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Mongolian dzud kills millions of domestic animals

By James Sawyer Imagine trying to survive in temperatures below minus 50 degrees F (minus 47 degrees C) for more than a month. It happened in Mongolia this winter–weather so cold that livestock and other animals were dying painfully at a rate of a quarter of a million deaths every week, resulting in the loss...

By James Sawyer

Imagine trying to survive in temperatures below minus 50 degrees F (minus 47 degrees C) for more than a month.

It happened in Mongolia this winter–weather so cold that livestock and other animals were dying painfully at a rate of a quarter of a million deaths every week, resulting in the loss of millions of animals over the season.

Imagine the impact such a disaster has on humans–economically, environmentally and health-wise.


Photo © WSPA

This winter disaster is happening right now in Dundgovi Aimag, a province about 150 miles south of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbataar, on the Gobi Desert steppe.

Mongolia’s Animal Disaster

A dzud, an extreme winter phenomenon with temperatures as low as -52.6 degrees F, has caused significant suffering and death to approximately 3.4 million livestock in Mongolia, to date.

Damien Woodberry, a veterinarian with The World Society for the Protection of Animals’ (WSPA) disaster response team, recently visited Mongolia, where he worked with WSPA’s member society, the Cambridge Mongolia Development Appeal (CAMDA), to deliver emergency aid to animals.

“The landscape is literally littered with dead animals–cows, sheep, goats, yaks, horses and camels. It is horrific,” said Woodberry. “Most the herders’ gers or yurts–semi-permanent tents that they live in–have large piles of dead animals next to them. The ones left alive are sick or so weak they barely move when you approach, and all are extremely thin.”


Photo © WSPA

Cold weather happens every winter, but this Mongolian dzud is a combination of events causing a far higher rate of animal death:

  • Summer droughts: These prevented many herders from stockpiling sufficient hay and fodder reserves to last their animals through the winter.
  • A higher-than-usual winter snow fall: Animals couldn’t access what pastures remained and herders’ efforts to feed with their own stocks was hampered.
  • Extreme cold: Snow on the ground turned to ice, making it impossible for animals to use what little pasture had been available. The animals, who already suffered from malnutrition, then became extremely vulnerable to hypothermia.

The last dzud in 2001 killed about 11 million animals. However, experts estimate this dzud will be worse. With no relief until at least May, possibly even as late as June. A total loss of 4-5 million animals is expected by spring. By the end of the disaster, an estimated 20 million animals could have died.


Photo © WSPA

“I have been a herder since 1960 and have never seen a winter as cold as this one,” said Mr. A. Lkhagvasurn, Adaatsag Soum, Dundgovi Aimag. “My two neighbours have already lost all their animals and if I lose all mine, I do not know what I will do.”

“I saw family after family in tears at the plight of their animals and the very uncertain future ahead of them. Many herders have lost 50-60 percent of their herds, while some have lost their entire herd and, with it, their livelihood. A humanitarian disaster is waiting,” Woodberry said.

Disaster’s Effect on Humans

While there have been only nine reported human deaths, the massive livestock losses will mean many herders will lose their livelihoods, meaning a large increase in unemployment.

“We only started herding after we got married four year ago with 100 animals. But, through hard work, we managed to grow our herd to 450 and also looked after my father-in-law’s 300 animals,” said residents Mr and Mrs Sergetenbaatar, Adaatsag Soum, Dundgovi Aimag. “But now, we have only 30 animals left. We don’t have any higher education or job prospects and do not know what we will do. We got a bank loan at the end of last year and now cannot pay it back and may lose our collateral. We have two children–what will we do with them if we lose everything?”

The situation is starting to get so bad that an increasing number of herders are facing starvation themselves. This figure was 20,000 at the end of January but is estimated to have risen significantly since then.


Photo © WSPA

Dzud Aid has Arrived

The Mongolian government declared a state of disaster in 12 aimags (provinces) and provided each one with MNT 330,000,000 ($230,000) for disaster relief in the form of livestock feed, veterinary and medical services, food and warm clothing for herders. It also released the national hay and fodder reserves, which is being sold at 50 percent of normal cost to herders, and paid stipends to all herder households with elderly or disabled members so they could purchase feed and medicines for their livestock.

Additionally, WSPA provided funding for its member society Cambridge-Mongolian Development Appeal (CAMDA) to purchase 130 tons of concentrated fodder and 1.3 tons of milk powder, which was distributed to 2,517 herder households in three soums (sub-divisions) in Dundgovi Aimag.

The concentrated fodder was used by herders to feed pregnant animals, as they were at greatest risk from the dzud and dying in large numbers. The pregnant animals are vital to recovery; the loss of expectant mothers and their newborns can mean the potential loss of a whole reproductive cycle and a second generation of animals.

Other entities, including the Chinese, Russian and Turkish governments, as well as the United Nation’s Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF), have allocated funding to the disaster.

Disaster Continues

Nearly all herder households who had managed to stockpile some hay and fodder reserves before the dzud have run out of food for their animals. Many stretched their hay reserves by mixing horse dung with it to feed to ruminants. Some better prepared herders still have feed reserves and there is still hay, bran and concentrated fodder available for herders to purchase, but all are running out.

Even though the weather has started to improve with the arrival of spring (March-May,) animals will be at risk of dying until at least mid-May. Grass growth is not expected until sometime in May, depending on weather conditions.

WSPA and CAMDA are committed to continuing their assistance in the area. The organizations have both the will and capacity to undertake a longer-term project and, with additional funding, can help many more animals and families in Mongolia.

For progress updates on the Mongolian dzud and related news during the next few months, please visit WSPA’s Animals in Disaster blog.

James Sawyer is the Head of Disaster Management at the The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA)

All images are © WSPA

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn