ULZIIT, Mongolia – The Mongolian herder gazed out of his felt tent at the half-eaten carcass of what was his riding horse, now lying in blood-stained snow and being devoured by hungry dogs.
"I had 700 head of cattle," Huyag Tserennyam said while staring out into the white wilderness in the remote mountainous area of Ulziit. "I've lost 150 so far."
It has been a harsh winter in Mongolia following an especially dry summer — a weather pattern unique to the country and known here as a "dzud" (pronounced "dzuhd") — decimating tens of thousands of livestock and prompting the Mongolian government this week to formally launch a dzud appeal, seeking foreign aid, for the first time in six years.
There were indications in the summer that it would be a difficult year, and Tserennyam said he prepared extra grass in anticipation of a rough winter. He has used up all of the animal feed he received as aid from his local government, and has nearly used up his grass reserve.
"I really tried, but I still lost — and I keep on losing — my herd," the 60-year-old said, feeding his one remaining horse. That horse is now his only mode of transport; it carried his wife to a recent doctor's visit. Supplies are running low, and the couple's milk tea is watery.
More than 10,000 head of livestock have perished across Tserennyam's province of Bayankhongor this winter, said Col. Munkhbaatar Togoo, head of the province's Emergency Management Division.
Temperatures have dipped as low as minus 46 C (minus 51 F), about 16 degrees C (29 degrees F) lower than normal. Snowfall in some mountainous areas reached 70 centimeters (28 inches), he said.
"Compared to recent years, this is unusually cold. It's had big effects on herding lifestyles," Togoo said.
The summer drought meant that cattle had less to graze on, failing to fatten up sufficiently before winter. In addition to those that have died, many of the survivors are so thin that their meat is not of high enough quality to sell if they perish, Togoo said.
Mongolia's government announced its dzud appeal on Tuesday. This winter is worse than the last dzud in 2009-2010, and a greater part of the country is affected. Only 45,000 livestock have died so far this year compared to the 9.7 million attributed to the 2009-2010 winter, but the vast majority of losses typically take place in the spring before the grass grows back in May.
The Asian Development Bank is contributing US $3 million in assistance toward local infrastructure and risk management plans, including helping districts prepare shelters for herders, as well as emergency training.
Further assistance is coming from Red Cross societies of Britain, Japan and Finland, said Purevjav Jambalragchaa, a coordinator with the Mongolian Red Cross Society.
Many herders are struggling to supply themselves with food because the snow is often too thick for horses or motorbikes to pass through. The Red Cross Society is preparing donations of food and cash, including $160,000 of aid coming in from abroad.
In a largely nomadic country where animals provide meat, dairy and textiles, it is difficult to lose so much livestock.
"Our lives depend on them," Tserennyam said, looking away from a pile of dead goats sheltered behind a steep rock by the mountain's edge. "Because of them, we get our flour and rice. Without them, we're nothing."