Mongolia’s population has passed three million according to a 2014 estimate. Once the vast majority of the population, herders now comprise less than 50% of the people in Mongolia’s sparsely populated territory. With an average population density of about 1.5 people per square kilometer, the country ranks as one of the world’s emptiest; the population density decreases to 0.3 people per square kilometer in the southern Gobi.

Although a considerable amount of Mongolia’s small population is scattered across the vast steppe, urbanization continues to increase in throughout the country. During the last two decades, migration from rural areas to urban centers has accelerated, and now about 54% or Mongolia’s live in urban areas; over 25 percent of the population resides in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.

A homogenous nation, Mongol-speaking people constitute 95% of Mongolia’s people. The only substantial non-Mongol group, representing over 5% of the population, is Kazaks, a Turkish-speaking people who dwell in the far west, while a Chinese minority calls Ulaanbaatar home.

Mongolians themselves can be subdivided into over 20 different ethnic groups, distinguished by their individual customs, histories and dialects. The largest ethnic group, the Halha, mainly live in central, eastern and southern Mongolia, and account for over 75% of the total population. The Oirats are a relatively populous group of western Mongolians, including the smaller groups, Durvud, Torgud, Bayad, Uuld, Zakhchin, Myangad and Uriankhai. Historically, the Oirat people have resided around Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the Sayan Mountain Ranges in northern Mongolia and forested areas within the Altai Mountain Range—the name Oirat translates to ‘forest people’. After the fall of the Mongol empire in the 14th century, the Oirat formed an independent state known as the Dzhungarian Kingdom. It covered western Mongolia and the eastern Chinese steppe, and only became part of the Mongolian Republic during the Manchurian conquest of the 1600s.

Northern Mongolian ethnic groups include the Darkhat, the Tsaatan, and the Khotgoid. These groups inhabit the dense forests of the Huvsgul lake area, near the Russian border. The Buriyat are the only group which originates from the vast eastern steppe.