ZOURARE, Niger, Aug. 4 - With his black burnoose and piercing tan eyes set in angular, leathery features, Ali Yougouda is the very picture of a Tuareg, a stoic nomad who juggles two wives, 10 children and life on the Sahara's fringes without breaking a sweat.
Until he talks about his herd. In May, he was tending 68 head of cattle and sheep. Today he has 18 cows and bulls. He is devastated, bereft.
"The first two died of pneumonia," he said, crouching beneath a tree in this remote mud-hut village. "Then the rest started to die slowly, from hunger, because all they could find in their stomachs was sand. The last one died two weeks ago."
Mr. Yougouda, 40, epitomizes another side of Niger's hunger crisis: the devastation it has wrought on this nation's legendary nomads and herders. Mr. Yougouda's Tuareg tribe, known as the Kel Ouawar-Gadabeji, has suffered hunger and privation from the scattered rains that reduced last autumn's harvest and the food stocks that normally see them through the long dry season. But the hundreds of tribespeople in this village have so far survived.
Not so their livestock, which the herdsmen have pushed farther and farther afield in search of green pastures. Weak from the trek, their stomachs filled with grit from pulling the few tufts of grass from the sandy earth, thousands of the animals have simply lain down to die in recent months. The carcasses of long-curve-horned cattle dot the landscape on the sole path to the village, an hour's bone-cracking journey via four-by-four from the nearest dirt road. The losses not only threaten the centuries-old tradition of the Tuareg and other nomads like the Fulani, also known as the Peulh. It is a personal blow, even a humiliation, for a people who regard their animals almost as kin.
"We treat them like brothers and sisters," said Amadou Abou, the elder brother of the village chief here. "We're inseparable. It's a tragedy because we have lost what is most dear to us - an animal, a brother."
A handful of international charities, including Oxfam and CARE International, are rushing to the nomads' aid with food, money and more livestock. But the nomads, scattered across Niger's vast rural stretches, are not easy to find, much less to reach.
"The situation is extremely grave for the Tuareg, because they live from their cattle," said Illiassou Adamou, who heads CARE's office in Maradi, just south of one of the worst-hit areas. "When you lose a bovine, it takes five years to raise another to replace it. When you lose cattle this year, even if the situation is good next year, it's still a critical situation."
While rains are somewhat better, the past months' dry spell is still snuffing out the livelihoods of thousands of herders across Niger, especially around Dakoro, a regional center where 40,000 people live, and where rains have been spotty for two years straight.
The Tuareg and Fulani, in their flowing burnooses and conical, feathered hats, have ranged across the area for centuries with their cattle, sheep, donkeys and goats, following rain and fresh grass in the lands just below the Sahara. They seldom eat their charges, preferring to live off their milk and to sell them for money to buy the sorghum and millet that anchor their diets.
The reduced rains have dealt these nomads a triple whammy. The grains on which they rely have skyrocketed in price. The postharvest leavings of sorghum and millet plants - on which their herds rely - became equally scarce. The grasslands that supplement the animals' diets also shrank.
And what forage and crops remained was seized upon last autumn by swarms of locusts that descended in clouds and, the nomads say, denuded the landscape.
Those nomads who drove their herds south toward Nigeria, where rains were better, often suffered few losses. Those who chased rumors of rain in the north, around Dakoro, were just as frequently wiped out.
"Survive? Did we survive?" asked Mr. Abou, the chief's thin, balding elder brother. "The remnants of plants and the livestock we had, that's how we survived." When money ran out to buy cheap foodfrom the more urban south, he said, tribespeople resorted to boiling leaves and roots plucked out of the ground.
Mr. Yougouda, the black-robed herdsman, lost all 30 of his sheep and 20 of his 38 cows after months of roaming in a futile hunt for green pastures. "Sometimes we had to pull the cow up, because he had given up," he said.
Some would call him lucky. In Bargas, perhaps 20 miles east of Zourare, Souley Gorba, 28, took 100 sheep, 70 cows and 20 goats to hunt for pasture last October. He returned in June with 11 animals. "I went south, all the way to Saboumachi" - about 50 miles - "and I stayed there five months," Mr. Gorba said. "Then I realized that it was every bit as bad as where I had come from."
By February, he said, his herd was growing sick from hunger. He began selling cows to raise money to feed the rest - and saw prices plummet in June to $25 a head from hundreds of dollars per head.
In a sense, the Tuareg and Fulani are used to this: the Sahel region of central Africa, just south of the Sahara, suffers a cyclical drought that thins herds and reduces food stocks roughly every 10 years. The worst in memory came in 1984, when a crop failure led to a food and forage shortfall that made headlines the next year, and briefly put African hunger atop the list of global priorities.
This summer, Oxfam is giving thousands of herders vouchers for food and other vital goods in exchange for needed work like collecting animal carcasses and cutting trenches in fields to prevent erosion, until the hunger crisis eases.
The charity also is buying up weakened animals for slaughter at nearly triple the market price. That not only frees up scarce pasture for stronger animals, but helps slow the steep drop in prices for cattle - and gives hungry families enough money to buy 220 pounds of millet.
CARE takes another tack, giving groups of herders new cattle - two females and a male - which are passed on to other herders as they produce calves.
Mr. Amadou of CARE calls the latest crisis a temporary blow for the nomads, who he says will roam Niger "as long as the world exists."
Some may, but the Fulani nomad, Mr. Gorba, may not be one of them. After losing nearly 200 head of livestock, he and his wife rented land from a farmer this year and began learning how to grow millet.
The loss of his animals, he said, is a grief that equals the loss of his parents, and the loss of his heritage is an ache inside him. "It is my great worry that I will not be able to get enough animals to have a herd again," he said Friday, standing in the shade of a mud wall at a market set up by Oxfam to trade vouchers for food and other essentials. "I haven't any idea how to do it."
But "I can't miss the life of a nomad," he said, "because I will never give it up. I will be sedentary. But in my heart, I will be a nomad."