BAYANLIG, BAYANKHONGOR PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — In the vast expanse of the Gobi Desert, with a faint, shimmering mirage under a clear blue sky, camels stand with their herder, Khandmaa Luvsandanzan.
Khandmaa endearingly calls out one of her camels by its name, almost as if addressing a dear friend.
Khandmaa and her camel head to the zel, a shed where livestock rest and are milked. Lately she has been working on adapting Nomkhon Khuren to the milking machine. As she milks the camel on one side, Khandmaa also feeds a calf. “We survive on camel milk in all four seasons of the year. Other livestock are not as profitable,” she says.
Bactrian camels are two-humped camels native to the steppes of Central Asia. For more than 300 years, these camels were used to transport tea, silk, pottery and animal hides on the Tea Road that connected Russia and China. However, their significance and population drastically decreased in 1956 with the opening of the Ulaanbaatar railway route, connecting not only Russia and China but also Asia and Europe. In 1954, Mongolia had the most camels ever recorded in its history (895,300). By 2002, the population fell to its lowest (253,000).
Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia
When livestock was privatized in the early 1990s in Mongolia, camels started being slaughtered en masse for food. The demand for camel as food increased, in part, because of China’s appetite for the fat from the soles of the camel’s hooves, which is also used in medicine. At the same time, there was rapid desertification of the Gobi region, the camels’ prime habitat.
Despite the decadeslong population dip, Mongolia is one of the few countries that has been able to preserve Bactrian camels. And by 2022, the number of camels increased to 470,500 thanks to a series of government measures, including incentivizing camel herding and rearing.
Now, the country is exploring new economic opportunities. While Mongolians traditionally did not process camel milk for commercial purposes, that’s changed today as they look to tap into worldwide demand for the dairy.
“Gone are the days when such dairy products were used only for household consumption. … We aim to supply our products to the global market,” says Bat-Ireedui Khurelbaatar, executive director of Ingen Tagsh, one of the leading companies producing camel milk products in the country.
Worldwide, camel milk production rose from 0.63 million tons in 1961 to 3.15 million tons in 2020, according to a 2022 study published in the journal Animal Frontiers. This five-fold increase spanning six decades has propelled camels into the spotlight as the fifth most significant dairy animal, trailing cattle, water buffalo, goats and sheep.
The Mongolian government’s Food Revolution campaign, a nationwide initiative launched in 2022, aims to not only satisfy Mongolia’s domestic food needs but also make it a food-exporting country. Camel milk is a key part of that.
Ingen Erdene, a milk-producing factory, was established in Bayankhongor province in late 2022 but is not operational yet. Fresh powder milk from camels will be the plant’s primary product, and the first sample is expected in the coming months. “Even if we milk each camel in Mongolia, dry and export it, we still won’t be able to supply China’s daily milk needs. It means the export demand is high,” company director Khishigbayar Dorj says. The company intends to export to China and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region for now.
One liter of camel milk is sold for 30 United States dollars in Middle East countries, whereas in Mongolia, the cost is 3 dollars.
“In the current decade, the demand for camel milk and its dairy products has increased because it is considered the best alternative of bovine milk,” according to a 2023 study published in Food Science of Animal Resources, an international journal. Camel milk lacks the protein that makes some people allergic to cow’s milk. Camel milk also can stay fresh for longer durations than the milk of other animals. And studies have shown it has particularly good medicinal values and health-promoting effects.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has designated 2024 as the International Year of Camelids.
“Now it’s not just Mongolians, but globally there has been a rise in the number of people who buy camel milk,” says Ingen Tagsh’s Bat-Ireedui. He says the number of camel herders in the country is growing to help meet that demand.
Ingen Erdene’s Khishigbayar says numerous job opportunities will become available as soon as the milk facility opens its doors, including those in veterinary medical facilities and services, feed supply and animal breed selection.
Teso Group, one of the largest national manufacturers of food products, is working on exporting camel milk to Saudi Arabia, says Batbaatar Bayarmagnai, CEO of Dairy Asia, an Ulaanbaatar-based organization of 13 member countries that targets the sustainable development of the dairy industry in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Exporting this kind of dry milk to Saudi Arabia is in the negotiation stage with the border customs and health food products commission of the client country. The customer has already received permission to test the product from us,” says Tuvshinjargal Bandikhuu, CEO of Teso Group.
Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia
The Ingen Tagsh plant in Mandal-Ovoo soum, in Umnugovi province, has the capacity to produce 3,000 products per day and at least 50,000 products per month. “Since the customs’ procedures and prohibitions are intricate, it is quite difficult to export livestock products in significant quantities,” says Tsogzolmaa Tsedevsuren, the plant’s director and founder.
Many, including those at Ingen Tagsh and Ingen Erdene, think it’s time for camel milk producers to unite. The most important thing at the moment is to create a factory that meets international standards, Khishigbayar says.
Since Bayanlig soum has the largest camel population in the province, camel farms will primarily be constructed there. “Herders enjoy greater benefits when they are structured as groups and cooperatives, such as assisting one another, collaborating and sharing tasks. In addition, there will be more chances to strengthen and broaden the regional economy and develop household production,” says Munkhbat Orgodol, governor of the soum.
Unu tegsh duuren, the camel herders’ cooperative that works in the wool and cashmere sectors, has 192 members, including herder Khandmaa. The cooperative will soon operate in the milk industry and set up its herders at farms. “We plan to raise the production of milk and adjust [to] using milking machines,” Khandmaa says. The transition into a farm structure seems to be a good option, she adds. “If I can work with people with the same goal, sell milk for a higher price, and have a steady income, that is a blessing.”