In the Mongolian Zud—A Witness to Winter's Wrath

Mongolia, February 25, 2000

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    Mongolia experience the worst winter in living history. Photo: Sean Granville-Ross/Mercy Corps. Photo:

Depending upon where you live, words like earthquake, tornado, or crop freeze can strike fear or bring feelings of helplessness. In Mongolia, that word is zud—a combination of blizzard and bitter cold, preceded by drought.

Right now, Mongolia is experiencing one of the worst zud in living memory. Yesterday I was driving back from Uvurhangai. It was hard to remember that just six months ago the animals along the way looked well-fed and hearty. Today their carcasses line the road side, now fodder for the scavengers of the Steppe. Sometimes the animals appeared to have simply dropped in their tracks. Other carcasses tell a more desperate story -- one of human or animal struggle to survive.

As we drove east, we spotted two young men bent over the body of a large steer. They were stripping its hide, as many of the horses and cattle had been that lay near the road. The elder of the two brothers said that he had spent the night riding his motorcycle in search of the remnants of his herd. The ride had been bitter cold, as the temperatures at night still hover around -26C. His cheeks were frost-bitten and he was concerned that he had to expend the fuel for his motorcycle, but his horses were simply too weak to make the ride. He estimates that two-thirds of his modest herd had already died. He had only found 10 animals still alive. He isn't certain how many will make it through the two remaining months of winter. His brother told us that another family that lives close to theirs has lost nearly all of their 100 large animals. As he worked his knife over the frozen remains, he said that he hoped someone would buy the skin so that they could buy more petrol for the bike and continue to track their ever-shrinking herd.

Other stories were to be seen, although no survivors told these tales. One carcass of a cow lay in a heap, already partially scavenged. Yet, when we drew closer to it, we could see that two small goats had crawled into the cavity of the animal seeking protection. Unfortunately, even they did not survive. It was pitiful, to see how closely they had snuggled up to the larger body, hoping to find the only break from the northern wind that the surrounding area offered. A little further on, a frozen heap of six skinned horses had been dumped in a ditch, their legs and heads twisting into a macabre sculpture.

The traffic on the only east-west road tells the story, too. As we drove west on Sunday out from Ulaanbaatar, we shared the roads with huge trucks of baled hay. The hay rose easily to 30 feet from the truck bed, and each engine had a double load. These trucks were about the only other vehicles headed west. As we neared Arvaiheer, the aimag center of Uvurhangai, we saw a caravan of 10 or more trucks from Zavhan aimag in the north. Each truck held the remaining goods of families who were trying to leave the zud behind.

In the center part of the country, in the Steppe-lands, it is mostly the larger animals, horses and cows, that are dying. Many herders have ceased buying fodder, saying that they will wait for the weak ones to die off and rebuild their stock—if any—come springtime. In the Gobi, where a year-long drought left little vegetation and bitter storms have covered the entire desert white, the die-off is alarming. Entire regions have been devastated. Families have either lost their entire herd, and or most of their assets in a desperate attempt to buy fodder to keep the living alive. Television pictures show emergency aid fodder being delivered to animals who are so exhausted that they are hardly able to eat.

Not everyone was caught unaware by this zud. In Arvaiheer, one young herder told a Gobi Initiative staffer that his family had predicted a severe winter. After all, it is a folk truism that a hot, dry summer brings a cold, snowy winter. His family slaughtered its two stud goats, hoping that the does would have a higher survival rate if they did not lamb this year. This herder figured that if he guessed right, he would come out ahead with a stronger herd. If he guessed wrong, he risked missing a full production cycle.

But many other herders also predicted a severe winter and did not make any changes in their usual animal husbandry. In a country where wealth is counted by animal hooves, its hard to criticize the drive to breed ever larger herds. Many foreign organizations—and a few pastureland managers from Mongolia—have been issuing cautions about the limits of the carrying capacity of the land. These organizations were advocating culling programs and strengthening herd quality.

Mother nature has stepped in in a big way this time. And the results will echo through Mongolia for several years as meat supplies decline, prices at the markets rise, cashmere production plummets, and government funds are used to sustain a rural population already living a marginal existence. Nearly one million animals have died. Winter and the even harsher Mongolian spring will claim more victims before summer rains come. The natural inclination is to send hay, send clothes, send food—and there are many countries, organizations and individuals that are stepping up.

But a long-term solution is needed. One that includes not only seeing to the immediate needs of rural families, but also rebuilding the herds, educating herders about animal quality and strengthening their understanding of the markets they supply. The equation of more animals means more wealth needs to be challenged and changed.

It is a contest between Mother nature and Mongolian nature. And I'm not going to bet on a winner just yet.