The Mongolian steppe can be massively windy, rainy, hot, cold, dry, sunny and cloudy all during the same afternoon. During my time in Mongolia, mid June of 2019, a long winter had delayed the greening up of the grasses, and the unending rolls of hills seemed barren. This was amplified by the constant blowing of dirt – always in my face, my eyes, my ears. I took to wearing a buff at times so that I could breathe.
The steppe ecosystem is in decline due to overgrazing. While we saw a number of stubby bushes with yellow flowers called Karagara in many places, it turns out that cattle will not eat them unless they absolutely have to, and stinging nettle, which the cattle won’t eat. What looks like plenty of food on the landscape is actually not.
Nomadic tradition has herding families migrating to different pastures throughout the year to feed their animals – goats, sheep, cows, horses. This system has worked for generations as cattle herders raised a sustainable number of animals. In the past 15 – 20 years, however, there has been a multiplication of herd numbers across the country due to a lifting of livestock limits with the recession of communism from Mongolia (Bruegger, et al. 2014). Thinking that they could make more money, herders grew their herds many fold. Seemed like an excellent idea at the time, as extra income meant more opportunities for each nomadic family. In 1991, there were an estimated 28 million livestock in Mongolia. As of 2018, there are over 88 million, two times the number that can be sustainably raised with existing resources (Munkhtsog 2019).
All of this grazing has left the Mongolian steppe severely overgrazed. But this doesn’t have to be the end of the story of the Steppe grasslands. A successful conservation effort would have to put some limits on the number of livestock an individual can own. Getting community members on board with this would take effort, but helping them to understand that the viability of their future is threatened by current livestock practices seems like a necessary start to this process. Forming Community Based Conservation groups in areas with livestock might help mitigate some issues (Souto, et al. 2014). Pooling the knowledge resources of the community would also be wise; herders have their own traditional knowledge of the land, their animals, and ecological changes in the environment (Bruegger, et al. 2014). It would be wise to tap into this knowledge while addressing sustainability issues. The government could help by enforcing restrictions on livestock numbers, grazing areas, and offering incentives for those that comply (Brueger, et al. 2014). New sources of income need to be investigated: more exporting of meat, traditional arts and crafts, eco-tourism, etc. Ultimately, though, the change has to come from within the community or the steppes of Mongolia will continue to decline.
While I was visiting Mongolia this summer, I had the opportunity to visit with a traditional herding family in their ger. We showed up unannounced, and were welcomed with lunch and an afternoon of friendly visiting. I asked if the family had to travel further now to find good land for grazing than in the past, and they responded that this was indeed true for them. They were feeling the pressure of overgrazing and were, in fact, packing up everything the next day to move on to their next grassland area for the next season of grazing. They mentioned that all grazing lands were public lands, so there was some competition for good grazing lands each season. While they like to move to the same locations year after year, sometimes this wasn’t possible. Like all of the Mongolians that I met, this family was happy, gracious, and very kind. Despite the possibility of hard times, they were eager to talk about their family, and were very proud of their herd animals.
Bruegger, R.A., Jigjsuren, O., Fernandez-Gimenez, M.E. (2014) Herder observation of rangeland change in Mongolia: indicators, causes, and applications to community. Rangeland Ecology & Management 67:119-131.
Munkhtsog, B. (2019), personal correspondence
Souto, T., Deichmann, J.L., Nunez, C., Alonzo, A. (2014) Classifying conservation targets based on the origin of motivation: implications over the success of community-based conservation projects. Biodiversity Conservation 23:1331-1337.