Image: Herdsman removes skins of dead goats
Enkhtor Dorjzovd  /  Mongolian Red Cross Society via Reuters
A 76-year-old Mongolian herdsman on Jan. 23 removes the skins from of goats that died from extremely cold weather.
updated 2/2/2010 11:03:51 AM ET 2010-02-02T16:03:51

Aid groups have described piles of dead animals and warned of Mongolian herdsmen fleeing to cities as the United Nations says a harsh winter has killed 1.7 million livestock vital to the largely rural country.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in a statement Tuesday that up to 4 million livestock could be dead by spring if conditions that include temperatures as low as minus 58 Fahrenheit continue.

It said the bitter cold and heavy snow have put 21,000 herder families at risk of "food insecurity" and said those families have lost more than 50 percent of their herds.

A World Bank statement said that in the worst-affected areas animal "carcasses lay strewn around." It said more than one-third of people in Mongolia herd livestock for a living.

Extreme winter weather that began in December has continued to trouble the poor landlocked country sandwiched between China and Russia, following a summer drought that prevented farmers from stockpiling food for their livestock.

More than 14,000 Red Cross volunteers across the region are scrambling to deliver food to impoverished herders.

Video footage taken by the aid group showed dogs and birds gnawing on the carcasses of dead sheep.

Mongolia borders China's northwestern Xinjiang region, where the bad weather has killed two dozen people, according to a Xinjiang government Web site.

More than 1.6 million people have been affected and shortages of grain and fuel have also been reported in Xinjiang, where 100,000 homes have been damaged. Continuing harsh weather has also closed fishing harbors in eastern China.

It is the harshest winter in decades in parts of northern China, with Beijing this month receiving its heaviest one-day snowfall in 59 years.

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