Essential to the identity and economy of Mongolia—more than half of the country’s 3 million people live there—the grasslands are under increasing threat from overgrazing and climate change. Multiple studies over the past decade have shown that the once lush Mongolian steppe, an expanse twice the size of Texas that is one of the world’s largest remaining grasslands, is slowly turning into a desert. An estimated 70% of all the grazing lands in the country are considered degraded to some degree….
The collective here of a little more than 100 families is at the center of an unusual effort, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to turn space-based maps of the grasslands into a tool for making grazing more sustainable. Supported by the world’s largest mining company and a luxury apparel giant, the pilot effort uses data gathered by NASA and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to help herders find places where the vegetation is healthy enough to sustain their voracious herds.
Meanwhile, development, especially mining, has exponentially increased water usage. Twelve percent of rivers and 21% of lakes have dried up entirely. An increasing number of people, vehicles, and heavy equipment put additional stress on the land. But one factor stands out: overgrazing, which, according to a 2013 study by researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis, has caused 80% of the recent decline in vegetation on the grasslands.
Mongolia is now the world’s second-largest cashmere producer, after China. Goats, which account for more than half of all grazing animals on the grasslands, can be more lucrative than other livestock, but they’re also much more destructive than the sheep they’ve replaced because they eat roots and the flowers that seed new grasses=s.
WCS’s Sustainable Cashmere project may offer part of the solution. The project, whose budget the organizers won’t disclose, is funded by mining giant Rio Tinto, which runs a massive copper mine not far away, and Kering, the French luxury apparel giant that owns Gucci, Balenciaga, and other brands that need cashmere. Both aim to help offset their impact on the Mongolian environment, a requirement of Rio’s mining agreement and part of Kering’s corporate social responsibility program.
Excerpts Kathleen McLaughlin, Saving the steppes, Science, Feb. 1, 2019