Getting stuck in the Mongolian Outback
Women milk the Goats
Gambat conducts a Classing Clinic
The group photo
Mongolian does in summertime
Camels at a well
Mongolia is twice the size of Texas and has about 300 million acres of pastureland. Approximately 100,000 herder families care for 12.3 million sheep, 11 million goats, 3.6 million cattle, 2.7 million horses and 300,000 camels. These herders effectively convert Mongolia's greatest renewable natural resource, forage, into consumable and/or marketable products.
Mongolia has five distinct ecological regions: mountain steppe, forest steppe, grass steppe, desert steppe and desert. These regions are defined by rainfall, dominant vegetation type and topography. Dominant forage plants include species of Orostachys, Cobresia, Koleria, Artemesia, Poa, Agropyron, Cyperacea and Festuca spp. Politically, Mongolia is divided into 18 provinces called aimags. Each aimag is divided into five or six soums and each soum into three bags, the smallest political boundary. The bag is the rough equivalent of the Russian imposed "collective". The southern aimags, Onmogovi and Dundgovi have been targeted by the United States Agency for International Development for a pilot breed improvement program with which the author was associated. Both aimags are dominated by the desert, desert steppe and transitional grass steppe ecological zones, making them significantly different than the aimags in the north and far western regions of the country that are primarily grass steppe, forest steppe and mountain steppe.
The total annual forage production in Mongolia is 45 million tons; equivalent to 60 million sheep forage units (or 10 million Animal Units). A sheep forage unit (SFU) is equal to 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of forage/day. One cow is equal to six SFUs so in Mongolia, the expected daily forage consumption for a cow is 13.2 pounds. Goats (.9 SFU), camels (5 SFUs) and horses (7 SFUs) are equally underfed. One must keep in mind that Mongolian stock are smaller in stature than their American counterparts, probably because they don't get enough to eat. But using this formula, Mongolian rangelands on average are stocked at a level that is mathematically less than carrying capacity. The problem is distribution.
The Gobi Desert receives less than 5 inches of rain annually. It lies at an elevation of three to six thousand feet above sea level, between 42 and 45 degrees north latitude, about the same as northern Wyoming. Range production levels in a drought year are 60 kg of forage/hectare (55 lbs/acre) and in a normal year, 125 kg of forage/hectare (114 lbs/acre). No winter feed stores are put up in the Gobi and the sheep and goats can lose up to 40% of their bodyweight over the winter months. Herd structure is typically made up of 47% sheep, 31% goats, 12% cattle, 9% horses and 1% camels, although this is changing as the market for cashmere exceeds the demand for wool and mutton. Within the goat and sheep herds, 40% of the herds are adult wethers kept solely for fiber (or mutton) production. Herders do not typically consume goat meat. Mutton (boiled on the bone or ground up and made into large ravioli) and goat milk are the mainstays of their diet. Cashmere is combed in the spring one month after parturition and the average production per goat is 350 grams of fiber (250 grams for breeding females and 500 grams for adult wethers). Exports of cashmere products totaled $65 million USD in 1999. Wool is shorn by hand in July and is primarily exported in the raw form to China or felted into useable products.
During this past year, a year characterized by the concurrent peaking of the five-year drought cycle, the ten-year dzud (or winter disaster) cycle and the three-year rodent infestation cycle, 1.4 million animals had died by the end of February. Over 300,000 animals have died each week since then and this trend is expected to continue until green up. Only five of the 18 aimags are in the dzud affected areas and these have suffered the bulk of the losses. Some herders have lost 100% of their animals. It is too late to provide enough forage to save the remaining starving animals and aid agencies are now grappling with the question of what to do for the herders who have lost so much. The Gobi region is faced with the potential of continuing drought, the apparent severe overgrazing of occupied areas and with the basic infrastructural deficiencies of Mongolia; no developed roads, no established commodity markets, and minimal food distribution networks. What should be done? Feed the animals? Feed the people? Restock the herds? Protect the rangeland? Each has its own set of problems.
The history of Mongolia is colorful. Its most famous hero is Chinggis Kahn, referred to as "Genghis Kahn, the barbarian" by Western historians. Chinggis Kahn (Kahn meaning king) united the warring factions of the Mongol culture in 1195. At the time of his death in 1227, he had conquered most of Russia and Central Asia. His sons and grandson, Kublai Kahn, proceeded to conquer China and occupied present day Beijing as their capital. At one time, Mongolia dominated all the lands from Hungary to Indonesia and the area enjoyed the longest period of peace and prosperity in its history. By 1500, the last Kahn of the Golden Hoard was dethroned and Mongolia fell into two centuries of political disarray. During the 1700s and the 1800s, the Manchu Chinese dominated Mongolia. The population was impoverished and heavily in debt to Chinese traders. Buddhist monasteries owned most of Mongolia, and the majority of the men were employed as lamas or monks. In 1911, Mongolia was freed from Chinese rule and enjoyed a very brief period of independence. In 1921, Mongolia fell under Russian influence and became a socialist state. In 1924, the last Kahn died. For the next 70 years, Soviet financial aid and technical assistance helped to industrialize the country and exploit its considerable non-renewable natural resources; coal, copper, gold and uranium. At its peak, Russian financial aid contributed one third of the Mongolian economy. Agricultural collectives were organized at the bag level to provide Russia with goat meat, mutton and beef. Cashmere was a small secondary industry that provided some cash, but by and large, basic needs were being met. The literacy rate and life expectancy rate soared. But Russians set the quotas, they provided the support when an industry could not support itself, and they dictated the daily routines of the Mongolian people. For example, women were required to leave their families and harvest hay by hand in distant lands while their men stayed with the herds. The Russians built the infrastructure initially, but it was not a self-sustaining system. When they pulled out in 1990 the Mongolians were left with a failing economy, a fragile political system and a quickly deteriorating infrastructure.
Now consider that the Mongolian culture used to be truly nomadic. They had progressed beyond the hunter/gatherer level and were actively involved in herding the five species of domestic ungulates; horses, camels, cattle, sheep and goats. Before collectivization, nomadic herders moved from place to place, allowing the herds sufficient time to utilize the range resource, and moving on when the forage was consumed. Generally, as the range resource closest to their winter ger location decreased, herders moved in larger and larger concentric circles finding the ungrazed rangelands. In Mongolia, all land is State owned. Herders have historic rights to use broad areas that technically supercede the rights of the newer, and less experienced, herders. However, Mongolians are very generous people and they are very aware that some herders subjected to drought or dzud in neighboring areas are forced to move. Also, they unfailingly care for members of their extended families, offering them food, shelter and animals. They willingly share their resources because they know it might be their turn to relocate next year. When the Russians took over, they tried to bring the culture into the 20th century. Brick and mortar buildings established towns in the 1950s that previously consisted only of highly mobile gers, effectively fixing their location on the steppe. Population centers were connected by telephone service and roads were mapped out. Coal fired power plants, heating plants, hospitals and schools were built at the local level. For the first time in history, Mongols had a social safety net beyond their own extended family. But as the number of herders increased due to chronic un- or under-employment in urban areas, the range resource dwindled. Many more herders now crowd around the urban areas and they are unwilling to move large distances into ungrazed areas that lack social services. Mongolian herding culture never implemented the agricultural cultivation phase of cultural development. They never stayed in one place and planted crops to sustain themselves. Today, some agricultural cooperatives located in the central and northern aimags do put up hay, but in the Gobi, potential haygrounds are left undeveloped.
At first, collectivization, the agricultural equivalent of industrialization, was not successful due to the herders' distance from population centers and their fierce independence. But by the 1960s, herders finally succumbed to the Russian collective system, some only due to the use of lethal force. The collectives had strictly limited the numbers of animals a herder could privately own. They were required to herd both their own animals and those that belonged to the State in a constrained and restricted way that superficially mimicked their nomadic lifestyle. Marketing decisions were made by Moscow, supplemental feed was supplied by Moscow and "superior" genetics in the form of Russian Don Goats (an Angora crossbred), Merino sheep and European style cattle were brought in to "upgrade" the native Mongolian breeds. Russian quotas for meat and fiber were based largely on quantity and not quality. But most importantly, the risk of livestock mortality was borne by the State. If an animal died, it automatically became one of the State owned animals, never a privately owned one. Herders had a guaranteed 100% survival rate as well as a 100% progeny production level for their own few animals. Herders were not at risk. The State was too large to take note and really didn't care as long as the quotas were met.
The biggest problem was the introduction of "superior" genetics into the native Mongolian livestock gene pool. Russian Don goats were large, meaty animals that grew a coarse fiber called cashgora. The Merinos were finer and heavier than the typical Mongolian fat-tailed sheep and the European cattle that were brought in were much larger than the Mongolian cows. Again, the purpose of these introductions was to increase meat production. The result was the size of the animals increased to the point where the environment could not sustain them. This greater feed requirement could not be met after the Russians discontinued supplemental feed supplies. The larger cows and sheep quickly died out, returning those gene pools to their original condition. Unfortunately, the influence of the Russian Don goat genome is still affecting the cashmere industry. There are certain very strong negative correlations between genes controlling the expression of the most important cashmere goat characteristics. Bodyweight is negatively correlated to fiber diameter; fiber diameter is negatively correlated to down production. Furthermore, Mongolian herders never knew how to tell the difference between fine cashmere and coarse cashmere, let alone cashgora and so they could not select for fine fiber. Harsh environmental conditions always encourage goats to grow the finest fiber possible, but today, many Mongolian goats raised in near starvation grow fiber that is coarser than the processors would like (over 16 microns). Also, fiber from the coarser wethers that used to be slaughtered for meat increased the average fiber diameter of Mongolian cashmere. It was not until the mid 1990s when the Mongolian cashmere processors found they could not buy enough fine Mongolian cashmere to feed their factories that the problem was defined. While it is possible to breed goats to grow finer fiber, it requires an organized methodology and selection system to breed for goats that are genotypically fine, not just phenotypically fine. Phenotypically coarse goats that are also starving should be immediately culled, but there is no market for culled goats. No Russians, no goat meat market. Fortunately, goat hides are bringing record prices right now and Mother Nature is doing a great job of eliminating the rest of the larger animals.
When the Russians finally pulled out in 1990, the collective herds were quickly privatized. Livestock was distributed largely among the higher-ranking Mongolians who had faithfully served the Russian bureaucracy but also among the individual herders who were members of the collectives. Two significant things changed. First, the herders' safety net disappeared. They were now responsible for their own welfare. All the risk was theirs. Secondly, their true nomadic culture disappeared in favor of one that revolved around fixed base social services. They were no longer nomads, but neither were they agriculturalists; they neither bought nor grew supplemental feed that would enable them to remain more stationary, to take the risk out. They still camped at their winter locations, wandered freely in about a 40-mile radius during the grazing season, and competed for limited grass with increasing numbers of herders. But worse, they attempted to minimize their risk by increasing their herd numbers and by changing their herd structure to maximize cash producing crops such as cashmere and airag (fermented mare's milk) since cash could now be spent in the cities. These efforts resulted in increased grazing pressure on areas near the urban centers. Agricultural practices that might have helped sustain them through adverse conditions were never implemented at the local level. Historically, herders would have pulled up roots and left drought or dzud-stricken areas, but now all they can do is buy a few bales of hay and tough it out. The Mongolian government does maintain a State Emergency Fodder Fund (SEFF) but the logistics of moving this limited supply of poor quality hay cannot be overcome in times of need.
Livestock belonging to nomadic cultures are more like wildlife populations than domesticated animals in other cultures. Wildlife populations are free to roam wherever there is enough forage, water, and cover. In northern latitudes, wild ungulate populations are generally limited by the carrying capacity of their winter range and their numbers are moderated by the severity of winters, the degree of predation and the overall health of the herd. If a wildlife population is constrained by some environmental factor, such as being confined to an island, the population is at risk as it approaches and exceeds range carrying capacity. As rangeland deteriorates, the population can crash precipitously, particularly if other factors intervene such as drought or harsh winters. The classic example of this phenomenon occurred in the Pribilof Islands in the 1930s. A population of reindeer confined to St Paul Island crashed and only 8 of 2000 animals survived because they had destroyed their habitat. In Mongolia, animals that are restricted to overgrazed range will react as if they are on an island. As the range resource is consumed, the effect of drought or dzud will be drastic and the population will crash. After ten years, Mongolian herders in the Gobi regions are on the verge of disaster. The native pastureland is in dire need of time to recover and millions of animals have starved or are starving today. The continuation of the drought could wipe them out completely and involve previously unaffected areas.
As it is, herders in the Gobi region are faced with diminished food supplies next winter. A large part of the Mongolian diet comes from milk products put by during the summer. All animals, except sheep, are actively milked and that is preserved as yogurt, airag, curds, whey, crude cheese and dried blocks. Animals that have lost their young to the cold or that have aborted will give no milk. Short-term relief efforts may need to focus on providing dried milk to affected herders. But what about long-term relief efforts? The herders want to replace their lost livestock, the sooner the better. Unfortunately, the range resource has not recovered and it is not likely to recover in the near future unless stocking rates are dramatically reduced. Restocking it to previous levels will result in future winter losses and continued range degradation unless large amounts of supplemental feed are provided. Herders need to either move or start farming. The problem is distribution and there are no easy answers.
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