A landlocked nation widely known for its remoteness, eternal blue sky, and endless plains, Mongolia is also recognized for its extreme climate and nomadic herding lifestyle. Due to its dominant steppe ecosystem that was shaped by high solar radiation, low precipitation, and wide-ranging temperatures, Mongolia’s climate and natural resources are most suitable extensive grazing.

Today, Mongolia is one of the few countries that continue to practice nomadic livestock breeding on a large scale.

Mongolia’s traditional herders are one of the last nomadic cultures. For centuries, herders relied on the traditional ecological knowledge of the land as they roamed the grasslands with their animals, building, packing, and rebuilding their traditional gers, or tents, to make their living from nature’s bounty. They are no strangers to harsh climates, but the effects of climate change on the herding culture have become increasingly devastating over the past five years.

Across Mongolia, average temperatures have increased by about 2.14°C since the 1940s. According to the UN Environmental Programme, this increase is double the rise in average global temperatures.

“We are nervous about this coming winter. It got cold very early around here, and it seems like it will be colder this coming winter,” said Kh.Ganzorig, a 69-year-old herder who lives by himself just outside of Terelj National Park. He moved out to the area after his wife died. “I’m hoping it will be okay. The other families and I feel as if the weather is much harder to tell. We are just nervous about the snow,” Kh.Ganzorig said through a translator.

For the past twenty years, Kh.Ganzorig has been living by himself and herding nearly 200 heads of livestock including sheep, camels, cows, and horses. Like many herders, he has observed changes in climate and the environment.

“The weather is changing and the plants that used to grow are not growing anymore. The summers and winters are getting harder for herders,” Kh.Ganzorig claims, who strategically relocates by paying attention to the vegetation and weather. “Each year, the animals struggle to have nice plants to eat.”

According to a government report, Mongolia’s grassland biomass is undergoing a major loss—70 percent of pastoral land has been degraded and the variety of vegetation has gone down. Droughts are now the norm and worsening water availability has increased the frequency of forest fires throughout the country.

“Back then, it was much easier for the nomads,” Kh.Ganzorig says. “The animals just ate what was naturally grown in the environment. But now, all these plants that used to grow are not growing anymore. Nowadays, many herders have to go to the store to make extra food for the animals. Without that extra food, the animals will not survive long, especially in the winter.”

In other parts of Mongolia, winter disasters, called dzuds, in which extensive and extreme cold, combined with repeated snowfalls, have killed millions of livestock due to starvation. To compensate in the event of these hazardous storms, herders have resorted to increasing herd sizes, consequently worsening the effects brought on by overgrazing.

Herder Kh.Ganzorig
Herder Kh.Ganzorig

“The number of animals has gotten bigger over the years, and it’s harder for the herders,” Kh.Ganzorig explains. “Herders aren’t supposed to have large numbers of animals.”

To maintain a higher number of livestock, many herders are forced to move more frequently. Especially in areas on the brink of desertification, animals have to graze larger areas of land to find grass. As a result, rather than using horses, many herders have increasingly relied on motorbikes for herding their livestock.

“Many herders, especially the steppes, are now using motorbikes that they get from China. They’re cheap and they don’t need to be fed, so motorbikes are more common now,” said Kh.Ganzorig, who disagrees with the use of motorbikes. “It causes mental problems for the animals when herded with motorbikes. It also affects how fat they can get, since they can get stressed out.”

“Everything is changing now, and I am not sure of what’s going to happen,” concluded Kh.Ganzorig.

While a number of potential strategies have already been presented at the national, municipal and community level, it remains to be seen if the government will be able to affect meaningful change in the coming years.