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Timeless Lifestyle in Peril

The 'Zud,' a cycle of summer droughts and winter blizzards, has devastated Mongolia. Livestock losses take a heavy toll on the nation's nomadic herders.


MANDALGOVI, Mongolia — T.S. Usuhbayar's worst day came amid a ferocious blizzard early last year that pounded the desolate steppe with gale-force winds and yard-deep snow.

Usuhbayar, 25, stock of generations of nomadic herders, stayed up much of the night. While he tended his prized horses, his wife and mother looked after the sheep and goats. All three were desperately trying to warm the few animals they could fit into their tiny, portable home here in the Gobi desert.

But a staggering toll awaited in the white wilderness at dawn: About four dozen of the horses, two cows and at least half a dozen sheep lay still, frozen to death.

The family cried and cried. But the "Great Zud" was unrelenting, and by the end of the long winter, it had spared just 30 of the family's 200 animals.

For the last two years, a vicious cycle of summer droughts followed by winters of deep snow and heavy ice--conditions known collectively here as the Zud--has devastated Mongolia. Thousands have lost most or all of their livestock. Stacks of dozens, even hundreds, of frozen animals have become fixtures outside herders' homes, piled high like so much wood.

Even the twin humps of the stalwart Bactrian camels have gone flaccid, devoid of the fat stocks that keep them upright.

And now, this vast country, one of the last remaining horse-based cultures, is hunkering down for another cruel winter. At risk: the ancient way of life of the nomadic herders, who make up half of the landlocked nation's 2.6 million people.

Last year alone, 7,400 herders lost all their livestock, while 13,000 lost half.

There is nothing more vital to Mongolia's nomadic herders than their animals. Sheep, goats, horses and sometimes cattle and camels provide food, security and fuel: fermented mare's milk to drink, mutton to eat, wool and lucrative cashmere to sell, and dung to fuel stoves.

Under normal conditions, it is a remarkably self-sufficient life. One can travel for hours by jeep on deep-rutted dirt roads without seeing a soul. Suddenly, a shepherd tending his small flock comes into view, a tiny figure amid the open plains. A traditional felt tunic skims the tops of his sturdy black boots, a colorful orange sash circles his hips, a felt hat is perched on his head. Not far away is his ger--a round, one-room house resembling a quilted igloo.

Mongolians have a saying: "Thanks to our livestock, we're fed and clothed." But without their animals, says P. Gankhuyag of the country's Agriculture Ministry, "the herders are helpless."

With no landownership or fences beyond urban areas, the nomads follow their herds in search of good pasture. Although much of the country is desert, with fierce winds kicking up dust and sand, wild grasses usually manage to grow tall and mountains abound, pinched at the top as if mounded out of Play-doh.

But the animals couldn't gain enough fat in summer on withered fields to sustain them through winters of subzero temperatures, when the herds typically lose 40% of their body weight. Then, the Zud's heavy snowfalls and ice prevented the animals from getting to the grasses below.

It is remarkable that only about three dozen shepherds have perished, most lost in blizzards while searching for their herds. They have a seemingly innate sense of direction--navigating by stars or the shape of a hill's crest.

A Constant Search for Better Pastures

The nomads typically pull up stakes three times a year, though they usually stay within a 25-square-mile area. Their cozy gers are relatively easy to dismantle, formed of a center beam, several poles that radiate like an umbrella's spokes and collapsible wooden latticework "walls" lined with felt.

But the Zud has driven herders to pick up house as often as twice a week, searching for better pastures. Many have migrated to other provinces--putting stress not only on pastures and water sources but on social services such as boarding schools, where children spend the winters.

Last year, nearly 8,000 people in 18 provinces moved to other provinces with nearly 7 million livestock. "They don't care about themselves; they only care about their livestock, which is why they move every three or four days," says Chimeddorj Togoo, deputy chief of the country's Emergency Commission.

The overgrazing causes erosion and depletion, and thousands of wells have fallen into disrepair in recent years. The Zud has driven many to abandon herding and move into the city to look for work. The population of the capital, Ulan Bator, swelled from half a million four years ago to at least 800,000 or, by some estimates, well over a million. Unemployment hovers near double digits, and soaring numbers of street children survive in sewers.

The government--which made a peaceful transition 10 years ago from communism to democracy--is doing its best to help, relief agencies say. But with few opportunities beyond light industry to attract foreign investors, it can't afford to do as much as necessary. One-third of school budgets go for winter heating.

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