Tue, 01 Jun 2010 2:25p.m.
By Charles Hutzler
Before he can fully tend to his dwindling herd, Demberel has to bury the dead cows, goats and sheep in earth barely thawed from Mongolia's worst winter in decades.
Fetid and fly-ridden, the carcasses lie stacked by the hundreds around a burial pit dug by Demberel and a dozen fellow herders. A truck brings dozens more carcasses. Others lie in piles or strewn in nearby valleys, potential health hazards for animals and humans alike.....
More than 8.2 million animals, nearly a fifth of all livestock in Mongolia, have died in a winter of snow, cold and gales so severe Mongolians have a special term for it - "dzud". sense of loss and the stench of decay hang over one broad valley after another across the vast range lands.The loss of so much livestock is devastating in Mongolia, a poor, landlocked country the size of Alaska. A third of its 2.7 million people are herders, wealth is measured by the hoof and livestock outnumber people 15-to-1.
At a time when green shoots of grass sprout from the brown earth and herds should be migrating from winter camps to summer pastures, the animals are too weak to feed and travel. More are dying in sporadic snow squalls and high winds.
Demberel's neighbour down the dry, brown valley lost a pair of goats in a May snow, the last of her herd of 30 cows, goats and sheep.
"We did everything we could to save the remaining two but in the end we couldn't. I used up a lot of fodder and fed them all the time," said Lhagva, a wiry, angular-featured woman, who like some Mongolians uses only one name. Nearby, a neighbour’s calf wrapped in a light green blanket wobbles to a standstill, unable to cross a muddy, shallow rivulet of snow-melt.
This dzud started with a drought last summer. When October rains came and froze, the ice was followed by snow, sealing the stunted grass away from the animals. Temperatures plummeted to 40 below zero and colder. In many places, animals started dying in February and then kept dying.
For Demberel, trouble struck in March when sustained snows and cold wind hit the high and usually less snowbound pastures at 2,500 metres, where he had driven his herd. Animals began freezing on the spot, he said, and more died from pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.
Clearing away the dead animals is the top priority. Carcasses litter the pastures, where they are picked at by dogs and eagles. Some of the goats and cows have been skinned to sell the hides, exposing the rotting flesh beneath. Sickness and depression are running through the herders' camps, compounding their economic woes.
"There's a restlessness among the herd. They suddenly get scared by the carcasses, and when they're hungry they bite the wool of the dead sheep. It affects their behaviour very much," said Demberel, once a member of the local legislature. As the weather warms, he said, the pneumonia and other viruses in the rotting carcasses could be transmitted to live animals and then on to the herders.
The United Nations Development Program has organised carcass cleanup in three badly affected provinces, offering herders US$70 to US$100, enough for a three-month supply of rice or flour. In an US$18 million appeal launched this month for post-dzud recovery, the United Nations said the health of herders is already suffering, noting an uptick in deaths among infants and children under five and a rise in cardiac diseases and strokes among adults.
If rotting carcasses "get into the water supply, that would be a huge catastrophe," said Akbar Usmani, the UNDP's representative in Mongolia.
Burying the carcasses is the only option, UN experts said, because Mongolia's dry climate makes burning them too dangerous.
Reminders of the dzud will remain. There's not enough manpower to pick up all the carcasses. And in Mongolia's cold, dry climate, animal hides take 6 months to rot, their flesh and sinews 7 months, and their bones 10 years.