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DUNDGOBI, Mongolia (Reuters) - The winter camps of southern Mongolia are quiet during this year's breeding season, after an unusually harsh winter wiped out herds and left nomadic families with little but debt to their name.
The bitter winter killed an estimated 8 million animals, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), leaving exhausted, poverty-stricken herders struggling to survive and increasing demands on Mongolia's already-stretched national budget.
"If a market burns down, the government offers money as compensation. Then why can't the government help the herders now?" asked Nyamiin Zagdsuren, a 39-year old herder, who lost more than two thirds of his 580 animals this winter.
He is counting on the cashmere combed from his remaining 140 goats to tide over his family, and to pay back a $360 bank loan he took out to clothe and buy school supplies for his three children.
The combination of a dry summer, followed by heavy snow and low winter temperatures is known in Mongolian as a 'zud'.
Roughly one-quarter of the country's 3 million people are nomads, while others also raise livestock in fixed settlements.
In Mongolia's southern Dundgobi province, about three-quarters of nomads now live below the poverty line, from half before the winter struck. Most herders are left with less than 250 animals.
At least 335 families in Dundgobi lost all their animals over the winter as temperatures dropped to 40 degrees Celsius below zero or colder.
"We have had so many sleepless nights, especially when a blizzard struck, or it started to snow. There was no time to change clothes, let alone sleep," said herder Tsegmediin Purevsuren, whose family is left with 92 animals out of a herd that once numbered 800 head.
"You would spend all night checking the sheds to make sure no animal was buried in the snow. If one was, you dug it out. The herders have worked without rest, from dusk till dawn, in all weather."
Snow was still falling in Dundgobi province on May 8, signaling that this zud, the worst for several years, is far from finished.
Herders said a decade-long drought has depleted the grass their horses need, while many have difficulty affording the gas for their motorcycles.
Some herders are scraping up some cash by burying their dead livestock. The UNDP promises 870 tugrug (0.63 U.S. cents) for each goat or sheep and 2300 ($1.66) for each cow, horse or camel buried in pits.
The project has helped to clear about a third of the carcasses from three of the most severely affected provinces, preventing disease and water contamination, the UNDP resident representative Akbar Usmani said.
"I'd like to appeal to the international communities for additional support to the herders in order that we can meet the needs of them at this critical time," he said.
"As you have noticed there are herders who have lost close to 90 percent of their herds. In fact there are cases also where the entire livestock that they had has been wiped out," he said.
Writing by Lucy Hornby and Tyra Dempster; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani