"Reindeer People" Resort to Eating Their Herds

James Owen
for National Geographic News
November 4, 2004

Ghosta is a shaman who lives with his reindeer in the remote forests of northwestern Mongolia. He believes these sacred forests will die if he and his dwindling tribe of Dukha reindeer people abandon their ancestral homeland. (See photos of the "reindeer people.")

Yet if the Dukha do leave, it's they themselves who are almost certain to die out.

This, at least, is the conclusion of Hamid Sardar, a Harvard-trained anthropologist with the Geneva, Switzerland-based Axis-Mundi Foundation. Sardar recently spent three years on the trail of Mongolia's last nomadic reindeer herders.

"The survival of the Dukha and their reindeer will directly depend on efforts to preserve their forest and the wild animals that live here," he said.

The Dukha, or Tsaatan, are an ancient people of Turk descent who are first mentioned in the annals of China's Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). They have evolved a unique way of life, dependent both on reindeer and the forests where the Dukha hunt.

Ghosta, who camps with a herd of around 70 reindeer, relies on the animals for his livelihood. In addition to milk and cheese, the reindeer provide transportation for hunting, taking the nomad deep into the forest where he his shaman forebears have been entombed in trees.

Ghosta, like other Dukha, believes his ancestors' ghosts live on in the forest as animals that give guidance to the living.

But the nomad told Sardar that wildlife is disappearing and, as a result, so are his reindeer. Without meat, Ghosta has had no choice but to start eating his own precious animals, Sardar said.

The anthropologist found that other Dukha herds are also in decline. Sardar said only around 200 herding reindeer are left in the Mongolian taiga (northern coniferous forest) today. (Some wildlife biologists put the country's entire reindeer population at 667.)

With the help of Kirk Olson, a biologist from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Sardar aimed to learn why the reindeer herds are shrinking.

Last winter the pair traveled to the mountain valley taiga of Hovsgol Province to investigate one potential explanation: that inbreeding between the domesticated reindeer has weakened their immune systems, leaving them susceptible to disease and reduced fertility.

Continued on Next Page >>


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