Herder: 'All of my animals are weaker'

Tuya Goulden translates during an interview with 58-year-old herder Dorj Puulee. (Photo by Robert Peck)

Well away from the fumes and traffic of Ulaan Bataar, we are at last immersed in the rural life that characterizes most of Mongolia and the rest of Central Asia.

We have pitched our tents near the ger and family compound of a man named Bayar, whose herds of horses, cows, sheep and goats – more than 1,000 animals in all – wander in and out of sight and earshot by day, but are gathered into close proximity for protection at night. Wolves are a common threat here, and the animals need the protection of the family’s five large dogs. It is also the only way the family can capture the cow milk on which, in various forms, the family lives throughout the year.

As part of his long-running study of climate change, Clyde Goulden, a senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences and director of the Asia Center there, has, for the last three years, been gathering information from herders like Bayra. Together with the meteorological data obtained from government sources and first-hand observations and data collected by his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, these herders’ reports are revealing a pattern of change that seems to confirm the predictive models suggested by climate experts elsewhere.

The herders know much about climate, despite their lack of technical expertise; their livelihoods depend on the ins and outs of daily weather. For them, a few degrees of temperature or a few inches of rain can make the difference between the life and death of the livestock on which they depend. Their impressions, given without the bias of preconceptions of scientific predictions, are surprisingly consistent – and frightening.

According to Bayra and the other herding families here in Hentie Aimag, and in other places Clyde has visited across the country, the seasons are no longer predictable. The scarce rains are colder and more intense than in earlier times and can end in ice or snow at any time of the year.

“When I was a boy,” says 58-year-old Dorj Puulee, a neighboring herder, “the summer rains were usually ‘namira’ rains (slow, gentle). Now we have more ‘addor’ rains (hard, cold rains followed by high wind).” This means that the moisture doesn’t penetrate the soil, limiting the growth of grasses and other vegetation during Mongolia’s short summer.

“My horses are not as strong. My sheep and goats are not as fat [as they used to be]. All of my animals are weaker and less able to survive the winter,” says Dorj, who like all Mongolians, prefers to use only his first name.

We are sitting on small wooden stools inside Dorj’s ger, a round felt structure supported by wooden lattice walls and a wooden spoke ceiling. The interior is furnished with two wooden beds and an elaborately painted wooden chest in which blankets and other important items are stored.

Spread on a low table before us is a bowl of chalky cheese called aral. Dorj’s wife, who stoked up a small metal stove in the center of the ger when we arrived, now pours water into a large wok in the center of the stove. As it comes to a boil, she adds fibrous particles of vegetation chopped from a brick of Russian tea. To this she adds milk, gathered only a few hours before from her family’s herd of twenty cows. She puts in a handful of salt and ladles the mixture repeatedly to blend it. From a small wooden cabinet by the door, her kitchen pantry, she retrieves a loaf of homemade bread and slices it into pieces to be added to the table. Beside it, she has already placed a bowl of heavy, butter-like clotted cream, the perfect complement to our Mongolian milk tea.

This sort of hospitality is common here. One can never stop at a herder’s compound without being invited in. In some cases, since Clyde and his wife Tuya have been interviewing some of the same families for several years, they are greeted like old friends and more elaborate meals are served. These can range from sheep tripe and noodle soup to bowls of boiled mutton parts.

The reason for repeated interviews is to check the accuracy and consistency of the herders’ comments. So far, they have all been amazingly consistent, not only with their previous reports, but with their fellow herdsmen. The climate is definitely changing, they all agree.

Now the challenge will be figuring out how to deal with it. Two years ago a particularly hard winter left huge numbers of sheep, goats, cows and horses dead, sometimes wiping out entire herds. The ripple effect was enormous, as many herding families were wiped out and forced to move to the cities. There they found no work, and without the traditional foods they used to produce in the countryside, they were reduced to desperate states of poverty.

The herdsmen we meet are the survivors. They are determined to stick with their traditional way of life, but they are clearly worried. “I will keep going as long as we can,” says Dorj. “I hope my children and grandchildren will be able to do the same.”

Our interview completed, we emerge from the darkness of the ger. Outside, Dorj stands for a moment taking in the sweep of the valley, spotted with his grazing livestock. This is the only world he and his family have ever known, and, despite the challenges of a changing climate, he seems satisfied with it.

His grandchildren, dressed in western-style cloths, seem much more interested in our car.