"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.

The researchers say blood samples they took from the Dukha's herds, which have now been analyzed independently by scientists in Canada, cast doubt on the theory.

Other wildlife veterinarians disagree, however, arguing that untreated disease and inbreeding have culled the reindeer population. (Read related article.)

Genetic Variation

Olson said, "Although heterozygosity [a measure of genetic variation] was low, if compared to free-ranging caribou [wild reindeer] it is not lower than other wild healthy populations in parts of Asia and North America. This is not low enough that one would expect to see any signs of immune system deficiencies or reduction of fertility. In fact, the herders estimated that all of their adult females conceived last winter."

There have been moves to import animals from Scandinavia and elsewhere in an attempt to introduce new blood to the Dukha reindeer herds. Olson, however, cautions against this.

He said low genetic diversity is a natural part of the domestication process and that Dukha reindeer are selected for traits such as passiveness and strong backs that support saddles and riders.

Olson said herders told him that wild reindeer bulls sometimes mated with the domesticated reindeer, but the offspring were aggressive and had weak backs. "These deer were useless and killed," he said.

Sardar and Olson believe the real causes of declining herds are linked to social changes following the collapse of communism in Mongolia 15 years ago and emerging pressures on the northern taiga. For instance, the pair found that herds often didn't have enough fertile females to keep numbers stable.

Sardar said, "The younger generation of Dukha who brought the reindeer back from the defunct state farms had probably lost the wisdom of breeding after 50 years of communism."

And as herders move away from the taiga to take advantage of new schools and medical facilities in towns, Sardar said their reindeer are denied rich summer grazing in mountain pastures. "They may not be getting the proper nutrition they need," he added.

But what most concerns Sardar and Olson are threats to the Dukha's traditional taiga heartlands.

They say an upsurge in commercial hunting for deer, wild boar, moose, and other animals has meant that wolves now have to search for alternative prey. "Most families we talked to in the taiga complained about wolves," Sardar said. "In fact, wolf predation seemed to be the principal cause of fatality among the herds."

And like Ghosta, other Dukha are forced to eat their own animals as subsistence hunting becomes more difficult, Sardar said.

Hunting Trips

"Everyone said the wildlife is being wiped out," Olson added. "Instead of a one-day trip to the hunting grounds, people said they were now away four to five days and at times forced to cross into Tyva," a neighboring republic in the Russian Federation.

Olson said some Dukha have told him that ibex and argali sheep have both disappeared within the last 15 years since the arrival of Chinese traders who traffic in animalparts.

Olson said other targets include brown bears, sought for their gall bladders and paws; red deer, culled for antlers, tails and penises; and musk deer, killed for their musk glands.

"With both men and wolves eating reindeer, the rate of loss is greater than the herds' reproductive rate," Sardar said.

He cautions that the discovery of gold in parts of Mongolia's northern and western taiga may also threaten the Dukha. Sardar said mining rights have already been sold by government to politically powerful holding companies.

"For a cash-starved developing nation like Mongolia, the taiga appears more as an untapped source of income than a conservation priority," he said.

Nor, he said, is the Mongolian taiga taken sufficiently seriously at an international level. "Wildlife conservationists don't consider the taiga to be a primary concern, because it is devoid of rare and exotic species."

Sardar advocates the creation of a wilderness reserve covering some 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles). Taking in the Dukha's traditional territory, this area would extend into neighboring Tyva.

It's only by conserving the taiga's wildlife, Sardar said, that the Dukha's ancient and extraordinary culture can be saved.

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