The Deadly Winters That Have Transformed Life For Herders In Mongolia

Mongolia's herders are accustomed to cold, but the extreme conditions of the country's terrible winters, known as dzuds, killed countless livestock and livelihoods. Herders have had to adapt.
Herders bury animal carcasses in 2010 in Mongolia's Dundgovi province. A decade ago, an extreme winter — known in Mongolia as a dzud — claimed the lives of 22% of the nation's livestock and sped up migration from rural areas to urban centers. Source: Jargal Byambasuren

On a frigid morning in January 2000, Oyutan Gonchig rose at first light to check on his animals. A blanket of snow — over a foot deep — had fallen in the night. He shoveled himself out of his ger, a felt-covered tent traditionally used by semi-nomadic herders. The temperature was minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, the kind of cold that freezes your eyelashes and stiffens your joints.

Stepping over the threshold and into this blindingly white world, he noticed it was eerily quiet outside.

"Everything was covered by snow. There was no way to distinguish the sheep trails," he remembers. "There were corpses."

A dozen dead animals — his animals, sheep and goats he had raised from birth — had collapsed in the snow. Those still alive were struggling to find grass beneath the snowdrifts, piled high by the biting wind. He felt horrified, and helpless.

"Some of the surviving animals were trying to find something to eat but couldn't," he recalls. "It was very difficult to see this."

A stunningly cold, snowy winter changed Oyutan's life forever. Several animals died every few days from starvation, illness and exposure to the elements. By May, he had lost 100 head of livestock — and his entire livelihood.

The cause was a phenomenon that Mongolians recognize with a specific word. They call it a — the deterioration of winter weather conditions winters vary, characterized by harsh cold, too much snow or not enough, ice and other factors.

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