Mourning in Mongolia: Herders bury carcasses and tally losses after a harsh winter

By Charles Hutzler, AP
Monday, May 31, 2010

Mongolia counts carcasses after harsh winter

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, straight-backed and with a pockmarked face. “Gathering and loading these carcasses is difficult. They’re rotting and they stink.”

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, a wiry, angular-featured woman, 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.

For Demberel, trouble struck in March when sustained snows and cold wind hit the high and usually less snowbound pastures at 8,000 feet (2,500 meters), where he had driven his herd. Animals began freezing on the spot, he said, and more died from pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.

Clearing away the dead animals is the top priority. Carcasses litter the pastures, where they are picked at by dogs and eagles. Some of the goats and cows have been skinned to sell the hides, exposing the rotting flesh beneath. Sickness and depression are running through the herders’ camps, compounding their economic woes.

“There’s a restlessness among the herd. They suddenly get scared by the carcasses, and when they’re hungry they bite the wool of the dead sheep. It affects their behavior very much,” said Demberel, once a member of the local legislature. As the weather warms, he said, the pneumonia and other viruses in the rotting carcasses could be transmitted to live animals and then on to the herders.

The United Nations Development Program has organized carcass cleanup in three badly affected provinces, offering herders $70 to $100, enough for a three-month supply of rice or flour. In an $18 million appeal launched this month for post-dzud recovery, the United Nations said the health of herders is already suffering, noting an uptick in deaths among infants and children under five and a rise in cardiac diseases and strokes among adults.

If rotting carcasses “get into the water supply, that would be a huge catastrophe,” said Akbar Usmani, the UNDP’s representative in Mongolia.

Burying the carcasses is the only option, U.N. experts said, because Mongolia’s dry climate makes burning them too dangerous.

Demberel and the 13 neighbors he organized expect to bury 2,000 animals by the end of May in the large pit on a rocky upland hillside. Then they can move down to summer pastures, about a month later than usual, and hope the herds fatten up and the goats are healthy enough for combing.

Reminders of the dzud will remain. There’s not enough manpower to pick up all the carcasses. And in Mongolia’s cold, dry climate, animal hides take 6 months to rot, their flesh and sinews 7 months, and their bones 10 years.

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