The Reindeer People
Produced by Lorne Matalon
Co-produced by Allan
Photographs by Lorne Matalon (7:45)
Mekhertin, grandson of the herder Sanjim, rides back to the
family camp. Children are proficient
riders by age 2 or 3.
For thousands of years, reindeer herders have roamed the
taiga of northern Mongolia, a hauntingly beautiful
wilderness of mountains, forest, rock and ice which
straddles the country's border with Siberia. The herders,
known as the Tsaschin, or Dukha, rely on their animals
for transportation, and for the staples of their diet:
milk, cheese, yogurt and dried milk curds.
and inbreeding have reduced the Tsachin's herds from
more than 2,000 in the 1970s to less than one-third
of that today. And that, in turn, has threatened the Tsachin's way
are more than simply the animal which provides a livelihood
in the taiga," says
Daniel Plumley of the Totem Peoples Project, an NGO
based in New York state. "They represent the culture here. Without
the reindeer, the culture would cease to exist."
Through his NGO, Plumley has been raising funds for veterinary research. He has also been lobbying the Mongolian government to recognize the Tsachin—with just 44 families, Mongolia's smallest nomadic group—as a unique society deserving of official support. State financial and veterinary assistance for the herders was withdrawn with the fall of communism in the early 1990s.
Sanjim's wife, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in their oortz. The wooden poles are left in the encampment, while the canvas is brought along each time the herders move, about every eight weeks.
Never more endangered
says it's in everyone's best interest that the Tsachin
survive in their native habitat. They are responsible stewards of the land,
he says, with a deep knowledge of plants, weather and
animals that they've accumulated over the centuries. "It
is a culture which we in the West can learn from," he says.
But the future of the Tsachin has never been more endangered. The government is urging them to settle down. The herds are dwindling. And the world around them is changing. Many Tsachin children go to school in towns, where they are exposed to television and consumer goods. They know that the nomadic life provides little in the way of cash, or opportunity for social advancement.
"One of my fears is that the young people may decide to leave the taiga, and that old people like me will end up alone," says Sanjim, a Tsachin elder.
Breaking the cycle
Sanjim and veterinarian Nansalmaa treat a reindeer with antibiotics. Sanjim depends on Nanasalmaa and the North Americans she works with for the veterinary support that was once provided by the state.
Myagmar Nansalmaa, a veterinarian with the Mongolian State Veterinary Laboratory in Ulaanbaatar, hopes that strengthening the herds will help prevent that from happening. She is one of several
researchers who are currently investigating the health problems of the
reindeer. Since the government ceased providing support for the Tsachin,
Nansalmaa has been traveling to the taiga during her own vacation time.
she has teamed up with Plumley, Jerry Haigh of the
University of Saskatchewan, Canada, and Morgan Keay, a wildlife
biologist based in Boulder, Colorado.
have found that a significant portion of the reindeer
population is plagued by Brucella suis, bacteria that cause
a serious form of brucellosis. The infectious disease
attacks the reindeer's reproductive system, causing
stillbirths or abnormally small offspring. The bacteria
also trigger bursitis, a swelling of the joints that
is particularly debilitating for nomadic animals.
Nansalmaa believes the blood parasite anaplasma has also infected the
The poor health of the herd sets a vicious cycle in motion.
As the animals' health declines, life in the taiga becomes more difficult. Herders are tempted to settle in
towns, or to move to lower altitudes. Some have brought their reindeer to a lake
where, for a fee, they pose with their reindeer for tourists.
Sanjim's grandson, Mekhertin. Of Sanjim's thirteen children, only three have elected to remain nomads.
"Remaining in one place is unsuitable for animals used to constant
movement," Nansalmaa says. "And hotter temperatures in the
summer leave the animals vulnerable to insects, and
to the parasites the insects carry, making them weak
just as winter arrives."
Strengthening the stock
may be the greatest concern, Nansalmaa says. Inbreeding
causes bone deformities, vulnerability to disease,
and lameness, a frequently fatal affliction. Wolves
can easily kill weak or slow reindeer when they fall
behind the herd.
"In 1962 and again in the late 1980s, the government of Mongolia
brought in reindeer from a Siberian herd to replenish
the genetic stock of the reindeer in the taiga," Nansalmaa says. "But
with state support for herders ending, inbreeding began,
and its negative consequences were soon apparent."
The herder Bayandalai owns 97 reindeer—the largest
herd in the taiga. "The reindeer our ancestors used to herd were
says wistfully. "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 herder Bayandalai beside his oortz. He has made repeated pleas to the government to import reindeer semen to improve the genetic stock of the herd.
"Artificial insemination is a key to regenerating the size and
genetic quality of the herd," says Haigh, the Saskatchewan veterinarian.
Haigh and his colleagues have identified donor bulls
in Canada, and hope to begin an insemination program
in the coming months.
"Herders here represent one of the last truly nomadic cultures on Earth," says Myagmar Nansalmaa. "We want to help the taiga people live a full life, just as their ancestors did."
Totem Peoples Project
Thanks to the herders of the East and West Taiga of Mongolia
and their families; to translators Ganhuyag Demid, Gerelt Od Dash,
Bayar Lhavgasuren, Binderiya Dondov and Badamtsetseg Tsedennya; to Peter Marsh
(Director, American Center for Mongolian Studies), Stevan Buxt
(Mongolia country chief, PACT), Morgan Keay (founder, Itgel
Foundation), Daniel Plumley (founder, Totem Peoples
Nansalmaa (Mongolian State
Veterinary Laboratory), Anna Sirena (fellow, Russian Academy of Sciences); and special thanks to Allan Coukell for his companionship and collaboration.