for National Geographic News
For centuries the nomadic Tsaatan people have roamed the taiga of northern Mongolia, raising the reindeer that provide their livelihood.
But untreated disease and inbreeding now threaten the reindeer herds, and today the future of the Tsaatan's 3,000-year-old culture is uncertain. (See photos of the Tsaatan and their reindeer.)
Veterinarians have determined that Mongolia's domesticated reindeer population has fallen to 667 animals. The decline continues a decades-long trend. In 1990 there were more than a thousand reindeer. In 1977 the herd exceeded 2,000 animals.
"Our culture is deeply connected with reindeer herding," said Sanjim, 61, a Tsaatan elder and herder.
Sanjim said the herd's decline has prompted some young Tsaatan to consider other options. "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," he said. Taiga is moist subarctic forest dominated by evergreen trees.
In a nation defined by nomadic cultures, the Tsaatan comprise Mongolia's smallest. Only 44 families, or 207 Tsaatan, maintain a nomadic life that is culturally and economically tied to the health of their reindeer.
The nomadic herders live in a fragile environment bordered by the Siberian boreal forest to the north and the steppes of inner Asia to the south. They represent the southernmost nomadic reindeer culture in the world.
Myagar Nansalmaa, a veterinarian with the Mongolian State Veterinary Laboratory in Ulaanbaatar, is one of three researchers who are currently investigating the health problems of the reindeer.
Joining her quest to help the animals, and the Tsaatan, are Jerry Haigh, a past president of the American College of Zoological Medicine and a veterinarian at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, and Morgan Keay, a wildlife biologist based in Boulder, Colorado.
The trio are currently analyzing genetic samples they collected from the reindeer during a recent research trip to Mongolia.
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