mountains.

Under the project, herders form community groups of 10 to 15 members. These groups develop community plans for emergencies and seek funds from grants. This better prepares the herders to respond to natural disasters, tackle bitter cold winters and improve their income.

The participating herders are, also, trained to identify and collect data on the endangered animals and plants in their area. Such monitoring has generated new information about the habitat areas and the population numbers of important species.

Having up to date information about herds of animals is important not only for the sake of their conservation, but also for the planning of hunting, which is a significant source of revenue in Mongolia.

The project also empowers the community groups by allowing them to register as the sole users of natural resources in their area. In return, the groups are expected to protect these resources and manage them according to the set rules and regulations. For instance, the groups ensure that hunting is only carried out in the permitted seasons so as not to deplete the animal stock.

Today, more than 45 communities, covering an area larger than 376,000 hectares, have registered as sole users of natural resources under the Altai Sayan Ecoregion Project. To guarantee that the system is not misused, state environmental inspectors are tasked to monitor all the registered community groups.

Lately, some communities have ventured into tourism, setting up gers – Mongolian nomadic house, and offering camel rides. Others have decided to focus on producing small handicraft products. The Project stands ready to support other interested communities, if they choose, to set up their own tourism services.


Saving the Snow Leopard

Saving the Snow Leopard
By Sharon Marshall

With only an estimated 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards left in the wild, conservation programs are necessarily enlisting the help of local communities to increase the species’ chances of survival.

Founded in 1981, the International Snow Leopard Trust, which monitors the movements of the solitary cat in China, India, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, and Pakistan, also gives poverty-stricken local women training and equipment to produce camel-wool and related products which are sold internationally and via the Snow Leopard Trust online store (www.snowleopard.org/shop).

In this way, the women are able to afford food, medicine, and school bills, and the herding males no longer have to poach endangered snow leopards to survive. All profits are invested back into community conservation projects.

In Mongolia, the Trust, which is funded mainly by individual donors, members, and business partnerships, is also trying to ensure locals get the high price of the wool they deserve. By providing families with a regular buyer, rather than traveling traders, participants often increase their income from 25 to 40 percent.

Though snow leopards are sometimes poached for their pelts and bones, they are mostly killed in retaliation for preying on domestic livestock. Participants, of whom there are over 400, are learning to develop sustainable herding practices such as smaller herd sizes, so that there is more natural prey for the snow leopards. In addition, participants sign a pledge to stop the poaching of all snow leopards and their prey, and a cash bonus is given once a year to each compliant participant. If one person violates the contract, the entire community loses the bonus. Ecological workshops, eco-camps, newsletters, posters and other resources help raise awareness in villages.

Things are also looking up in the Himalayan provinces of India, the third most populous snow leopard region after China and Mongolia. Launched in March, Project Snow Leopard will include the promotion of alternative livelihoods for local people and public awareness activities.

In Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir) and Nepal, where Peter Matthiessen wrote his epic book while researching the snow leopard with George Schaller in the 1970s, the Snow Leopard Conservancy (www.snowleopardconservancy.org) has launched a successful incentive program, whereby locals set up bed and breakfast accommodation for visitors in a spare room at a cost of about $13 a night. The organization also organizes snow leopard treks.

PermaLink for this story: