The home and life of Mongolian nomadic herders

Living in a ger, meaning 'home' in Mongolia, and more commonly referred to as a 'yurt' in English, has grown popular in many places around the world. But its origin lies in central Asia, particularly across the steppes of Mongolia. Set up to be a portable home, the ger has been a traditional part of the life of nomadic herders here for millennia.

Building a Mongolian ger begins with a circular wooden frame: an assembly of lattice wall sections, a door frame, straight roof poles, and a crown held together with rope. This timber skeleton is then weighed down and draped with a thick felt cover hung from the center of the roof, typically made from the wool of the sheep or other animals that the herders graze.

This robust, warm home can be constructed in under three hours—with a finishing touch of Mongolian motifs painted on—ready to be furnished as a bedroom, living room, and kitchen for up to 15 people, depending on the yurt’s size. Once the time comes for the family to move, the ger can be dismantled into flat packs within an hour or so and carried away to be rebuilt on another site. Where home is next set up depends on the grass, wind, and water.

In the Gobi Desert—one of the harshest climates in the world, where temperatures can range between 113°F and -40°F—the ger serves as a highly functional shelter which can keep its residents warm during frigid winters and cool under the scorching summer sun, while also allowing strong spring winds to flow around it. Through generations of passed-down wisdom about their natural environment, the herders have learned to tell when, where, and how quickly to move their home and animals through such drastic seasonal changes.

Whether in reading and predicting the weather or identifying, harvesting, and storing wild plants for food and medicine, or understanding the dynamics between wildlife species for population management, it is the ecological knowledge that Mongolian herders possess which have helped them ensure the survival of themselves and their livestock in such a severe climate.

But as climate change impacts people and wildlife around the world, herders face an unpredictable future. Over the past 70 years, the average temperature in Mongolia has risen by more than 2°C. This is especially detrimental during the dzud, a periodic weather phenomenon which creates unusually dry summers followed by unusually cold and dry winters. Because of these unrelenting weather conditions and the scarcity of vegetation and water, which then exacerbate desertification, some herders can lose up to 100% of their livestock overnight. Millions of flock and cattle have died during a single dzud season.

In 1960, almost two-thirds of Mongolia’s population lived in the countryside—today, that number is less than one-third. A large portion of them are nomadic herders who have migrated to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to make a different kind of living. Right away, the newcomers face an unfamiliar lifestyle which can come with higher expenses and new challenges, unlike those they faced when they relied almost solely on animal grazing and the natural environment.

Even in the city, many families live in gers. But rather than in the vast openness of the steppe, here they find themselves crammed together in tent districts on the edge of Ulaanbaatar, with little access to services such as running water, electricity, sewage systems and heating. With thousands of fires roaring for cooking and warmth, children especially suffer from air pollution. Ulaanbaatar is now one of the most polluted capitals in the world, where levels of toxic fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can rise to more than 20 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit.

In a changing world and changing climate, how can nomadic herders adapt while still protecting their traditional culture and way of life? The key to protecting Mongolia’s grasslands and steppe and its native wildlife is to recognize the importance of these communities in conservation. Across the planet, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities have been the custodians and defenders of forests, grasslands, wetlands, and seas for generations. According to a recent global analysis, at least 32% of global land is owned or governed by Indigenous communities and local communities, of which 91% is in good or fair ecological condition.

Since they’ve been long thriving in such extreme landscapes, using none but the traditional wisdom passed down through generation after generation, and what nature provides, Mongolia’s herding communities have unique knowledge of their home’s ecosystem and biodiversity, and have developed ways to manage and protect it sustainably. Around the world, Indigenous leadership, expertise and unique insight have led to more effective and sustainable conservation outcomes. But beyond the benefits to nature, when supported to secure the rights and resources to develop, share, and exercise sustainable and climate-informed natural resources management and animal husbandry practices, they can be enabled and empowered to once again become the custodians of their own home—be it ger or otherwise—and to pass that home to future generations to come.