For thousands of years, reindeer herders have roamed the taiga of northern Mongolia, a hauntingly beautiful wilderness of mountains, forest, rock and ice which straddles the country’s border with Siberia. The herders, known as the Tsaschin, or Dukha, rely on their animals for transportation, and for the staples of their diet: milk, cheese, yogurt, and dried milk curds.
But disease and inbreeding have reduced the Tsachin’s herds from more than 2,000 in the 1970s to less than one-third of that today. And that, in turn, has threatened the Tsachin’s way of life.
“Reindeer are more than simply the animal which provides a livelihood in the taiga,” says Daniel Plumley of the Totem Peoples Project, an NGO based in New York state. “They represent the culture here. Without the reindeer, the culture would cease to exist.”
Through his NGO, Plumley has been raising funds for veterinary research. He has also been lobbying the Mongolian government to recognize the Tsachin – with just 44 families, Mongolia’s smallest nomadic group – as a unique society deserving of official support. State financial and veterinary assistance for the herders was withdrawn with the fall of communism in the early 1990s.
Never more endangered
Plumley says it’s in everyone’s best interest that the Tsachin survive in their native habitat. They are responsible stewards of the land, he says, with a deep knowledge of plants, weather and animals that they’ve accumulated over the centuries. “It is a culture which we in the West can learn from,” he says.
But the future of the Tsachin has never been more endangered. The government is urging them to settle down. The herds are dwindling. And the world around them is changing. Many Tsachin children go to school in towns, where they are exposed to television and consumer goods. They know that the nomadic life provides little in the way of cash, or opportunity for social advancement.
“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,” says Sanjim, a Tsachin elder.
Breaking the cycle
Myagmar Nansalmaa, a veterinarian with the Mongolian State Veterinary Laboratory in Ulaanbaatar, hopes that strengthening the herds will help prevent that from happening. She is one of several researchers who are currently investigating the health problems of the reindeer. Since the government ceased providing support for the Tsachin, Nansalmaa has been traveling to the taiga during her own vacation time.
There she has teamed up with Plumley, Jerry Haigh of the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, and Morgan Keay, a wildlife biologist based in Boulder, Colorado.
The researchers have found 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, causing stillbirths or abnormally small offspring. The bacteria also trigger bursitis, a swelling of the joints that is particularly debilitating for nomadic animals. Nansalmaa believes the blood parasite anaplasma has also infected the herd.
The poor health of the herd sets a vicious cycle in motion. As the animals’ health declines, life in the taiga becomes more difficult. Herders are tempted to settle in towns, or to move to lower altitudes. Some have brought their reindeer to a lake where, for a fee, they pose with their reindeer for tourists.
“Remaining in one place is unsuitable for animals used to constant movement,” Nansalmaa says. “And hotter temperatures in the summer leave the animals vulnerable to insects, and to the parasites the insects carry, making them weak just as winter arrives.”
Strengthening the stock
Inbreeding may be the greatest concern, Nansalmaa says. Inbreeding causes bone deformities, vulnerability to disease, and lameness, a frequently fatal affliction. Wolves can easily kill weak or slow reindeer when they fall behind the herd.
“In 1962 and again in the late 1980s, the government of Mongolia brought in reindeer from a Siberian herd to replenish the genetic stock of the reindeer in the taiga,” Nansalmaa says. “But with state support for herders ending, inbreeding began, and its negative consequences were soon apparent.”
The herder Bayandalai owns 97 reindeer – the largest herd in the taiga. “The reindeer our ancestors used to herd were healthy,” he says 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.”
“Artificial insemination is a key to regenerating the size and genetic quality of the herd,” says Haigh, the Saskatchewan veterinarian. Haigh and his colleagues have identified donor bulls in Canada, and hope to begin an insemination program in the coming months.
“Herders here represent one of the last truly nomadic cultures on Earth,” says Myagmar Nansalmaa. “We want to help the taiga people live a full life, just as their ancestors did.”
– Lorne Matalon
Thanks to the herders of the East and West Taiga of Mongolia and their families; to translators Ganhuyag Demid, Gerelt Od Dash, Bayar Lhavgasuren, Binderiya Dondov, and Badamtsetseg Tsedennya; to Peter Marsh (American Center for Mongolian Studies), Stevan Buxt (PACT), Morgan Keay (Itgel Foundation), Daniel Plumley (Totem Peoples Project), Myagmar Nansalmaa (Mongolian State Veterinary Laboratory), Anna Sirena (Russian Academy of Sciences); and special thanks to Allan Coukell for his companionship and collaboration.