The Deadly Winters That Have Transformed Life For Herders In Mongolia

Jargal Byambasuren, Reuters

Herders bury animal carcasses in 2010 in Mongolia's Dundgovi province. A decade ago, an extreme winter — known in Mongolia as a dzud — claimed the lives of 22% of the nation's livestock and sped up migration from rural areas to urban centers.

On a frigid morning in January 2000, Oyutan Gonchig rose at first light to check on his animals. A blanket of snow — over a foot deep — had fallen in the night. He shoveled himself out of his ger, a felt-covered tent traditionally used by semi-nomadic herders. The temperature was minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, the kind of cold that freezes your eyelashes and stiffens your joints.

Stepping over the threshold and into this blindingly white world, he noticed it was eerily quiet outside.

“Everything was covered by snow. There was no way to distinguish the sheep trails,” he remembers. “There were corpses.”

A dozen dead animals — his animals, sheep and goats he had raised from birth — had collapsed in the snow. Those still alive were struggling to find grass beneath the snowdrifts, piled high by the biting wind. He felt horrified, and helpless.

“Some of the surviving animals were trying to find something to eat but couldn’t,” he recalls. “It was very difficult to see this.”

A stunningly cold, snowy winter changed Oyutan’s life forever. Several animals died every few days from starvation, illness and exposure to the elements. By May, he had lost 100 head of livestock — and his entire livelihood.

The cause was a phenomenon that Mongolians recognize with a specific word. They call it a dzud — the deterioration of winter weather conditions leading to a mass death of livestock from lack of food and/or water. Dzud winters vary, characterized by harsh cold, too much snow or not enough, ice and other factors.

There are five types of dzuds, and Oyutan’s animals were claimed by the deadliest — a tsagaan dzud, meaning “white death.” That’s when snow covers the pastureland, blocking animals’ access to food.

Like tens of thousands of other Mongolian herders, Oyutan was never able to recoup his losses. He was forced to forge a different life for himself.

Mongolia weathered consecutive dzuds around the turn of the century (three between 1999 and 2002) and again during the 2009-2010 winter, all against the backdrop of a devastating drought linked to climate change. The 2009-2010 dzud alone killed 22% of the nation’s livestock.

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It was a catastrophic era for a country with a tradition of nomadic pastoralism dating back thousands of years. Herders make a living by selling animal products — including meat, wool and cashmere. Without their animals, they become cash strapped and cannot pay for basic needs.

Dzuds, unique to Mongolia, are homegrown natural disasters born out of the country’s unusual environment: landlocked, semiarid and prone to swings in temperature and precipitation. Historically, dzuds occurred once or twice a decade. Four dzuds in a single decade overwhelmed Mongolia’s government. It lacked the resources to adequately respond to this magnitude of natural disaster.

When the dzud struck in 2000, the question for Oyutan and many others became “Is this way of life even sustainable anymore?” For many, the answer has been no.

“Many moved. The winter and snow was too hard. No one wanted to stay in the countryside, because it was just impossible to make a living,” he said.

To be clear, the economics of herding were already in question at the time. A decade prior, communist-run Mongolia had rapidly transitioned to a market economy. Agricultural collectives known as negdels were dissolved, leaving herders without a safety net when they needed emergency fodder, veterinary care and other resources. Risk was no longer assumed by the state but by the individual. Dzuds sent herding households — already on the brink — spiraling over the edge.

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In 2002, Oyutan and his mother quit herding for good. They left their home province of Dornod in the steppes of eastern Mongolia for Ulaanbaatar, the capital, about 500 miles away. They were among approximately 40,000 people who migrated to the city that year.

Oyutan still lives in a ger in an unplanned area on the northern edge of Ulaanbaatar that has absorbed many of the city’s newer arrivals.

He’s a taxi driver now, married with four children. “Four beautiful daughters!” his mother, 70-year-old Tserenkhand Damba, says with a grin. She breaks out her Soviet-style sewing machine, and two of her granddaughters clamor for attention.

On the walls hang cross-stitched images of flowers and trees, sewn with meticulous care by their mother, Tsevelmaa Ganbat, 31. The family hasn’t seen her in months. After struggling to find a job in Ulaanbaatar, she left last October to work in Japan at an ice cream factory and sends home her earnings to help support the family.

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Leaving Mongolia for work is not uncommon. South Korea has the largest population of Mongolians abroad, followed by Russia and the Czech Republic, according to 2013 data from a UNICEF report. Remittance inflows — money sent by migrants — accounted for 2.6% of Mongolia’s GDP in 2017, according to the World Bank.

However, the most dramatic shifts have been internal, as households move from rural areas to urban centers. Ulaanbaatar is now home to nearly half of all people in Mongolia.

Even though Oyutan has forged a new life for himself, he misses the fresh air of the countryside. He visits relatives in Dornod as often as possible, bringing his daughters along as he trains racehorses. But he has been disturbed by environmental changes he has seen.

Bodies of water from his childhood, like the river where he used to swim, have dried up.

“In old times, it was not like that,” he says. “Everything was very balanced. We had good rivers and creeks. Now, herders have to rely on water wells. People say it’s because of global warming.”

“Climate change is very complicated”

Dzuds are complex phenomena, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes them. But scientists do know this: Greenhouse gas emissions have rendered Mongolia a drier, hotter place than it was 80 years ago, when data collection began.

According to Mongolia’s Information and Research Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment, the country’s annual mean temperature has increased 2.2 degrees Celsius (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1940. In that same period, precipitation has decreased by 10%.

“We are an inland country, so we don’t have an ocean. The exchange of moisture between the atmosphere and the biosphere are very important for us,” says Gomboluudev Purevjav, head of climate research at the institute. If rangeland is degraded, he says, transpiration — the process that carries moisture and nutrients from a plant’s roots — will be reduced.

A drier Mongolia is a death knell for animals. Drought weakens livestock, making a dzud winter all the more deadly.

Dzuds are caused by multiple factors — some climate related and others human made. Drought is a major culprit. Overgrazing is another.

During decades of communist control in the 20th century, livestock was managed by the Mongolian state. Tightly regulated collectives imposed pasture use in rotation. The state supplied a guaranteed market and capped individual livestock ownership.

In 1990, Mongolia rapidly transitioned to a free market democracy. The livestock count exploded. In the communist era, from 1924 to 1992, it was 23 million. Today, the National Statistics Office of Mongolia puts the livestock count above 66 million.

Sheep and goats especially are chewing up the pastureland. Mining, deforestation and urbanization also degrade the environment.

With all these factors in play, dzuds — as well as mass livestock loss — have become a new norm in a warming nation.

“Climate change is very complicated,” Gomboluudev says. “One factor is global greenhouse gas emissions. The other one is local anthropogenic activity, like the livestock number and mining activities and cutting forest. These combined together create dzud. About 50-50.”

He predicts that a nationwide dzud — affecting the majority of Mongolian herders — will strike every four to five years in the future. Not all dzuds will be severe, but all will lead to loss. In a 2017 dzud, 700,000 animals perished in western and central Mongolia — a relatively low number.

“Of course, there are many uncertainties. But this is our projection based on global climate models,” Gomboluudev says.

“It is a disaster”

“There is a tragedy of the commons happening in Mongolia,” says Tungalag Ulambayar, a dzud researcher and Mongolia country director for the Zoological Society of London. “The primary role of institutions is to restrict people’s actions. You can’t do whatever you want. You have to obey traffic laws. The same issue applies to rangeland management.”

During the 2009-2010 dzud, Tungalag oversaw a disaster response team for the United Nations Development Programme. At first, she says, her colleagues in Geneva were wary of characterizing dzuds as natural disasters.

” ‘Shelters weren’t destroyed. No one died. So it’s not a disaster,’ they said. And we said, ‘No, it is a disaster. Someone is losing total livelihood, and that causes huge psychological trauma to human well-being.’ ”

Tungalag’s team went door to door in three of the most devastated provinces, Khovd in western Mongolia and Övörkhangai and Dundgovi in central Mongolia.

“The men were quiet. But some women were crying when they saw so many people from the government come,” says Tungalag. They were crying tears of relief.

In another province, Arkhangai, about 300 miles west of Ulaanbaatar, the 2009-2010 dzud killed over a quarter of all livestock. The loss wasn’t purely financial — it was social and spiritual too, undermining an ancient way of life in small, close-knit communities.

Banzragch Purevsuren, a 50-year-old Buddhist monk, operates a temple in the Tsenkher district of Arkhangai. Herders came to the temple in distress.

“Some turned to drinking. And there were two cases in this area of suicide,” he says. “During the dzud, herders had nothing to do.”

Banzragch joined government officials in making house visits to assess loss and provide financial support. He chanted from Buddhist texts, choosing scriptures to strengthen resolve.

Mongolia has not experienced a dzud on a national scale since 2010. To avoid that magnitude of disaster, communities are training herders in winter preparedness — the importance of preparing extra fodder, culling weak animals in autumn and purchasing livestock insurance.

“We want herders to focus on the quality of their animals — not the quantity,” says Gurvantamir Jamts, 47, the mayor of Arkhangai’s capital, Tsetserleg.

Additionally, pasture user groups have emerged to pool resources within herding communities. By growing fodder together and rotating grazing schedules, the goal is to manage pasture more sustainably, while cutting costs to the individual herder.

“We don’t have to be afraid”

Perched on a motorbike on the Mongolian steppe, nomadic herder Nergui Davaajav, 44, tracks his livestock through a monocular.

A thousand sheep and goats graze in the distance, their black, white and brown bodies sprinkled on a hill of yellowed grass. Wild wolves prowl nearby. Nergui calls to the herd with a high-pitched yelp — a signal to move to safety.

Slowly, and then all at once, the herd shifts downhill. Nergui puts the monocular down, satisfied. His parents were herders in an age before televised weather forecasts. They examined the direction of the wind or the shape of the moon.

“My father taught me how to be a good person,” Nergui says, removing his traditional dark green deel overcoat. He wears a back brace; his brow is speckled with sweat.

When Nergui and his wife, Tumurchudur “Tumee” Galsanjamts, 43, were married in 1997, they nearly quit herding for an urban lifestyle. In 2000, they relocated to Ulaanbaatar, where they drove taxis and trucks. Nergui’s father encouraged them to return home. In a fateful phone call, he said, “Do not sell your animals, because driving is not your job. Herding animals is valuable.”

Nergui and Tumurchudur moved back to the countryside soon after. With 1,200 head of livestock, they embody a traditional lifestyle that Mongolians cherish — but practice less and less.

Around the Mongolian Lunar New Year, officials and the state-funded Mongolian National Broadcaster honor the best herders in the country. In February, Nergui was awarded that distinction by the Arkhangai government.

The ceremony lasted hours. Thirty guests feasted on roasted lamb to the thrums of horsehead fiddle music, while Nergui sat in the middle of the ger, beaming. He was showered with plaques and speeches, all praising his worth ethic.

Preparing for a bad winter has become a regular part of his summer routine.

“If we prepare hay fodder, we can overcome such natural disasters. We don’t have to be afraid,” Nergui explains during a pause in the festivities.

Essentially, he builds a food reserve — a buffer of hay for a bad winter to supplement what nature cannot provide. Many of his peers do the same. But Nergui makes it clear that those of his father’s generation rarely went to these lengths. Back then, the grass grew tall and lush, reaching their knees.

Snow did come this past winter, but it wasn’t a dzud by any stretch. Nergui and Tumurchudur worked sleepless nights from late March into April, tending to their pregnant livestock, which were giving birth to hundreds of animals. At the time of NPR’s springtime visit to Nergui and Tumurchudur, 100 sheep and goats had been born. They were anticipating another 300.

The newborns were divided into pen sections by age, appearing like a field of cotton balls with patches of black and brown. Some were curled up sleeping, while others bleated for their mothers.

Nergui moved quietly among the flock. They followed like a cashmere-clad entourage as he helped the newborns stand and fed the adults by hand, touching each one. The work couldn’t be more personal, both in moments of loss and in moments of life.

This is part of a series by Emily Kwong (@emilykwong1234), who spent nine weeks reporting in Mongolia as NPR’s Above the Fray fellow. Additional reporting and translations were provided by Bolormaa Riimaadai, Ganbat Namjilsangarav and Jaya Purevsuren. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world. Follow the fellowship on Instagram (@thejohnaproject) and Twitter (@thejohnaproject).

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