Herd­ing makes strides on steppes

China Daily European Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - By SATARUPA BHATTACHARJYA satarupa@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Vast stretches of land along In­ner Mon­go­lia’s Ex­press­way 216 lie un­in­hab­ited. More an­i­mals than peo­ple can be found in this part of the au­ton­o­mous re­gion, where trucks car­ry­ing coal are of­ten the only ve­hi­cles to be seen on the high­way con­nect­ing ur­ban Or­dos to its ru­ral Otog Front Ban­ner, or ad­min­is­tra­tive sub­di­vi­sion.

Other than coal — its re­serves are among the world’s largest — the re­gion pro­duces mut­ton, milk and cash­mere. It has iron ore and rare earth and, among more modern in­dus­tries, wind and so­lar power. Lately, it has also got­ten into data min­ing.

Lo­cal herders and of­fi­cials in two vil­lages of the Otog Front Ban­ner say that mod­ern­iza­tion of live­stock pro­duc­tion and man­age­ment is un­der­way. Tra­di­tional life­styles of the on­ceno­madic peo­ple are changing.

The pre­fec­ture-level city of Or­dos, lo­cated in the re­gion’s south, has an area of more than 85,000 square kilo­me­ters but a pop­u­la­tion of just 2 mil­lion or so. With a dom­i­nant Han

pop­u­la­tion and around 11 per­cent Mon­go­lian, the eth­nic mix in­cludes Manchu and Hui groups.

Eth­nic Mon­go­lians ac­count for 30 per­cent of the ban­ner’s pop­u­la­tion of 78,000, with the ma­jor­ity es­ti­mated to be in­volved in rais­ing live­stock and agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties. The ban­ner, which was es­tab­lished in 1980, has 68 vil­lages and four towns.

More than 2 mil­lion do­mes­tic an­i­mals, mostly sheep, are raised each year, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

The out­side world has long as­so­ci­ated In­ner Mon­go­lia with images of wild horses run­ning through the grass­lands. But horse rac­ing, the pop­u­lar sport in the re­gion, today ap­pears to be more rel­e­vant to the tourism in­dus­try than to society.

The ban­ner had 2,913 horses in 2016, com­pared with more than 2 mil­lion in the re­gion in 1975. How­ever, the an­nual Naadam fes­ti­val has kept In­ner Mon­go­lia’s eques­trian tra­di­tion alive.

A sim­i­lar story is that of yurts, the tent dwellings that used to be made from a woolen fab­ric and wood. Many years ago, no­madic groups in the re­gion would dis­man­tle them and carry the parts from place to place as they ex­plored the steppe.

Present-day yurts in the ban­ner have con­crete bases and serve as ac­com­mo­da­tions in sum­mer where vis­i­tors ex­pe­ri­ence Mon­go­lian cul­ture.

It is late af­ter­noon in Ta­ban­taole­gai vil­lage when Wangchuge — some eth­nic Mon­go­lians use sin­gle names when trans­lat­ing into English — de­cides to sur­vey the grounds on which his sheep are graz­ing. But in­stead of walk­ing through sandy fields to gather the an­i­mals from dif­fer­ent cor­ners, he mon­i­tors them on a TV screen from in­side a modern yurt.

The herder, who runs a fam­ily busi­ness rais­ing sheep for meat and wool, says he sels an av­er­age of 300 sheep a year.l

The video cam­eras he has placed on the roof of his house pro­vide him with real-time footage of an­i­mal move­ments on his plot of land, which is large. A phone app gives fur­ther as­sis­tance. “Tra­di­tional ways of rais­ing sheep have dis­ap­peared” in his vil­lage, says Wangchuge, 41, as he slices salted mut­ton, a Mon­go­lian del­i­cacy.

“The use of tech­nol­ogy has helped me re­duce both la­bor and time.”

He owns six cows as well, but mainly for milk.

This vil­lage in the Otog Front Ban­ner has 175 per­ma­nent res­i­dent fam­i­lies, many of whom keep sheep and grow corn and a spe­cial va­ri­ety of rice.

Wangchuge says that some­where on his farm he has set up con­tain­ers with drink­ing wa­ter for his sheep that au­to­mat­i­cally ad­just the tem­per­a­ture.

He is ea­ger to de­velop a new type of ear­mark for his an­i­mals but doesn’t say if it will be dig­i­tal.

“Af­ter a sheep is born and ear­marked, we will be able to keep a daily log of its in­take of grass and wa­ter. This will make con­sumers feel safe about buy­ing the meat,” he says.

The ban­ner is among 33 such ad­min­is­tra­tive sub­di­vi­sions in In­ner Mon­go­lia where live­stock pro­duc­tion is a ma­jor eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity.

“We are try­ing to de­velop modern an­i­mal hus­bandry and agri­cul­ture that are both ecofriendly and prof­itable,” says a se­nior lo­cal of­fi­cial, who asks not to be iden­ti­fied by name, since he is speak­ing on be­half of his team. He adds that the in­dus­tries made 2.2 bil­lion yuan ($345 mil­lion; 280 mil­lion eu­ros; £245 mil­lion) in 2016.

An eco­log­i­cal con­cern has been the degra­da­tion of the grass­lands, partly ow­ing to over­graz­ing.

In 2013, the re­gion launched pro­tec­tion mea­sures and has since re­stricted ac­tive graz­ing to nine months a year.

Bixir­iletu, a 40-year-old herder from Angsu, an­other vil­lage in the Otog Front Ban­ner, grew up watch­ing his par­ents herd their sheep to grass­lands far from home. In the past few years, he has had to wake up nightly to check on the an­i­mals.

He now has tools for the job — a cam­era and a smart­phone.

Bixir­iletu has worked at a coal mine in the ban­ner for much of his adult life. In 2012, he watched a TV pro­gram on ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion of sheep. He says it gave him the idea of vis­it­ing a breed­ing fa­cil­ity in Ulan­qab, which is also lo­cated in the re­gion’s south.

“The (sperm) donors are for­eign,” he says of

the meat-pro­duc­ing Dor­per, the South African hy­brid sheep that was de­vel­oped for arid con­di­tions sim­i­lar to Or­dos.

The mix­ing of for­eign and lo­cal breeds, Bixir­iletu says, has meant shorter growth pe­ri­ods.

“It takes from six to seven months for the

SATARAUPA BHATTACHARJYA/CHINA DAILY

A view of the win­ter grass­land in the Otog Front Ban­ner of the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion in early March.

Above: Wangchuge watches his sheep in Ta­ban­taole­gai vil­lage of Otog Front Ban­ner in the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion. Be­low: Bixir­iletu and his wife, Ren­qin­hao­rile, stand on their farm­land with their sheep in the back­ground in Angsu vil­lage.

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