Mongolia’s Cashmere Goats Graze a Precarious Steppe

Cashmere, the fine hair gleaned from the undercoat of the cashmere goat, is among the world’s most expensive ounce-for-ounce textiles. Cashmere goats thrive in the steppes of Central Asia, an ecoregion defined by its open temperate grasslands. In Mongolia, the second largest cashmere wool-producing country, a confluence of climatic and political forces, coupled with global cashmere demand, are creating instability.

The Mongolian steppe comprises one of the largest contiguous grassland expanses in the world. Increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation, wrought by climate change, are transforming the country’s vast grasslands into parched deserts that offer meager sustenance for Mongolia’s goat herds. According to a 2013 study led by Yi Y. Liu of the University of New South Wales, precipitation across Mongolia has decreased by 7 percent since 1940. During the same period, the country registered an average temperature increase of 2°C. Glaciers in the icy Mongolian Altai mountains, which irrigate many of the rivers and lakes steppes, lost 35 percent of their debris-free ice mass between 1990 and 2016.

The Mongolian steppe pictured in 1997 (Source: Damiano Luchetti/WikiCommons).

The desertification of Mongolia, brought about by the onset of human-caused climate crisis, coincided with a political shift in the early 1990s toward a market economy in the country. The grasslands, once managed by experienced pastoral herders, supported around 4.4 million goats in 1988. Left to market forces and reduced government regulation, however, the goat population grazing the Mongolian steppe nearly quintupled to 20 million within two decades.

Cashmere fetches high market prices and global demand for the luxurious soft wool remains high. An article in the journal Science cited fast fashion and increased knitting capacity in China as factors in pushing cashmere to a mass market consumer good.

Patagonia, the outdoor brand known for its environmental activism, is addressing the degradation of pastures in Mongolia, by promoting the use of waste scrap from other cashmere purveyors. “We didn’t want to be a part of that, so we stopped using virgin cashmere several years ago,” Patagonia said in its 2018 environmental and social initiatives report. “By providing a market for recycled cashmere, we help divert discards from landfills and incinerators and, in our own small way, take no part in the desertification of Mongolian grasslands.”

It is unclear what impact Patagonia’s effort has had on market demand. Another effort focused on cashmere sustainability, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s cashmere initiative, is concentrating on the sustainability of Gobi Desert region cashmere production.

Almost the entire Mongolian steppe region experienced significant vegetation biomass declines between 1988 and 2008. The international research team, led by Liu, reported 60 percent of the decline to climate trends, with the rest of the damage done by fires and goat populations.

Caroline Humphrey, a leading researcher of Mongolia at the University of Cambridge, told GlacierHub, “The problem of goats is not so much the numbers (though that may be part of it), but the way they are now herded, which involves decreased mobility of the flocks and hence over-concentration on some pastures.”

The cashmere goat population has quintupled since 1988 (Source: Oregon State University/Flickr).

Humphrey described how herders now tend to remain closer to routes and population centers. While earlier generations moved great distances to seasonal pastures, those migrations are now fewer and shorter. She also mentioned the increasing tendency to fence off or privatize land, which fragments grasslands and impedes goat herd movement.

While goat numbers have increased, Humphrey added  “Climatic factors, especially decrease in precipitation, are more important and have wider impact.”

One of the difficulties presented by climate change, is an extreme seasonal weather phenomenon known locally as dzud, a Mongolian term for winter weather disaster. Herders fear the dzud for the deep snow and severe cold it brings, leading to high livestock mortality. The dzud in the winter of 2018, killed over 700,000 head of livestock. Dzud are predicted to increase in frequency and magnitude with future atmospheric changes.

One form of dzud, described by Mongolian herders, is a “hoofed dzud.” In other words, a die-off of livestock caused by trampling and over-grazing by over-population or over-concentration of animals in one area.

A Mongolian child with a newborn cashmere goat after the 2011 dzud (Source: EU Civil Protection/Flickr).

According to Liu’s study, climate projections indicate average air temperature will increase and precipitation decrease in Mongolia over the next three decades. Researchers agree that these conditions will further stress the fragile steppe ecoregion and accelerate grassland degradation. In some areas of Mongolia, glacier meltwater is a key resource for pastures, evening out the fluctuations of wet and dry years, though this resource will decline in coming decades.

Efforts like Patagonia’s cashmere recycling program take understanding of the problem into action to ebb global demand. Separately but in concert, the Wildlife Conservation Society is focusing on sustainable development on the ground in Mongolia by decreasing livestock impact on grasslands, increasing livestock productivity, and by connecting herders directly to cashmere markets.

Liu’s study concluded, “Understanding the competing influences of climate, land management and global demand for a niche agricultural product like cashmere will be key to protecting these ecosystems from further degradation.”

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