Throughout the Gobi and much of Mongolia, the Bactrian Camel (the two-humped version) is ubiquitous. It has become an emblem for tourists and locals alike.
This traditional symbol of Mongolia is the centerpiece for a unique film, "The Story of the Weeping Camel." The movie features nomadic herders that are beneficiaries of Mercy Corps' Gobi Regional Economic Growth Initiative.
On Mongolia's rugged steppes, tradition endures and nomadic families still rely heavily on camels. However, the number of camels in Mongolia is fast dwindling, as many traditional herdsmen migrate to the urban areas in search of more sustainable livelihoods. Today, there are about 255,000 camels left throughout the country. Just fifty years ago there were an estimated 894,000 camels in Mongolia.
Life in the Gobi
Mr. Ikhbayar and his family are a typical Mongolian herder family. They live in southern Mongolia's Umnugovi aimag (an aimag is similar to a province), home to the country's largest camel population - almost 100,000. It is also the least populated by humans, with a population density of only 0.3 people per square kilometer. It is the hottest, driest and harshest aimag in the country.
Like half of Mongolia's population they are nomadic, moving their ger (a traditional Mongolian tent) and animals several times a year in search of better grazing pastures and water. The family ekes out a basic living from their herds of camels, goats and sheep. Days are spent making felt and rope from camel wool, spinning, making dairy products, milking animals, collecting dung for fires, combing and sorting cashmere, shearing sheep, and other basic rural chores.
But last year, the family's daily routine was interrupted by unexpected guests. One day, a film crew showed up at their ger to get a perspective on the nomadic way of life. This summer, Ikbhbayar's camels and his family are appearing on movie screens around the world in the film "The Story of the Weeping Camel".
Although the family may achieve some international fame from the movie, their life has not changed. Sitting on the floor of his ger, Ikhbayar's main concerns are the weather and preparing for the upcoming winter. Summer is fleeting in Mongolia and it is crucial to their survival that the herds are well-grazed and they have managed to earn enough money and stock-up supplies to sustain the family during the long and harsh winter.
It is this brutal lifestyle that has caused many herder families to give up their traditional livelihoods and search of a better life. Unfortunately, this search of a better life is often in vain. Over the past decade, population in the Gobi has been steadily declining as herders have moved to urban areas in search of economic opportunities. But few manage to improve their lot in the cities where unemployment and poverty are rampant.
Preserving and Improving a Way of Life
In an effort to improve the conditions of rural families, Mercy Corps, with funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has begun implementing phase two of the Gobi Regional Economic Growth Initiative. The goal of the program is to develop and strengthen rural businesses and improve the livelihoods of the Gobi herdsmen.
"One of the goals of the program is to give herders the choice to stay," explains Steve Zimmerman, Mercy Corps' Country Director in Mongolia. "Their perception is that life is better in the city and there is little opportunity in the rural areas."
Mercy Corps has been working with Ikhbayar and his family to help them increase their income and sustain their livelihood through the development of herder cooperatives, training programs and market-development activities.
"With the assistance of Mercy Corps, we have joined a cooperative with 18 herder families," says Ikhbayar. "We have been able to increase our income with the training we have taken on cashmere classification, animal breeding and dairy production. And we have been able to market our dairy products in an exhibition Mercy Corps organized."
Ikhbayar's wife, Tseveljamts, is busy making curds from camel milk, but this year she is trying something new. "After taking training with Mercy Corps, I have started to experiment in making different flavors and shapes of the curds," she explains. "I hope they will sell well at this year's exhibition."
When asked about his plans for the future, Ikhbayar is optimistic. "I have discussed many ideas with Dr. Ulgiit [a Mercy Corps veterinarian] to strengthen my camel business," he says.
By helping traditional herders diversify their businesses, expand their product lines and link them to new market opportunities Mercy Corps is enabling many herder families to remain in the Gobi. In addition to marketing and improving his camel dairy products, Ikhbayar is considering working with a tourist operator to provide camel treks.
"I want to grow my camel herd," he says. "Goats may provide cashmere, but you can ride a camel!"