Mongolia's Goats Produce A Third Of World's Cashmere And Are Trampling The Landscape : Parallels Mongolian goats produce the world's highest quality cashmere wool, and international demand has soared. There's a problem, though. These goats are turning the country into an ecological wasteland.

How Your Cashmere Sweater Is Decimating Mongolia's Grasslands

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This next story takes us back to the source, the source of cashmere sweaters - like one you might get for Christmas. Hope I didn't spoil the surprise. Cashmere sweaters are soft and warm and have a side effect, destroying grasslands in Mongolia. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.


ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Lkhagvajav Bish has milked cows for decades. She's a nomadic herder. And she follows them in their endless search for grass. Today she and her son's ger, or tent, is in a valley surrounded by brown hills whose tops are white with frost. Bish is 90 years old, old enough to remember a time when this valley looked completely different.

LKHAGVAJAV BISH: (Through interpreter) We've been wintering in this valley for 30 years. Back then, the grass came up to my chest. It grew so tall that we had to use a sickle and horse-drawn equipment to cut through it. But the grass of my time is gone. There's no longer enough to feed the animals.

SCMITZ: The culprits behind the sad state of the valley stand innocently grazing beyond Bish and her cows.


SCMITZ: Cashmere goats - their sharp hooves cut through the soil surface. And their eating habits, voraciously ripping up plants by their root systems, make it impossible for grass to thrive. But thriving isn't a problem for the goats.

BISH: (Through interpreter) Goats reproduce faster than all my other animals, even faster than my sheep. Not too long ago, I used to have 20 of them. Now I've got 150. I don't want that many. They're just taking over.


SCMITZ: Thirty years ago, when the grass grew tall, cashmere goats made up 19 percent of all livestock in Mongolia. It's 60 percent today. And that's not just because goats are eager breeders. This is about money. China, Mongolia's biggest trading partner, has strict controls on importing meat and milk from Mongolian sheep and cows but not on cashmere.

Mongolia produces a third of the global supply. And the rise of China's consumer class has meant the price of cashmere has risen by more than 60 percent. Now Mongolia's more than a million nomadic herders have turned to goats to make a living, destroying their own grasslands in the process.

BULGAMAA DENSAMBUU: Today Mongolian rangeland is at a crossroads.

SCMITZ: Bulgamaa Densambuu is a researcher for the Swiss-funded Green Gold project. It focuses on preventing overgrazing of Mongolian grasslands, what Densambuu calls rangelands. She recently completed a survey that found 65 percent of Mongolia's grasslands have been degraded due to overgrazing of cashmere goats and to climate change. But Densambuu hasn't lost hope.

DENSAMBUU: Ninety percent of these total degraded rangelands can be recovered naturally within 10 years if we can keep existing management.

SCMITZ: And that's why Densambuu and other groups are working with herders to come up with viable solutions. Gankhuyag Nyam-Ochir directs the Mongolian Association of Pastureland User Groups. He represents a third of all nomadic herders in Mongolia. He says the trick is to supplement herders' income from cashmere goats with something else. He's thinking yaks or camels.

GANKHUYAG NYAM-OCHIR: (Through interpreter) Yak wool and the hair from a baby camel have fibers that are just as fine as the wool from a cashmere goat.

SCMITZ: Nyam-Ochir is convincing his herders to trade in their goats for camels, which are much easier on the land.

NYAM-OCHIR: (Foreign language spoken).

SCMITZ: He says if herders don't start to get rid of their goats now, Mongolia's grasslands are doomed.


SCMITZ: But try telling that to Lkhagvajav Bish, the 90-year-old herder.

BISH: (Through interpreter) Yes, I know my goats are harmful to our grassland. And the more we have, the worse our land becomes. I get that. But this is how we earn our money.

SCMITZ: Bish prepares a pot of salty milk tea inside her ger while her goats graze outside. She says there is so little grass left that she's had to buy supplemental grains to feed her livestock. Otherwise, they'd die. But not the goats, she says. They seem to live through anything.

BISH: (Foreign language spoken).

SCMITZ: Bish says she doesn't know what the answer is. She says she feels helpless. "All I can do," she tells me, "is watch my grassland disappear." Rob Schmitz, NPR News, rural Mongolia.

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