Odkhvu’s eyes darkened as he recalled the terrible winter of 2010 when he and his wife lost over 90% of their animals. “The dzud was very bad that year and we lost 550 of our 600 animals, mostly sheep and goats”.
Dzuds happen roughly every decade or so in Mongolia and are a phenomenon when a summertime drought is followed by an extremely cold or snowy winter. Animals, unable to pack on fat reserves during the drought are left weakened and unhealthy. When winter arrives, bringing temperatures as low as -40C or deep snows, the already weak animals can’t keep warm or forage for what little grass may have grown in the summer that is now buried in ice and snow.
We first met Odkhvu in 2010 when WSPA responded to the disaster unfolding across the country. Dundgovi, an area south west of the capital Ulaanbaatar and on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert was once of the worst hit areas. We were there distributing emergency feed and working alongside local veterinarians and the charity CAMDA who focused on the people’s needs.
Back then, we interviewed Odkhvu and his wife Jargalsaikhan for a short film, in hopes that their story would move people to act, donate or otherwise help WSPA and other NGOs on the ground help ease the suffering in a disaster that claimed the lives of approximately 14 million animals.
They lit up as I showed them the video on my laptop and though memories of the disaster were obviously still painful, they excitedly pointed out a goat that was still alive today. “You helped us when we needed it and we are so grateful” they said.
Sadly, the dzud’s terrible aftermath left Odkhvu and Jargalsaikhan no choice but to abandon their way of life as nomadic herders and now, this 60 year old man who’d known no other life, makes ends meet working in construction in the small town of Erdendalai while his wife has taken up making clothing.
Nomadic herders across the area welcomed us into their gers, sharing meat, milk and dried cheese curd. They remembered WSPA and told stories of how our help arrived to keep their animals alive for just enough to get through the disaster, giving the hope that people cared about what was happening to them.
The following day we met Myagmarguren, a seven-year old girl riding horseback alongside her brother. She and her family live with their horse, goats and sheep and like Odkhvu once did, move with the changing seasons. They are forever seeking out the best pastures for their animals, crossing vast distances of semi-desert like conditions.
There were heavy rains when we returned to Dundgovi in July 2013 and Myagmarguren, her family and other herder families were in high spirits, knowing this year’s green grasses signaled that there would be no dzud for them.
In this harsh but beautiful landscape, rainfall can make the difference between life and death and like so many places affected by disasters, the people and their animals live on the razor thin edge of vulnerability. In Mongolia, more than any place I’ve seen, animals are people’s entire lives and livelihoods. If the rains don’t come or they choose the wrong direction in which to keep moving, a disaster can change their lives forever.
To you who support us and let us do the work we do helping millions of animals and their human companions around the world, the people of Dundgovi wanted to tell you how grateful they are.