Mongolia: Nomadic Pastoralism in the Mongolian Plateau



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Asia


  • Mongolia


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview the pastoral system in Mongolia including challenges and responses.


  • Nomadic pastoralism, grasslands, husbandry, rangeland


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Natural and Social Background

[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

Mongolia is among the countries with the highest altitude in the world, with the Altai Mountains (about 4,300 m above sea level) and the Hangayn Mountains (about 4,000 m) towering to the west, as well as the Mongolian Plateau at an altitude of 1,000-1,500 m stretching to the east. Precipitation amounts to less than 400 mm per year with a relatively higher amount in the north, where moisture from the Arctic Ocean passing over Siberia runs into the mountainous plateau. A varied vegetation pattern in the country is created by the precipitation distribution pattern ranging from higher amounts in the north to lower ones to the south. Its vegetation zones comprise the High mountain belt, Mountain taiga belt, Mountain forest steppe, Steppe zone, Semidesert zone and Desert zone. The Steppe zone accounts for about 34% of the total vegetation cover (Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism of Mongolia, 2009).

Mongolia’s national land of some 1.56 million km2 is mostly covered with pastureland, accounting for nearly 80%. As for the climate, its inland location leads to lower rainfall, while its high plateau location keeps the temperatures, and hence the moisture evaporation, lower. The seasonal fluctuations in precipitation are significant, concentrated in a period between mid-May and August, when the plants grow faster with the longer hours of solar radiation and rising temperatures due to the country’s higher latitude location. The average temperature in July is 16-24 degrees Celsius as compared with minus 16-24 degrees Celsius or below in January. One could argue that Mongolia’s geographical conditions characterized by its inland location, plateau topography and high latitude are well suited to pasture growth (Kamimura, 2004). The Mongolian plateau has more than 2,600 species of plants, of which over 600 comprise pasture species. The main pasture species include those from the Poaceae, Typhaceae, Liliaceae, Compositae and Chenopodiaceae. In the rangelands, the same kind of pasture grows in clumps, altogether forming a gigantic patchwork of different kinds of pasture. The use of a rangeland covered with a specific species of pasture is selected depending on the season, as well as on the physiological and biological characteristics of, and the tastes of, the livestock (Imaoka, 2005).

Since the Mongolian People’s Republic was proclaimed in 1924, following the 1921 People’s Revolution, the country maintained a socialist regime for a long time through which land was nationalized and modernization was pursued under a centrally-planned economy system. In 1955, it also introduced a system of agricultural collectivization by pastoral cooperatives known as negdel. Reforms were made to the political and economic regime from the late 1980s in the wake of the USSR’s policy of perestroika. This led to regime transformation from a socialist system with a centrally-planned economy to a democratic system with a market economy. The country was renamed Mongolia with a democratic constitution taking effect in 1992 after the collapse of the USSR. Under the market economy system, the ownership of livestock was privatized to enable control by nomadic households, while privatization of the pastureland itself is not allowed under the new constitution, leaving it to remain as state-owned land (Kamimura, 2004; Johnson et al., 2006; Fernandez-Gimenez, 1999).

Pastoral System in Mongolia

Structure of Nomadic Pastoralism and the Use of Grasslands

The natural conditions of a dry area are heavily dependent on the availability of water; the biggest problem is that precipitation has large temporal and spatial deviations. Because husbandry at a fixed location would result in placing fatal stress on the vegetation, proper control of the herd’s load on vegetation is required in accordance with the temporal and spatial deviations of precipitation. The husbandry system that manages this control by translocation is nomadic pastoralism (Konagaya, 2007).

Nomadic pastoralism in Mongolia has taken the form of changing the rangelands season by season within a certain areal range. Shifting the sites of livestock farms reduces the stress on vegetation so that the rangelands are used in a manner that allows the grazing pastures to re-grow sufficiently. In addition, grazing multiple livestock species allows pastureland in the area to be used evenly, which in turn prevents it from degrading due to overgrazing. One could argue that nomadic pastoralism is the most reasonable land use in the steppes under the harsh natural conditions, compared with those areas more suited to agriculture in warmer climates and with more abundant water.

1) Seasonal shifts in the use of rangelands

As pastoral life is organized according to the seasons, the location of camp sites shifts seasonally within a certain area (Photo 1). Rangelands, as state-owned lands, can be used by anyone in principle. As for sites on which fixed structures such as livestock pens and barns are built and used as winter or spring camp sites together with the surrounding pastureland, however, a priority right of use is given to households who have repeatedly used, maintained and managed them (Kazato, 2006).

Photo 1. Wintering sites (Photo: Tomoo Okayasu)

The location of grazing camp sites is set according to the topography and weather. For instance, southern foothills with blocked seasonal winds from the north and less snowfall in winter and upper tablelands that receive cool winds in summer. In Hairhan, Chuluut district, 630 km west of the capital Ulan Bator, as the seasons change the camp sites are shifted to: spring camps (khavarjaa) in February-March; summer camps (zuslan) in May-June; autumn camps (namarjaa) in August-September; and winter camps (o’voljoo) in October-November. The Chuluut district is located in highlands at 1,700-2,040 m above sea level in the Hangayn Mountains, and Hairhan shares the catchment of the Khanui River. The summer camp sites concentrate on the Khanui River plain, where the rangelands cover a wider area of plain that can be sighted from the camp for several kilometers, such as the river flood plain and the vicinity of any confluence with a tributary. Livestock can drink water freely as there are streams and swamps everywhere. On the other hand, winter camp sites use valleys in the upper reaches of tributaries where the north-west seasonal winds are blocked (Kazato, 2006). Most of them are set up in the same location every year, but this is not necessarily the case for spring, summer and autumn camp sites, which are determined flexibly taking into account the condition of the grasslands that year (Saina, 2007).

In shifting rangelands, the recovery of the pasture is also taken into consideration. In summer, the pasture grows better and becomes more nutritious, leading to active grazing in preparation for winter. However, camp sites may shift after only several days in case a longer grazing period prevents the pasture from growing well and bearing seed. In autumn, the livestock are first fed with specific species of pasture that die down earlier, and then migrate to another rangeland where the pasture stays growing longer in order to avoid overgrazing all the pasture. Combined with such seasonal shifts in the use of rangelands, pastureland with degraded vegetation is left fallow for more than two years (Saina, 2007). Thus, the rangelands are being sustainably used in Mongolia.

2) Multiple use of pastureland by different livestock species

Mongolian people have traditionally kept five species of livestock: sheep, goats, horses, cattle (including yaks) and camels (Photo 2), counting around 10.76 million, 10.65 million, 1.97 million, 1.80 million and 0.26 million head, respectively, according to statistics on the livestock population in 2003 (Imaoka, 2005; Konagaya, 2007). These five species of livestock are suitable for nomadic pastoralism due to their gregariousness and the manageability of large herds or flocks in a vast pasture land. They are also suited to the natural conditions of the steppes owing to their resistance to these conditions and their physical capabilities, as well as to their high tolerance of poor feeding and hunger conditions. Each of them, however, has different dietary preferences in terms of the species and height of grass plants and the different rates at which they move when grazing. Thus, the grazing behavior of each species of livestock rarely overlaps with regard to pastureland. As it is difficult to find pastureland areas that fulfill all the requirements of the five species, the principle of “Right Species, Right Place” has been adopted to accomplish an appropriate mix of several species of livestock suited to the grazing pastures within reach of the migration routes of the nomads.

Traditional Production Organizations

In Mongolia, nomadic pastoralism, which is family-run in principle, is operated by an area-based community for increased efficiency comprising several families known as “khot-ail”. The khot-ail is organized within two to three families among the parents and children as well as in-laws (Soyllkham, 2004; Fernandez- Gimenez, 1999). Grazing larger livestock including camels, cattle and horses requires the strong physical force of men, while milking and processing for all the herds is the labor of women and children. As the labor force of a single family is insufficient, several families organize themselves into a community in which there is a division of labor with regard to the grazing of several livestock species, milking, shearing, the setting up of winter camp sites, etc. The khot-ail system was established in the 14th- 15th centuries and lasted until around 1960, when the pastoral cooperative (negdel) system had already become prevalent under the socialist regime (Imaoka, 2005).

Under the negdel system, the ownership of livestock was transferred to cooperatives, while each family took charge of and grazed 400-500 head of livestock and contributed their products to the negdel. Only a single species of livestock was assigned to each family, compared with multiple species grazed under the khot-ail system, which negatively affected the vegetation since acquiring the feeding pasture for a single species required extension of the total area required for grazing (Soyllkham, 2004).

Photo 2. Sheep and goats in rangelands (Photo: Tomoo Okayasu)

In the post-socialist era, the khot-ail system was reappraised for its well-functioning utilization of grasslands and livestock resources in a collaborative and efficient manner, and hence has been revived to become the only form of production organization for nomads after the negdel system was dissolved in 1991 (Imaoka, 2005).

Table 1. Livestock species and their characteristics

Horses Cattle Sheep Goats Camels
Characteristics Higher resistance to cold and excellent mobility Greater capacity for endurance and greater ability to defend themselves against wolves Higher resistance to cold and dry conditions, and docile nature Higher fertility and agility Higher resistance to cold and dry conditions
Suitable pastureland and pasture preferences for the species of livestock Pastureland rich in weeds growing on the hills and tablelands (poaceous pastures) Grasses growing on high moisture soils along rivers, mountain streams, etc. Pasture in grasslands (Agropyron cristatum , etc.) Intermountain shrubs (chenopodiaceous pastures) Halophilous plants on flat plains

Source: Saina, 2007 (partly changed)

Benefits of Nomadic Pastoralism

Nomads procure most of the materials for food, clothing and shelter from their livestock by using the meat and milk for consumption, the fur or skins as they are for rugs or for tanning treatment to make leather, and the bones and horns are made into baby bottles and toys, as well as fortune-telling instruments (Saina, 2007). A portion of the raw milk harvested in summer is consumed as yogurt or fermented mare’s milk during that season, while most of the rest of it is processed and preserved for consumption during the off-season for milk production in winter to spring. It is in November before winter starts that the livestock are best slaughtered, partly because they have the highest store of fat in their bodies and partly because the slaughtered meat can be naturally frozen and dried. During this time, the nomads slaughter several head of livestock together to provide food until the next spring (Kazato, 2006). Large livestock, including horses, cattle and camels, are used for transportation to carry people and the materials and objects they need to take with them. Thus, the livestock are utilized in a variety of ways.

Feeding pressure by livestock has the most significant impact on the grassland ecosystem. In the Mongolian traditional system of nomadic pastoralism, however, such feeding pressure is minimized due to the greater extent of temporal and spatial distribution of the grazing, resulting in moderate disturbance to a wide area of grasslands. The more often livestock eat the plants (grazing), the lower the height of the grass shoots in the grassland. In the Mongolian Plateau, the relationship between grass height and the average number of plant species per square meter is such that the number of species is small in both areas with tall and short grass, and peaks at around 30 species in the areas with medium-height grass. This implies that moderate feeding pressure has augmented the diversity of species in grasslands (Fujita et al., 2005). In contrast, where the pasture is far from the residence of the nomads or the livestock are prevented from eating the grass by being penned, the plants grow well and competition among them is intensified, leading to the dominance of only the winning species and resulting in a reduction in the species diversity (Fujita et al., 2005). Thus, human intervention has sustained a grassland ecosystem that has a high level of biodiversity in the Mongolian Plateau.

Challenges and Responses

One major factor that could significantly determine the existence of nomads is dzud or snow disaster. A dzud is caused by serious lack of fodder resulting from ice covering the grass, low temperatures, strong winds or the previous year’s summer drought. Large numbers of animals die due to starvation and considerable damage is inflicted upon the nomads (Otani et al., 2004; Shinoda and Morinaga, 2005; Tachiiri et al., 2008). The 1999/2000 dzud was the severest in 50 years, killing 8.2 million head of livestock (Tachiiri et al., 2008). Global climate change could intensify droughts in Mongolia, and it is feared that intensified droughts would lead to aggravation of dzud (Shinoda and Morinaga, 2005). Moreover, degradation of the pastureland ecosystem due to overgrazing is thought to expand damages (Otani et al., 2004). Coping with the problems of dzud is a major challenge that Mongolia needs to address.

There are also challenges that emerged after democratization. In 1991, Mongolia transformed itself from a socialist country to a democratic country with a market economy. In connection with these changes, the negdel system under the socialist regime was dissolved, and the public sales channel of livestock products was closed. Hence nomads were forced to conduct marketing by themselves and the geographical distance to markets became important. As a result, a regional divide emerged, and many nomads are attempting to narrow the divide by moving close to Ulan Bator and other big cities and performing sedentary grazing there (Konagaya, 2007; Kato, 2007). Such a concentration of livestock results in over-grazing and impacts the pastureland ecosystem (Fujita, 2005). The Law on Land enacted in 1994 (as amended in 2002) authorizes heads of local governments to regulate seasonal movements and the number of animals one is allowed to own, but little success has been achieved (Fernandez-Gimenez, 2006).

In addition, due to the high inflation rates up to the early 1990s, as well as the willingness not to reduce livestock, which represented a form of capital in the face of their concern about the future, the nomads refrained from selling their livestock. Only cashmere, with its relatively high price in the international market could provide a livelihood that gained a cash income, leading to an increase in the number of goats kept by the nomads. As a result, an increase in the proportion of goats in the total livestock population has changed the balance of the grazing pressure that had been maintained for a long time. To cope with this problem, greater dispersion of livestock has been promoted through the use of the tax system. Mongolian pastoralists are set to be charged a livestock tax. Amendments to the income tax law in 2002 required a change in the livelihood taxation method. The amount of tax is determined by converting the number of livestock owned by each household into the equivalent number of sheep with different conversion factors according to the species. In the amendment, one goat is converted into the equivalent of 1.5 sheep, raising the taxation level on goats (Komatsu, 2008). This measure is considered to be an attempt to reduce the number of sheep.

As wells supplying water to camp sites are indispensable for pastoralism, under the socialist regime it was the State that took the initiative in installing and maintaining them. In the post-socialist era, the decline in the number of available wells due to the inadequate level of construction as well as operation and maintenance problems has led to a reduction in the area available for grazing, which in turn is considered to have caused local overgrazing. As a measure to deal with this problem, Action Plan of the Government of Mongolia for 2004-2008 stipulated a closely related objective of repairing 1,900 units of mechanical wells and digging an additional 800 units. In connection with this, the 2005 Action Plan of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture laid out the conditions for the effective use of wells and water source areas in grasslands (Komatsu, 2008).


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