Reindeer Decline Threatens Mongolian Nomads

Lorne Matalon in Tsagaannuur, Mongolia
for National Geographic News
October 12, 2004
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.

Veterinary Research

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.

The researchers have already determined 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 and, in turn, causes stillbirths or abnormally small offspring. The bacteria also trigger bursitis, a swelling of the joints that is a particularly menacing condition for a nomadic animal.

"Our initial results indicate that brucellosis is a problem. We found a higher prevalence than we expected," Haigh said.

"There is little doubt that action needs to be taken to try and bring this situation under control, both for the health of the animals and for the well-being of the Tsaatan themselves," he said.

Nansalmaa believes the blood parasite anaplasma has also infected and caused sickness in the herd.

Keay, the Colorado wildlife biologist, said, "The health of the herd is substandard. It will remain insufficient to sustain a pastorally dependent human culture if action is not taken."

In the past the Tsaatan depended on state-financed veterinary care provided by Mongolia's communist government, which was toppled in a bloodless, democratic revolution 15 years ago.

The country now enjoys democracy, but herders must fend for themselves in a free market economy. Today the Tsaatan depend on animal care provided by specialists like Haigh, Keay, and Nansalmaa, who visit the taiga during their personal vacation time.

Inbreeding and Economics

Bulls and cows in the Tsaatan herd grow velvety racks of antlers. Most of the reindeer have coats of mottled charcoal. A few are pure white.

Very few bulls remain to impregnate cows, making inbreeding a pressing concern. Inbreeding causes bone deformities, vulnerability to disease, and lameness, a potentially fatal affliction. (Wolves can kill weak or slow reindeer when they fall behind the fast-moving herd.)

"In 1962 and again in the late eighties, the government of Mongolia brought in reindeer from a Siberian herd to replenish the genetic stock of the reindeer in the taiga," Nansalmaa said.

"But since the fall of communism, with state financial and veterinary support for herders ending, inbreeding began, and its negative consequences were soon apparent."

Tsaatan herder Bayandalai owns 97 reindeer—the largest herd on the taiga.

"The reindeer our ancestors used to herd were healthy," he said 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."

"Herders here represent one of the last truly nomadic cultures on Earth," Nansalmaa said. "I'll do what I can to preserve the health of the herd by analyzing … blood and tissue samples."

"But without a solution to the problem of inbreeding," she continued, "the herd's health will remain compromised."

The veterinarian hopes the nomads resist the temptation to move to lower altitudes. Some Tsaatan have brought their reindeer to a lake where, for a fee, they pose with their reindeer for tourist cameras.

"Moving the animals to lower regions means the reindeer are stationary and living in hotter climates," Nansalmaa said.

"Remaining in one place is unsuitable for animals used to constant movement. And hotter temperatures in the summer leave the animals vulnerable to insects and the parasites the insects carry, making them weak just as winter arrives."

Nansalmaa and her colleagues will use the data they've collected to recommend antibiotic and vaccine treatments for the herd.

At the herders' request, the specialists also plan to begin a program of artificial insemination next year. Donor bulls in Canada have been identified.

"Artificial insemination is a key to regenerating the size and [genetic] quality of the herd," said Haigh, the University of Saskatchewan veterinarian.

The practice has proven effective in boosting the vigor of struggling animal populations, according to Keay.

The health of more than an animal population lies in the balance.

Speaking of the Tsaatan, Nansalmma said, "They have a unique relationship with their reindeer. We want to help the taiga people live a full life, as their ancestors did for generations."

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