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. 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.