Oyu Tolgoi has been helping Mongolian herders increase the yield of wool they get from their camels, by tapping into the expertise of champion Australian sheep shearer Roger Mifsud.

Located in Mongolia’s South Gobi Desert, Oyu Tolgoi is a Rio Tinto-managed operation. Once fully developed, Oyu Tolgoi has the potential to be one of the world's most important copper-gold mines. The company works closely with local herders on a variety of long-term economic development initiatives.

The Gobi camel herders have just a short window during spring to shear their animals. If the camels are not shorn, they lose their wool to the wind, and the herders lose the income from wool sales. On average, each of the two-humped, or Bactrian, camels that live in the Gobi yields five kilogrammes of wool.

But shearing a camel is no easy task. The animal must be safely restrained and shorn without damaging either its skin or the wool. Traditionally, the herders use scissors to remove the wool – which can be a time-consuming process.

Masters of the Gobi Desert

Masters of the
Gobi Desert

Oyu Tolgoi is located deep in the South Gobi Desert, 550km south of the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar and just 80km north of the border with China.

Oyu Tolgoi is located deep in the South Gobi Desert, 550km south of the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar and just 80km north of the border with China.

Home to nomadic people for centuries, this vast desert is one of the most challenging living and working environments in the world. The area is buffeted by strong winds and huge dust storms, and can experience temperatures below minus 30°C in winter and higher than 40°C in summer.

Khanbogd is the nearest town to the mine. Home to around 5,000 people, it is the centre of the Khanbogd soum (county). Many families live in traditional Mongolian gers: round, portable homes that allow them to follow their animals for hundreds of kilometres in response to seasonal changes.

Around 12 per cent of the 300,000-plus camels in Mongolia live in the four soums around Oyu Tolgoi. Khanbogd has more camels than any other soum in the country: 22,500 in 2014.

Oyu Tolgoi has sponsored Khanbogd’s annual Camel Festival for the last few years. Speaking at the 11th annual Camel Festival in January, chief operating officer Ivan Vella said: “On this beautiful day we celebrated a very special event which pays to tribute to the camels – the true masters of the Great Gobi Desert. Oyu Tolgoi will continue to contribute to community development, including supporting further increases to the camel herds.”

Image: Some of Mongolia's 300,000-plus camels.

Live demos

In 2014, Oyu Tolgoi supported award-winning shearer Roger’s visit to Mongolia. The goal of the project was to improve camel wool recovery and herders’ income potential.

Roger spent a month working with herders near the mine, and identifying ways of improving the camel shearing process. They shared ideas and combined hundreds of years of tradition and camel shearing experience with modern-day technology.

Nearly every day, Roger visited households in the local community, along with herder and Oyu Tolgoi employee Bayanmunkh Khash-Erdene, who works in the company’s Social Performance team, and whose idea it was to trial machine shearing.

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Camels are shorn in spring, in a short window before they lose their wool naturally.

The herders participated in live demonstrations with their own livestock. Together they tested the electric shears Roger uses on sheep back home in Australia, and also trialled an alternative way for restraining the camels’ legs. While Roger mostly works with sheep, he’s also experienced in shearing alpacas, which belong to the same family of animals as the camel. The technique he uses with alpacas proved to work equally well with the Gobi camels.

It takes almost an hour to shear a camel using the traditional scissors method, but the electric shears that Roger demonstrated can do the job in less than half the time, and also recover greater quantities of wool.

While herders tried out the electric equipment, Roger provided advice on the best way to hold the shears and achieve a consistent shearing pattern. The pattern is an important part of protecting the camel’s skin, preventing the wool being damaged and ensuring maximum yield.

Roger also shared his beliefs on what constitutes best practice. Safety of the animal and the shearer must always be the first concern. Secondly, good care and maintenance of the shearing equipment is essential, so that it provides a good return on investment.

Shearing and sharing

Roger said that he was happy to be in Mongolia, learning from the local camel breeders and working together on ways to increase wool productivity. “It has been a great experience and privilege for me to work with herders and learn about the famous Mongolian Gobi camels,” he said.

“Roger was very welcomed by the herders,” said Oyu Tolgoi Community Relations officer Pandiisamba Bold. “Together we have all been learning a lot from each other. We now know that it requires good technology, proper training and practical experience to shear camels without hurting their skin and body. Our long-term objective would be to support the establishment of teams of herders experienced in camel and sheep shearing who could offer a commercial service to others.”

At the end of 2014, Bayanmunkh and Pandiisamba travelled to Australia to grow their shearing skills further – expertise that they are now sharing with others back in Mongolia. The two men secured shearing qualifications and acquired practical experience at a sheep farm in Hamilton, Victoria.