Reindeer are milked twice a day by women of the tribe. The yogurt-like milk is four to five times more fatty than cow’s milk.
The mountainous boreal forests of the taiga are harsh, wild, and achingly beautiful. Although not as well known as the either the Gobi Desert or the grassy steppe of Mongolia, the taiga nevertheless represents the world’s largest biome.
Beginning where the frozen tundra ends, the taiga’s dark, coniferous woodlands stretch almost continuously from Eurasia across to sub-arctic North America. It is an important place because of its tremendous environmental value and as the home of the indigenous Dukha people and their reindeer herds – yet it is currently under threat.
Fall camps, like this one, are typically found on the edge of forests and provide protection from the elements.
This is not an easy place in which to live. Mostly, it is cold: the average temperature is below 32°F (0°C) and can drop all the way to a bone-chilling -65°F (-53°C). However, in the summer months the heat can shoot all the way up to 70°F (21°C), a massive variation from the usual chill. Yet, for the forests of the taiga and its flora and fauna, these are the perfect conditions for life.
The woman pictured, Chechek (Flower), was host to the photographer and is a shaman of the taiga.
For over 3,000 years, the Dukha people (also known as the Tsaatan) have lived here, adapting their nomadic lifestyle to the extreme weather and landscape of the taiga. During this time they have become bound to their reindeer herds, which provide them with everything from meat, hides and milk to a vital system of transport. They are a hardy people – as they would have to be to survive in this challenging terrain. Yet the population of the Dukha, and the reindeer on which they rely, are dwindling, and urgent changes are needed if they are to continue with their ancient way of life.
A Dukha pole house, or “alajy og”
Photographer Uluc Kecik traveled into the taiga to capture these pictures and meet the Dukha in Mongolia’s northernmost reaches. “Today, the Dukha represent Mongolia’s smallest ethnic minority, with approximately 45 nomadic households herding reindeer,” says Kecik. “They are, to varying degrees, facing threats to their cultural survival – transitions to market-based economies, tourism, global warming, language loss and assimilation into the dominant majority.”
An ‘Ereen’ – colorful cloths tied to each other – represents a protective spirit and is a sacred object.
The Dukha’s Mongolian name “Tsataan” can be translated as “reindeer herder”, reinforcing just how inextricably their whole way of living is tied to these animals. As recently as 15 years ago, the Dukha (along with three other nomadic tribes of the region) herded up to 15,000 reindeer between them. These days, the number has dwindled to 2,200 and is still falling.
Gombo, seated, is the eldest male and so is current leader of the tribe.
Reindeer are not simply domestic animals to the Dukha; they also hold a special place in their social and religious culture as totems. “[The Dukha’s] spiritual traditions are powerfully defined by shamanist beliefs and [are] among the most enduring in the world,” says Kecik. Enduring, despite attempts by the government to repress the Dukha culture during the Communist era and the many pressures it still faces today.
Everything on the reindeer, down to the antlers, is used by the Dukha.
The reindeer themselves are tame and will often respond when called. Traditionally, the Dukha have primarily hunted wild animals for meat, slaughtering their reindeer only when the animals were past breeding age and too old to be used for transport. However, these days, difficult economic times and the decreasing amount of wildlife in the forests mean that, more and more, herders are forced to kill and eat their reindeer to survive.
The nuts of the pine cone are a popular snack at community gatherings.
As one United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) document puts it, “Taiga reindeer herders, including the Dukhas, have been likened to hunter-gatherers, rather than true pastoralists, because hunting wild meat has played as important a role in their livelihoods as herding.”
The Dukha and their reindeer move between six and ten times a year.
The taiga is normally a rich habitat, sustaining creatures such as bears, squirrels, rabbits, badgers and, of course, reindeer. Yet, in recent times, commercial hunting and other factors have severely diminished the wild animal population. And not only does this result in there being less for the Dukha to hunt, but also less for their hunting competitors, the wolves. This means that, like the herders, wolves are also preying on the reindeer stocks.
The Dukha ride on the reindeer as well as using them to transport goods.
Another environmental problem for the taiga – and therefore the reindeer herders – is unregulated mining. These small-scale operations, generally searching for gold or jade, cause large-scale damage to the forest ecosystem. Some of the undesirable side effects of the mines are deforestation, wildfires, and contamination with toxic chemicals that affects both the land and water sources. All of this has adverse results for the animals living within the forest and the herders needing to pasture their animals.
Getting ready to go out on a ride
Like people who live off the land all around the world, the Dukha are also being affected by climate change. “The taiga – the Dukha homeland – is a hotspot for biodiversity and is rich in natural resources,” says UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “But it is also one of the regions of Mongolia which could suffer the greatest impacts of climate change over the coming decades.”
A man named Davaajav tries to lasso a reindeer.
The effects of climate change in the taiga include disastrous weather patterns. In the last twelve years, there have been seven erratic weather events – from droughts to extreme winters – a sobering statistic, considering the fact that there had only been three such extreme weather events in the 60 years leading up to the year 2000. These changes create added demand for suitable grazing land and put more stress on the ecology and herding communities like the Dukha.
Reindeer antlers are trimmed before the migration to make it possible to move through the thick forest.
Bad weather, overhunting, wolves and mining are unfortunately not the only problems for reindeer herds. Another major factor in their declining population are the effects of inbreeding and disease. For thousands of years, the Dukha have been experts in reindeer husbandry – a skill passed down through families for generations. In the past, this was sufficient to keep the herds strong and healthy, but sadly it is perhaps no longer enough.
A Dukha herder named Davaajav
Unfortunately, much of the collective knowledge about reindeer husbandry was lost during the mismanagement of the Soviet years. Inbreeding among herds meant weaker stock that was more susceptible to diseases such as brucellosis. Caused by bacteria, brucellosis leads to reproductive problems and joint swelling in the animals it infects. Researchers think that up to a quarter of the Dukha reindeer herd may have the disease.
In the old days, pole houses were covered with reindeer hide; now, canvas is used.
Even those reindeer uninfected by brucellosis are showing the other adverse signs of inbreeding. For one thing, new calves are born small and sickly. Females will also sometimes be born with fewer teats and, when they reach child-bearing age, give birth to twins, which normally die – two clear signs that there is not enough genetic variety in the herd.
Taking apart the portable pole house to get ready to move.
During the 1960s and 1980s, the Soviet government tried to deal with the low population and inbreeding problem by replenishing the herd with reindeer from Siberia. Since the fall of the USSR, however, there have been no more outside additions. While some suggest bringing in reindeer, or at least their semen, from herds in Siberia, or from even further climes such as Canada or Scandinavia, the matter remains a topic of debate among researchers.
A pause in the preparations
As suggested, not everyone agrees that introducing foreign stock into these reindeer herds is a good idea. Some think that introducing new genes will mess with the generations of adaptations the Dukha have bred into the taiga reindeer to make them suitable for their use, particularly as transport animals. Opponents have also pointed out that molecular research has been done on the taiga herds, and that so far they have been found to be no more inbred than many other similar populations. The research continues.
The pole houses are anchored by three pine trunks tied together; about a dozen other pine trunks are then balanced around them.
Yet despite these objections, plans to introduce new blood to the herd continue. According to a Dukha herder Bayandalai, it is definitely a good idea. “The reindeer our ancestors used to herd were healthy,” he says. “Today I have only one wish, and that is for the government to bring in reindeer from Siberia, Scandinavia, or Canada. If not reindeer, then reindeer semen.”
The canvas coverings are draped over the structure, overlapping one another on a gradient, so that rainwater always runs along the seams in a spiralling motion.
Getting the semen from its source – probably in North America – to the Dukha will be a challenge in itself. The precious fluid will need to be frozen and kept in a container of liquid nitrogen, which will then have to be carried across the Mongolian steppe on horseback, before it completes its journey by reindeer. Quite an adventure for a vial of reindeer sperm!
A herder leads his reindeer.
Whatever impact inbreeding has on the health of the reindeer herds, there are also other factors contributing to the problem. One of these is the increasingly stationary lifestyle of the Dukha people. Once, the Dukha were nomadic wanderers, but the younger generations are being lured to settle down by the promise of schools and consumer goods. Border closings, such as that between Mongolia and Russia, and the degradation and commercial use of land, also mean the Dukha are not as free to graze their herds as they once were.
Like reindeer, horses are an important form of transportation in the taiga.
This restricted movement means the reindeer herds now have difficulty getting the lichen they need for nutrition. The Dukha also believe that the disruption of natural migration patterns, as well as climate change, has led to more health problems like parasites and diseases. They also blame increased transportation of the reindeer from the taiga to the steppe, and the contact they make with livestock along the way, for spreading infection. Added to this is the limited availability of veterinary care for sick animals.
Most Dukha children live in the closest town, 8 hours away by horse, in order to attend school.
On the positive side, organizations such as UNEP and international NGOs are working to help the people of the taiga retain their culture and way of life. UNEP has made several proposals, including making a record of traditional Dukha knowledge and promoting biodiversity in the region. They also propose that strategies be drawn up for future land use and that this be closely monitored for its impact on the environment.
Meat, when available, is distributed between all members of the tribe.
UNEP also advises that tourism be regulated so that it has a positive rather than negative impact on the sensitive ecosystem. For this, they recommend talks between tour operators, local government, land users and herders to reach agreements for the benefit of all. Further, they suggest that current hunting regulations be evaluated to measure their impact on the Dukha and their means of support.
The Dukha of the taiga
Of utmost importance will be a program to grow the reindeer herds and provide them with veterinary care using, as UNEP say, both Western and traditional knowledge. Aiding them in this is a New York-based organization, The Totem Peoples Project, which is raising funds to research the diseases and health problems of the taiga reindeer as well as lobbying the local government for more support for the Dukha.
A woman tending to one of the reindeer
“Reindeer are more than simply the animal which provides a livelihood in the taiga,” says Daniel Plumley, founder of the Totem Peoples Project. “They represent the culture here. Without the reindeer, the culture would cease to exist.” Batulga, a Dukha reindeer specialist, agrees. “Without the reindeer we are not Dukha,” he says.
Of the current work being done to help the Dukha and their herds, Batulga says, “We have had success in our difficult work, but we have only just begun. We give our deepest thanks to all who can help us, the Dukha, to continue the proud way of our people.”
For our part, we can only hope that efforts to keep alive the millennia-old way of life for these reindeer nomads prove successful, and that the Dukha people and their herds will always remain part of the Mongolian taiga.