Author Susan P. Gately
Cashmere has been called the diamond fiber because of its value and luxurious beauty. But like the “blood diamonds” of gunrunner fame, the valuable fiber has its dark side.
Cashmere comes from goats many of which reside in China and Mongolia. Here, harsh winters with temperatures to 50 below zero Fahrenheit promote the growth of high quality cashmere undercoat fibers. In Mongolia the goat herds are tended by traditional herders who move them around the grassland steppe grazing areas. However, in recent years the herd sizes have increased sharply in response to a strong market demand for cashmere.
Between 1993 and 2009 the live stock herds of Mongolia nearly doubled in size. Much of the increase was due to strong fiber demand. As the herd sizes have increased, so has over grazing of fragile steppe lands. Goats, unlike native grazing animals of Mongolia are able to nibble plants right down to the roots. Their sharp small hooves compound the problem by disturbing soil and damaging any surviving turf. Once the soil is exposed, relentless winds and harsh drying quickly turn the landscape into a lifeless desert. Since the 1990's desertification of Mongolian grazing areas has tripled and more than two thirds of it is now considered degraded. As hungry goats range further and eat less grass, the quality of their cashmere undercoat fiber also declines.
And as the grasses have vanished so too have the native grazing animals of the steppes. Goats have replaced the wild horses, native blue sheep, yak, camel and various antelopes. Predators like the Mongolian gray wolf and the endangered snow leopard have turned to goats and other livestock for survival. The herders then hunt down and kill the predators to protect their herds.
Climate change is aggravating nearly all the existing problems of the grasslands. In 2010, the combined impact of a drought the preceding summer (which dried up the grasslands) and a dzud (an extremely severe winter), caused more than nine million livestock to perish, most of which were cashmere goats.
The rapidly growing ecological collapse of the steppe lands has not gone unnoticed. Various NGO's like the Sustainable Fiber Alliance and Snow Leopard Trust are working to save the grasses, native animals and birds, and the livelihoods of the nomadic herders whose culture dates back thousands of years. One such recent effort launched by a biologist named Bruce Elfstrom is the Bankhar Project.
Bruce Elfstrom, a self-styled adventure addict, is above all a problem solver. The former research biologist turned entrepreneurs most recent challenge is bringing back the Bankhar, one of the oldest dog breeds in existence.
In 2003 Elfstrom, then working as a movie producer, was abruptly awakened by a wolf pack. He had been asleep in the ger of a Mongolian herding family when the attack on the family's livestock occurred. That night he recalled, the herder community lost seventeen horses and many sheep and goats. Surveying the damage the next morning, Elfstrom wondered how his hosts and their neighbors could possibly survive the devastating economic losses they were suffering with increasing frequency. That's when the Bankhar Dog Project was born.
Bankhars are an ancient traditional livestock guardian dogs that once protected sheep and goats from predators. After the Soviet Union took over the country and mandated collectivization of the nomad herds, the dogs that once guarded individually owned animals were no longer useful. Their fierce protective behavior over their family and livestock charges made them, in the eyes of socialist authorities and shoulders, a liability and a danger that needed to disappear.. They were shot on site and culled until they all but vanished.
Elfstrom's idea was to bring back the Bankhar dogs to protect the goats and other livestock from predators. This would allow herders to reduce herd sizes to begin the restoration of grasslands and their native animals and improve the quality of the goat's wool. As he puts it on his website, his hope was to save the endangered snow leopard from extinction 'one dog at a time'.
The first obstacle to overcome was that of finding dogs to build up a population. Along with the breeding program, came the task of convincing the herders to give the dogs a chance. This, Elfström found, was surprisingly easy. The Bankhar has a long and cherished history with Mongolia's nomadic culture. Dogs are said to be the only domesticated animals given names by the nomads. All other animals are simply nicknamed according to color or shape. But dogs are considered to be family. Their association with the herds goes back thousands of years. It's said that Marco Polo was given a Bankhar (mistakenly called a Tibetan mastiff by later translators) for protection, and a traditional Mongolian greeting “hold your dog” gives some indication of the animal's temperament. (They are NOT well suited to life in the suburbs.)
The nomad elders were highly receptive to the idea of bringing back Bankhars as herd guardians, and helped Elfstrom identify both herding families most like to succeed with a dog and likely dogs for breeding. However, it was not possible to simply present families with a puppy. Herd guardian dogs with appropriate genetic heritage must be raised as pups with the animals they are expected to protect.
Elfstrom and his assistants had to set up sizeable enclosures at the kennels to accommodate goats and sheep. The Mother dogs and pups were then kept with a small herd of sheep constantly, and the dogs were fed the same food (rice or noodles, cheese whey, and sheep innards all cooked together) they would get when working on the open rangeland.
Once the 'bonding' of puppies to livestock has been completed, they are placed with herders who agree to proper treatment of their Bankhar. Herders sign a contract to follow a strict protocol of raising the puppies. Bruce points out a dog can't do his or her job of guarding up to 200 goats if it's tied up or hanging around the family hearth and home. Many of the herder families are located in in areas of high wolf and snow leopard predation and killing of predators by humans is common.
A future goal of the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project (and other conservation groups) is increase demand for alternative wools like Camel or Yak. Elfstrom explains that, “If we can create a market, then the herder will be able to diversify the herd, thereby reducing the deleterious effect of “mono-culture’ grazing of livestock on the grasslands.”
Yak under coat fiber is a luxury fiber that, though shorter than cashmere, is as fine and soft. A neighbor of mine who is a hand spinner and knitter tells me it's sold by the gram, and I've never held a skein of material lighter and softer than that of the spun wool from the Alaskan muskox a relative of the yak.
A few fashion houses are starting to promote 'sustainable' fiber from yaks. Outdoor clothing maker Peak to Plateau sells yak fiber “adventure clothing” including warm yak wool socks. Their website touts the socks as suitable for “hiking, skiing and around town”. They probably work pretty well for drafty farmhouse floors too!
Another company, Norlha Textiles, works with Tibetan women to produce scarves, ponchos and other products using yak wool. Their “slow fashions” are knitted, felted or woven by hand. Louis Vuitton and Dunhill have also introduced yak fiber into some of their products.
The efforts of these businesses and the non-profits like the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project and the Sustainable Fibre Alliance are beginning to bring back the historic community, balance and sustainability that once were the life of the steppe lands. Consumers can do their part also the next time some warm winter clothing is on the shopping list.
MEET PANDA THE BANKHAR DOG.