Small-scale dairy manufacturing provides local livelihood opportunities in western Mongolia

An adult yak stands with two baby yaks staring at the camera with a mountain range in the background
Yak and horses grazing on a vast green field with a brown mountain range in the background and a white tent in the foreground

Mongolian herder family's livestock

Dairy is a staple in the diets of Mongolian people, who rely on the milk from all seven livestock species in their country—cows, sheep, goats, horses, yak, reindeer, and camels. Up until recently, the sale of milk products was not a prominent source of income for local herders—there was almost no local market for dairy products, and their remote locations made it difficult to sell milk to other villages before it spoiled. Raising and selling their livestock for various other purposes, including for meat, wool, and hair, however, is a main livelihood for many Mongolians. The more livestock they sell, the more income they generate.

But these animals need land to graze on, and larger livestock herds means herders have to move further into snow leopard habitat to find enough land to graze them. This leads to livestock outcompeting the snow leopard’s native prey species, which can then result in human-wildlife conflict when snow leopards prey on livestock instead. These events can result in significant financial losses for herders.

But there’s good news. Local communities can play an important role in preventing such conflict and improving their livelihoods while also helping to further snow leopard conservation.

Close up portrait of a snow leopard cub looking at the camera

In his home village in Bayan-ulgii province, Serik T. was looking for a way to support and improve the livelihoods of his community. He recognized a particularly undermarketed product: yak milk. After graduating from university, Serik returned to his village where he helped create a small-scale locally run dairy initiative. He was nominated to lead the newly established Jasil Alhap cooperative in his village that now, along with another local cooperative, supports the community’s first two dairy plants.

This project provides another livelihood option for the community and a local place for herders to directly sell their livestock milk. Both the local government and the cooperative invested in the project, contributing around 70 percent of the total cost needed to conduct the pilot (approximately $124,000 USD), and WWF-Mongolia funded the remainder by providing dairy processing equipment and training for dairy plant staff.

In September 2019, the two dairy plants began producing five products, including butter and yogurt, under the brand name “Guyemkhen”, meaning “baby snow leopard.” More than 950 gallons of milk were collected between the two plants in just the first two months production. Today, Guyemkhen is the selected vendor for 43 grocery shops in the village, as well as provincial centers and schools—a significant distribution achievement for small manufacturers.

Members of the cooperative gather for a photo, with Serik on the far right.

Samples of some of the plants' dairy products

This project has provided an alternative way for herders to earn a living beyond their existing livestock husbandry, thus protecting community livelihoods. It also promotes the conservation of snow leopards and their habitat by reducing the need for herders to increase their livestock numbers to make money, and reducing instances of human-wildlife conflict in the process. Now that the herders are able to directly sell the milk through the cooperative, they can keep fewer livestock for income and require less land for grazing. In addition, the project has increased public awareness and positive attitudes around the importance of snow leopard conservation, both within and beyond local communities, through sustainable livelihoods support.

Within the first six months of launch, the Guyemkhen line of dairy was awarded “Best Product” during the autumn fair by the Bayan-Ulgii province government. Both cooperatives donate 10% of their total income to conservation initiatives—particularly those that work to conserve snow leopards and their habitats—in their respective regions. With all this success, they have no plans to slow down and aim to increase the range of products they offer, including traditional curds and bite-sized frozen yogurt, in the future.