When Reindeer Can’t Roam

In Mongolia, the conflict between preserving wilderness and conserving culture is coming to a head.

The log cabin that Galaa Erdenechimeg built looks sturdy—a rudimentary structure with four low sides, a stove planted in the middle, and solar panels propped next to its steel door. Outside, conifer boughs bristle with hoar frost, rendered otherworldly by the frigid winter air. Two reindeer, tied to the trees, nose around the ice-covered ground in search of lichen.

Erdenechimeg says his new home was an experiment in trial and error. “Someone who’s more experienced than me would have probably only taken two to three days, but I took five months,” he says.

His inexperience is understandable. For 26-year-old Erdenechimeg and his family, the cabin is a break from tradition. He is a Dukha, one of a dwindling group of about 300 nomadic reindeer herders that live in northern Mongolia’s snow forest, or taiga, located in Khovsghol Province. The Dukha have long structured their lives around the reindeer’s grazing patterns, sleeping in portable, canvas-lined teepees that can be assembled and disassembled in half a day.

The cabin can’t be dismantled and carried away, but that’s part of its appeal. It offers stability in a changing world, one in which Erdenechimeg and his people are being forced to choose between obeying new laws or centuries-old traditions, between respecting conservation dictates at the cost of their livelihoods or hunting illegally, which may ultimately threaten the environment that has sustained them for generations.

For more than 200 years, the Dukha have shaped their lives around the needs of their reindeer, crisscrossing the taiga throughout the year in search of conditions that keep the animals healthy. But in 2011, the Mongolian government created a protection zone in the taiga, intended to preserve land that had been increasingly impacted by mining and hunting. For the Dukha, the restrictions have felt like a moratorium on their very existence, a way of life deeply intertwined with the health of the ecosystem.

Changes like these are playing out around the world, from jungles of the Congo Basin to rainforests in Canada to this small population of reindeer herders in Mongolia. Indigenous cultures predate political borders, yet government officials—faced with diminishing resources and looking to protect what’s left—sometimes find it necessary to impose restrictions on native lands. How they make those decisions, where they draw the lines, and whether they include indigenous people in the planning and implementation of conservation regulations can determine whether their efforts will ultimately fail or succeed.

No one talks about how our protection of the taiga will protect these people and their culture.

—Tumursukh Jal, director of the Ulaan Taiga

Even the most accessible of the Dukha winter camps is difficult to reach from the outside world. A distance that looks like an easy trek on a map can translate into a 9-hour drive through snow and across frozen rivers, followed by another 3 hours on horseback through dense forest. Here the Dukha will stay until the ice begins to thaw in April.

At that time, Erdenechimeg and his family will move back into their teepee in an area of the taiga where the climate is still mild. “That’s when the reindeer start giving birth,” he explains. “The new babies are really sensitive to cold temperatures.” Later in the year, when the calves are hardier, the family will move the herd again, this time to a summer camp higher in the mountains, where reindeer forage will be plentiful.

Seasonal migrations across the taiga are in the Dukhas’ blood. They are descendants of nomads from Tuva—a territory in Russian Siberia—who wandered throughout East Asia and Eastern Europe for thousands of years.

Then in the 1930s, the Soviet Union tightened its borders and forced the nomadic herders to remain in Mongolia. For years following the restrictions, many Dukha worked for Mongolia’s socialist government as hunters, trappers, and fishermen, selling meat, pelts, and fish to Russia and China. They used this income to establish a more comfortable way of life and to create a sense of a belonging in their adopted country. But as their small community thrived, the populations of the animals they hunted began to plummet.

When Mongolia’s socialist government collapsed in 1992, areas of the country that were reliant on government subsidies struggled to find their place in a new, market-driven economy. The Dukha, their hunting skills no longer needed and much of their nomadic lands off-limits, were left disconnected from a world that no longer had a place for them.

Some Dukha adapted by finding other means of income—serving in the Mongolian military or by herding commercial livestock, like sheep and goats. Some sent their children to school in neighboring towns. But Dukha who wished to remain close to their reindeer herds and nomadic roots only became more isolated.

As Mongolia struggled to transition to its newly established democratic government, hunting within the taiga continued at an increasing rate. Some of this pressure was attributed to outsiders pouring into Mongolia, eager to exploit the country’s resources.

But Uwugdorj Delger, 62, one of the oldest Dukhas in the region who worked as a ranger at the time, blames it mostly on his tribe. “Honestly, the number of the wildlife rapidly decreased because of us,” he says, explaining that the main issue he encountered as a ranger was trying to change the minds of members of a community who felt entitled to the taiga’s resources. “People used to respond, ‘This is all we have. It belongs to us, so we can hunt whatever we want,’” he says.

When deposits of jade and gold were discovered in the region, the environmental concerns only grew. Both corporations and individual miners began scouring the taiga, eager to strike it rich. The Dukha were no exception, hiring themselves out as guides to independent “ninja miners” (nicknamed for their habit of sneaking into forbidden terrain). Some simply took up a pail and started digging.

Such unbridled exploitation, which, at times, ended in violent clashes, eventually prompted the government to step in.

Tumursukh Jal began working in conservation in Khovsgol Province in the midst of the chaos. His job would not be easy. Among other issues, he faced the threat of environmental devastation from unregulated mining activities and dwindling wildlife populations, including precariously low numbers of endangered snow leopards (Panthera uncia) and Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica). On top of that, he knew that the Dukha—some of whom had been his classmates in school—would most certainly be affected by any new environmental regulations that might be imposed.

Over the course of two decades, Jal and his colleagues convinced the local government to cancel 44 mining permits within the province. They also successfully lobbied the national government to establish a zone of three protected areas west of Khovsgol Lake, including Tengis-Shishged National Park. Jal is now the director of this conservation zone.

Tengis-Shishged encompasses nearly 875,711 hectares (3,400 square miles), with its northern edge along the Russian border and its southern edge abutting the Dukhas’ winter camps. At its center is the taiga, where the Dukha have traditionally spent much of the year grazing their reindeer herds and hunting. Grazing is still allowed in the park but now hunting is forbidden. And because borders are sometimes unclear and enforcement inconsistent, distrust and resentment has set in on both sides—among the Dukha and the park rangers. The Dukha say they have been chased out of the park for doing nothing more than grazing their herds, while rangers say they have reason to believe that some Dukha are using their reindeer as cover for illegal hunting activities.

Conservation Zones in Northern Mongolia

In 2011, Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Green Development designated two conservation zones in the country’s northernmost reaches. The southern portion, called Ulaan Taiga, is a strictly protected wilderness area, where human activity and infrastructure are restricted. To the north, the Tengis-Shishged National Park allows for tourism and other recreational uses that can contribute to the local economy. In 2015, the conservation areas were named a sister park to Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

While Jal is aware of the Dukhas’ criticism of the zone, he stands by his convictions and points to increases in wildlife populations as a measure of his success. Since his rangers began patrolling the taiga in 2012, the moose population rebounded, from near zero to almost 200 by 2016, he says. Red deer (Cervus elaphus), a common species before the turn of the century but rarely seen in the past decade, have also done well, with a population now nearing 1,000. Argali sheep (Ovis ammon) increased from 30 in 2010 to nearly 100 in 2016. And the Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), which had all but disappeared in 2000, Jal says, now number nearly 300. “These are beautiful numbers to us,” he says.

He also bristles at the notion that the regulations threaten Dukha culture. “All they see is that we are stopping them from hunting or restricting their grazing grounds,” Jal says. “But no one talks about how our protection of the taiga will protect these people and their culture.” He and others insist that safeguarding the taiga will also safeguard the livelihoods that depend on it.

Despite the recent gains, the rangers’ suspicions are not entirely unfounded; there are still signs of hunting activity in the Dukha camps, although it’s not openly discussed. Rangers have also found Dukha guiding ninja miners from outside the taiga along the mineral-rich trails. “The ninjas are back in the protected area and mining jade illegally. Some Tsaatans have helped them to get there,” Jal says, using a Mongolian term for the Dukha meaning “reindeer people.”

“I don’t understand why they are doing this,” he says.

One obvious reason is that it provides a source of income. Ganbat Sandag, a Dukha community leader, says he tried panning for gold during the mining boom years ago. “At that time, I didn’t have any money, so I participated in the mining,” he says. “A lot of people did it, and I thought, ‘Why can’t I do it too?’”

Today, Sandag’s main form of income comes from tourism. Six years ago, he built cabins like Erdenechimeg’s in his winter camps to house visitors more comfortably. He supplements that income by carving and selling souvenirs made from reindeer antlers. Unfortunately for him, the remote location limits the number of tourists who will ever make the trek here, so it’s not a viable livelihood on its own.

Many Dukha are in the same boat. As they see it, the conservation zone has impinged on their movements, their freedom. They’re now limited by rules they had no part in establishing. And because they can’t hunt, Erdenechimeg says they’ve had to resort to slaughtering their reindeer for meat during the leaner winter months, a practice anathema to their beliefs and best interests.

“Before the regulations were in place, people could hunt for whatever they needed: boar, fox, wolf. And the furs we got from hunting, we could use it for clothing if we needed it or we could sell it for money,” he says. Reindeer used to be exclusively for transport and milk. “Now we rely on our reindeer for money or food.”

Although involving indigenous communities in conservation plans has certainly not been the norm, it can work. But doing so requires time, patience, and open communication between scientists, conservation practitioners, and the local communities most impacted by new regulations.

The best-known example of such collaboration took place in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. Last year, a 20-year negotiation resulted in a landmark agreement for a tract of land along the coast of British Columbia. It granted the provincial government and the region’s indigenous inhabitants, the First Nations, equal rights and responsibility in managing 6.4 million hectares (about 24,700 square miles). (To learn more about this agreement, see the bioGraphic story, “How to Save a Rainforest”.)

For the Dukha, a similar agreement would require improved communication about the conservation objectives and the path to achieving them. While Jal feels strongly that his tactics will save their culture, the Dukha view his approach as paternalistic and culturally insensitive, leaving them feeling like prisoners on their own land.

Fortunately, there may be a path forward. According to Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Mongolia’s former minister of culture, sports, and tourism, a legal framework exists that could help both sides reach an agreement. Tsedevdamba authored a law on the protection of cultural heritage that was passed by Mongolia’s parliament in 2014 and that might be used in conjunction with environmental laws that govern national parks.

Earlier cultural-heritage laws in the country were focused on museum sites or monuments. But the newer legislation protects living communities as well as their traditional lifestyles and the environments necessary for their cultures to flourish. “This could be a new avenue for the Tsaatan community, because they are forced to live in a highly elevated taiga, and because the only life they know is herding reindeer,” she says. “Reindeer can’t live healthily in lower altitudes.”

Tsedevdamba, who is herself from Khovsgol Province, points to an example from the Orkhon Valley. Historians consider the Orkhon Valley to be the cradle of Mongolian culture, where archeologists have discovered remains from 6th century Turkish memorials, and 8th century evidence of the Uighur capital of Khar Balgas. But prior to 2014, Orkhon Valley also faced the threat of mining.

People there didn’t know how to begin a dialogue about protecting their cultural heritage, she says. “But historians, iconologists, and researchers all got together and started meeting with local people.”

Spreading education and awareness among the herders in the Orkhon Valley took at least a decade, she says. But today, the indigenous people are considered activists in their own right, well-versed in both the tangible and intangible benefits of the protection.

The protected area—about 122,000 hectares (470 square miles)—now includes territorial boundaries, dedicated ecological sites, important historical locations, and limits on livestock density. Mongolian herders can graze their sheep, yaks, and goats in the Orkhon Valley in a way that reflects the traditions of their ancestors, while protecting the landscape and managing mining and tourism development.

Tsedevdamba says that the Dukhas’ uniqueness—the fact that the survival of their culture depends on the survival of their reindeer, which in turn depends on the survival of the taiga—should similarly qualify their lands as a cultural heritage site. Such a declaration, she says, could create the common ground necessary for environmental protections to be both enacted and respected.

Despite recent tensions between the Dukha and Jal’s rangers, all parties acknowledge the decrease in ninja miners since the patrols began. Jal says that eliminating these outsiders and restoring the animal population were his top priorities, and he believes that these changes will eventually help to bring the Dukha around to his point of view. “We have all experienced how easily animals can disappear,” Jal says.

Now he sees solid evidence showing that, when wildlife is protected against overhunting, their populations can rebound. What remains to be seen is whether his methods of protecting those animals and their land can be compatible with the human culture that evolved alongside them.

Additional reporting for this story provided by Munkhbat Batbekh.

Map by James Davidson

Dene-Hern Chen

Dene-Hern Chen is a freelance reporter based in Bangkok, Thailand. She has published stories in Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed, South China Morning Post, Al Jazeera, TIME, and many others.

Taylor Weidman

Weidman is an American photojournalist working in Southeast and Central Asia. Most of his editorial assignments cover breaking news and features, while his self-driven work concentrates on intimate, often overlooked stories. He has co-authored three books on indigenous cultures and is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

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