On the road with the nomadic reindeer herders of Mongolia
An early morning mist filled the valley near Hatgal, a small village at the southern end of Lake Khovsgol in north-central Mongolia. Looking at the silhouettes between the pines and the fragrant larches, I could barely distinguish the silhouettes of the reindeer from those of their herders.
Darima Delger, 64, and her husband, Uwugdorj Delger, 66, gathered their things and dismantled a rusty stove. They threw a coat over the shoulders of their grandchildren who were already sitting on the backs of their animals. The family herd stood as motionless as in a Flemish painting. Everyone was waiting to leave.
The sound of tent poles colliding – mixed with a whirlwind of authoritative voices – left little doubt: the transhumance to the herdsmen’s summer camp was underway.
Darima and Uwugdorj’s family are part of a small group of semi-nomadic reindeer herders known as Dukha or Tsaatan. There are only a few hundred left here in northern Mongolia. Their lives revolve around their domesticated reindeer, which provide them with much of their daily needs, including milk (used in tea, and to make yogurt and cheese), leather, and transportation. The velvety antlers of the animals, when removed, are sold for use in medicine and dietary supplements. Very few animals are killed for their meat – perhaps one or two a year.
The decision to move the herd was not easy. For the past few years, Uwugdorj explained, they have moved the reindeer about every month. “We were actually following them,” he laughs. “Reindeer are smarter than us.”
But now the rain and snow cycles are changing, Uwugdorj said. The weather in the taiga, the subarctic forest where animals thrive, has become less predictable. Lichen, a staple in the reindeer diet, is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Additionally, reindeer populations – affected by disease, historical mismanagement and wolf predation – have declined.
“If we’re wrong, we’re putting the whole herd at risk,” Uwugdorj said as he checked his saddle straps. Then, jumping on his reindeer, he launched the impatient procession along a thick strip of snow.
On horseback, I could barely keep up with the herd. Compared to reindeer, horses move like elephants.
Despite his injured knee, Uwugdorj slipped through the pines and disappeared from sight. With Darima and their daughter, I scrutinized the few reindeer weakened by winter. Between efforts, I watched the looks exchanged by the family. Their faces seemed to recognize the uncertainty. “If we lose our animals,” Darima told me at one point, “we lose everything.”
After arriving at the new pasture in the pouring rain, the group’s teepee-like tents, called ortz, were pitched with astonishing speed. Twenty families were migrating.
Darima is out milking the reindeer. After tying the animals to stakes for the night, everyone gathered around a crackling fire.
The Dukha originate from the Tuva region in Russia to the north. Tuva was for many years an independent country, until it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. As children under communist rule, Uwugdorj and Darima were sent to boarding schools and endured countless attempts to erase their identities , they said. Uwugdorj remembers escaping from the village at night because it was too hot in the dormitories. “We were hungry, we were cold,” he said. During the winters, pieces of reindeer skin were boiled into a broth which he swallowed to survive. The furs went to wealthy customers in the cities.
With their savings, Uwugdorj and Darima built a house in the village of Tsagaannuur, west of Lake Khövsgöl, so that their grandchildren could be properly educated.
The next morning, walking through the moss and lichen, I met a septuagenarian who was milking her six reindeer. She told me how life changed dramatically for the Dukha when the northern border was redrawn – families were separated, their seasonal migrations were slowed down. Many Dukha became refugees in the Soviet Union or Mongolia. “We wanted to escape,” she says, “from the people who forbade us to live in the taiga.”
Every summer, a steady stream of tourists – from countries like China, Israel, the United States and New Zealand – crosses the taiga to visit the ranchers. But not all Dukha families take advantage of visitors. Instead, they make a living selling antlers and hides, collecting pine seeds and receiving small grants, although “it’s not enough to raise our family”, said Dawasurun Mangaljav, 28. , who spoke to me alongside her husband, Galbadrakh, who is 34.
“Foreigners think we are free,” Dawasurun said. In fact, she says, money is a constant problem. During the summer, the children of Dawasurun and Galbadrakh live with them in the taiga. They will return to school each September, but only if parents can afford it.
On my last day with the Dukha, I went with Uwugdorj to inspect the herd.
Uwugdorj, who previously worked as a hunter for the government, knows the terrain. The climate, he said, is changing; he can see it. Since the 1940s, the average temperature in the boreal forests of Mongolia has increased by nearly four degrees Fahrenheit, more than double the global average.
“We are not statues in a museum,” Uwugdorj said. “We are like our reindeer: on the move.”
And their fight, he added, is to persevere in a world that seems determined to challenge their way of life.