Reworked: Traditional herders adapting to address the effects of climate change and adjust to contemporary ways of living.
SUKHBAATAR, Mongolia —
As the dawn approached in Mongolia, the moon illuminated the sky while Agvaantogtokh and his family readied themselves for their next journey. With a herd of almost a thousand sheep and goats, they rode on horseback to a nearby well. Along the way, Agvaantogtokh and his wife, Nurmaa, would pause to assist any young animals struggling from the effects of a harsh winter.
Amadou Altine Ndiaye’s family, located in Senegal, herded their livestock through the dry African savannah, traveling thousands of miles. In the scorching heat, horses and donkeys pulled a four-cart caravan along dirt paths, with cattle following behind. The family hoped to find a more verdant village ahead.
Ndiaye, 48, a member of the Muslim Fulani ethnic group, shared that he was raised in a pastoral lifestyle and has only known that way of life. He learned the art of herding from his elders and takes great pride in it.
Over 50 million individuals in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and other regions follow this lifestyle. As nomadic herders, they raise domesticated animals and migrate with them to find new grazing areas – frequently selling some of their livestock for food.
Even though pastoral communities have relied on this lifestyle for thousands of years, they are now facing challenges such as worsening environments, decreasing land availability, and younger generations who desire a less demanding way of life. However, pastoralism is also evolving as groups incorporate technology into their practices.
This tradition has endured for a significant amount of time due to its ability to adjust to a shifting landscape. Herders relocate with their livestock in search of new grazing land and water sources, allowing previously used land to replenish itself.
According to experts, this is a valuable lesson for large-scale livestock farmers to learn in order to adjust and minimize their impact on the environment. Pastoralists are not just trying to evade the effects of climate change, but actively fighting against it.
We require additional precipitation.
Mongolia is renowned for its pastoralism, possibly more than any other location. This tradition is deeply ingrained in the country’s constitution, which designates its 80 million livestock (camels, yaks, cows, sheep, goats, and horses) as “national assets” under the protection of the government.
For families such as Agvaantogtokh’s, pastoralism is not just a job but also a way of life and cultural heritage that passes down through generations. At its core, it involves a strong bond between humans and animals.
Agvaantogtokh and his family engage in the trade of selling animals for consumption as well as dairy products like yogurt and hard cheeses. Although they view the animals as their possessions, they also recognize them as living creatures that assist them in their work.
Scientists have found that herders have a belief in the concept of “animal agency.” Agvaantogtokh allows his livestock to choose their own food from grass, flowers, or herbs, and to find their own water. He sees restricting an animal’s diet and routine as equivalent to imprisoning a human.
In Mongolia, experiencing extreme weather is a regular occurrence. When Agvaantogtokh considers the effects of climate change, his concerns lie with both people and animals.
Mongolia is currently facing long-term dry spells and increased temperatures. According to government reports, the average temperature has increased by 2.2 degrees Celsius since 1940. These changes have also led to more intense and frequent dzuds, which are natural disasters specific to Mongolia that result from a combination of droughts and severe winter conditions.
A severe winter disaster, known as a dzud, forced Agvaantogtokh and his family to relocate as it resulted in the death of 400 of their livestock.
The household adopts a modest lifestyle. They utilize a sink equipped with a rubber pump to conserve water. They reside in a traditional dwelling known as a ger, constructed with wooden circles, sheepskin and felt for insulation, and east-facing doors to welcome the sunrise.
Nurmaa, who married into this lifestyle, utilizes a boiler fueled by horse manure for cooking and keeping warm.
“I have gained a wealth of knowledge over the years,” she stated. Tending to and delivering livestock. Establishing a campsite. Preparing nourishing meals such as bread, stews, milk tea, and homemade wine.
Living on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert.
In Senegal, caravans carry the comforts of a furnished home, such as a metal bed frame and mattress, and water for people and animals.
The Ndiaye family, including Moussa Ifra Ba, began preparing for a 170-kilometer journey that would take 16 days as the rainy season arrived earlier than expected.
Ndiaye expressed concern that the livestock are experiencing hunger and that selling them can be challenging due to their thinness. Availability of water and grass has also become scarce.
Ba expressed concerns about the disappearance of various tree species and the lack of knowledge among children about them. He also mentioned a decline in the growth of high-quality grass in certain regions, with the most common type being inadequate in providing proper nourishment to animals.
Ndiaye’s family rarely has meat in their meals. They can only get it when they visit specific villages where they can buy vegetables and rice. In Senegal, the consumption of meat per person is very low compared to other countries like Mongolia where it is six times higher.
The Ndiaye family does not regularly sell animals, but rather reserves meat for special events such as weddings and holidays. However, when they do sell animals, even a small number of cattle can yield enough money to cover expenses such as marriage, purchasing rice, and potentially even moving to another location.
Traditional methods, modern approaches
Pastoralists strive to modernize in order to maintain their traditional practices.
Recently, Lkhaebum in Mongolia has started utilizing a motorbike to conveniently search for horses. The household has a solar-powered battery that operates a television and washing machine, as well as a karaoke machine and cellphone that allow them to monitor weather and connect with herders through Facebook groups to exchange information.
Despite the promises of modern tools to simplify tasks, pastoralists frequently encounter challenges. This is particularly true for those in Senegal who face difficulties in accessing cellphone signals. As a result, they heavily rely on traditional methods and technology. However, the government has implemented a beneficial improvement in infrastructure through the installation of water towers called forages.
The main danger to pastoralism may stem from the younger generation opting for alternative paths.
At the age of 18, the daughter of Nurmaa and Agvaantogtokh is pursuing a degree in medicine. While their son had previously expressed interest in becoming a herder during his early teenage years, he has since changed his mind.
Nurmaa stated that she would have no regrets if her child did not become a herder. She wants them to pursue their own aspirations.
Four out of Ndiaye’s seven surviving offspring do not accompany their parents during travels. Ba, who is 28 years old, and his 20-year-old wife Houraye have a young daughter who is two years old. They have expressed their desire to have more children in the future. They have considered the possibility of having one of their children continue with pastoralism while another attends school.
Ba expressed a desire for her children to stay updated with the evolving world.