A Way of Life in Crisis: On the Sparsely Inhabited Steppes of Mongolia, the Lifestyle of the Nomadic Herder Has Always Been a Hard One. but as Livestock Die in Their Millions during the Increasingly Frequent Bitter Winters, and Pasturelands Disappear Due to Overgrazing and Desertification, This Traditional Culture Is Struggling to Survive

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In the dry Mongolian grasslands, far away from the bright lights and noise of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, two round yurts stand in isolation. 'Some years are good, some years are bad--that's just the way life is,' says 64-year-old Sumya as he stands besides his family's yurts, staring out over the steppe to where his animals are grazing in the distance. His son stands beside him, 30 years his junior, but also committed to the nomadic life.

As lifelong herders, Sumya and Sukhbaatar (Mongolians traditionally go by just one name) know the travails of the nomadic life, yet after a long line of bitter winters and increasing competition for the remaining pastureland, many equally seasoned herders don't share their determination to continue the pastoral existence.

'Last winter was just too hard,' said Bayanzul, a care-worn herder I had passed an hour earlier walking slowly towards the capital with his animals strewn across the landscape in front of him. 'I am going to try to sell everything and get enough money to buy a small minibus and charge people for rides.'

DEADLY WINTER

Life has never been easy for nomadic herders in Mongolia, but, with bad winters appearing with increasing regularity and the desert swallowing up vast tracks of pastureland, there are fewer and fewer nomads clinging to the life of their parents and their parents' parents. Following the particularly devastating winters the country experienced between 2000 and 2002, some 68,800 people--mostly herders who had lost their livestock, and with it their livelihood--moved to the capital. Thousands more moved to secondary cities.

Experts now estimate that as many as 20,000 more may have joined them, or will in the near future, after the -45[degrees]C temperatures of the 2009-10 dzud (severe winter) decimated herds, killing eight million animals--about 17 per cent of the country's entire livestock population--and left upwards of 160,000 people with less than half of the livestock they had from the year before. Many of the remaining herders, estimated to be around 170,000 families, will struggle to survive this current winter if it's anywhere near as bad as the last.

Sumya isn't too worried about this year ('We can survive about two or three bad winters in a row'), but is concerned that time is now against them, arid that his children and grandchildren might be forced to abandon the nomadic life--the only lifestyle they've ever known. 'It is not possible to just be nomads freely moving anymore,' he says with visible sadness. 'When I was a child, there was no problem just moving from place to place--you were welcomed--but with less land available for herds, people are less welcoming. Even local government officials are now telling new herders who arrive in the area that they must move on.'

A major cause for this increased protectionism is the rapid encroachment of the desert in the country's far west, which has caused the mass migration of nomads from the western provinces into the more fertile central and eastern regions, further straining already limited resources. When Sumya and his family moved to the area seven years ago, there were far fewer families, and those already there were happier to let others share the watering holes and grasslands. 'Now the population is so much bigger,' he says with a resigned air, 'and with every bad winter, more families keep trying to come.'

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While the Gobi Desert has always been a vast and defining geographical feature of Mongolia, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) now estimates that 90 per cent of the country's entire landmass is fragile dry-land, which is under increasing threat from desertification. 'The threat of land degradation and the resulting desertification is one of the major threats to Mongolia's growth,' says Shoko Noda, deputy resident representative of the UNDP.

CHANGING TIMES

Government measures have so far done little to aid the plight of Mongolia's herders, with politicians' primary energy directed towards tackling the country's high rate of unemployment (50 per cent in some areas of Ulaanbaatar) and bringing in investment to extract, and profit from, Mongolia's abundant natural resources. …