Forzen Landscape
© Andrew Cullen
A lone man walks in the western Mongolian countryside in the Hovd province. Most of Mongolia is covered by snow this winter and 19 of 21 provinces have been hit by harsh winter conditions.
While international attention has been focused on earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a quiet, prolonged catastrophe is playing out in Mongolia.

Known locally as a "dzud," the unfolding disaster stems from naturally occurring factors that are combining to wipe out livestock. The summer of 2009 was particularly dry, hampering the ability of many herders to gather sufficient supplies of fodder and hay. And this winter is proving to be one of the harshest in living memory, with heavy snowfall, chilling winds, and temperatures averaging minus 35 Celsius (-31 Fahrenheit). Weakened by hunger, many animals -- especially cashmere goats revered for their soft, valuable wool -- are succumbing to the elements.

The fierce weather so far is responsible for the deaths of over 2 million animals since the start of winter, says Rana Flowers, the United Nations' Acting Resident Coordinator. Nomadic herders account for approximately one-third of Mongolia's labor force. Unlike tsunamis or earthquakes, dzuds are not instantaneous disasters. "The dzud is still unfolding. It's very difficult to predict just how severe it will be further down the track. Spring will be the assessment time," said Flowers.

The devastation could cause an acceleration of migration from rural areas to urban centers. As it stands already, cities and towns are struggling to provide jobs and services to former herders who have abandoned the traditional nomadic lifestyle. Many Mongolians point to climate change and desertification as the main factors behind the demographic shift.

Esengeldi
© Andrew Cullen
Esengeldi, a young herder who lives and works with his wife and son, lost half his flock during January. A disastrously harsh winter, known locally as dzud, has killed more than a million animals in Mongolia since the end of 2009. In other parts of the country, herders who have lost their flocks have already begun to move towards urban centers.
Esengeldi's story is typical of many herders this winter. Over the past month, he has lost 30 goats and sheep while he winters in Mongolia's remote

Hovd Province, in the West of the country. With only about 40 animals left in his herd, and several months of cold weather still left to endure, he may not have a flock left to shepherd by spring. In that worst-case scenario, he would have no choice but to move his small family to a village or city, where jobs are scarce.

Mongolians like Esengeldi regularly face hard winters, but this year is extreme. During the last major dzud, in 2001, "there was grass under the snow. This year there is nothing but sand," says Esengeldi's neighbor Khurmatai. Like most rural Mongolians, both use only one name.

With little accessible pastureland and limited fodder stores, herders must take a measured approach to protecting their animals. Khurmatai keeps the weakest animals in a stone corral next to his home, a meager pile of hay spread on the ground. He fears they will not survive until spring.

In desperation, some families have abandoned the feeblest animals, says Samdanjigmed, a World Wildlife Fund employee who traveled through the countryside in January for a conservation project unrelated to the dzud. During the trip, he met families "trying to save the best animals, not feeding the weak ones. They don't care about the weak ones: they leave them to die," he says.

Trying to salvage what he can, Esengeldi has the frozen carcasses of two Cashmere goats killed by starvation and exposure thawing in his home. Once he has defrosted them, he will skin the animals and sell the hides, though that will bring in less than half of what he would make were he to sell wool sheared from live animals in the spring.

Skin Trade
© Andrew Cullen
At the outdoor market in Hovd, traders buy animal skins from herders and have a brisk business as animals continue to die from starvation and exposure.
Islamic tradition prohibits Esengeldi, an ethnic Kazakh, from eating animals that die of natural causes, and Mongolians follow a similar custom. He piles the skinless goats among the boulders 100 yards downhill from his ger, or yurt. What the wolves and dogs don't eat before spring, he will bury when the soil softens.

Esengeldi receives news of the outside world only when he goes to the small village about 20 kilometers away. Several countries, including China and Australia, have sent emergency aid to Mongolia for what the UN calls a humanitarian disaster, but Esengeldi says he doesn't know what kind of help, if any, is on the way.

"Since we don't have enough animals, if they send food for us, it's better," says his wife, Raushan.

Down the mountain, Khurmatai says he doesn't expect any aid from the government. On a recent day, twenty of his goats died, huddled in the corral, covered with snow. Though 200 animals remain in his flock, "before spring we will lose most of them for sure, if the weather continues like this," he told EurasiaNet.

Nationwide, 19 of 21 provinces have been hit, according to the United Nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO) estimates that as many as four million of 144 million animals nationwide could die before spring. Families with smaller herds are particularly vulnerable. An eight-province assessment mission by the FAO found 21,000 herding families had suffered losses of 50 percent or greater.

The heavy snow has left many villages completely cut off, limiting herders' ability to obtain help, says Oyundelger Nataa, Assistant Representative for the FAO. Medical facilities and food supplies are impossible to reach. Those that can reach the villages may exhaust their savings stocking up on animal fodder and food. "Herders don't usually use cash every day. Their purchasing power is low," Nataa adds.

Scores of herders, their flocks devastated, migrated to Ulaanbaatar and provincial centers after the 2001 dzud. Malnutrition and psychological trauma were widespread among poor herding families "thrust further into poverty," Nataa said. This year, "I think we're looking at exactly the same."

Andrew Cullen is a freelance journalist based in Hovd, Mongolia.