On the move with the nomadic reindeer herders of Mongolia

An early morning mist filled the valley near Hatgal, a small village at the southern tip of Lake Khovsgol in north-central Mongolia. Lo...


An early morning mist filled the valley near Hatgal, a small village at the southern tip of Lake Khovsgol in north-central Mongolia. Looking at the silhouettes between the fragrant pines and larches, I could barely distinguish the silhouettes of the reindeer from those of their shepherds.

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 was motionless as in a Flemish painting. Everyone was waiting to leave.

The sound of colliding tent poles – mixed with a whirlwind of authoritative voices – left little doubt: the transhumance to the shepherds’ 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 life revolves 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 a means of transportation. The velvety antlers of animals, once removed, are sold for use in medicine and dietary supplements. Very few animals are killed for their meat, maybe one or two a year.

The decision to move the herd was not a simple one. In recent years, Uwugdorj explained, they moved the reindeer about every month. “We were actually following them,” he laughed. “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 of the reindeer diet, is particularly vulnerable to climate change. In addition, reindeer populations – affected by disease, historical mismanagement and predation by wolves – have declined.

“If we’re wrong, we put the whole herd in danger,” Uwugdorj said, checking his saddle straps. Then, hopping on his reindeer, he launched the impatient procession along a strip of thick snow.

On horseback, I could barely follow the herd. Compared to reindeer, horses move like elephants.

Despite his knee injury, Uwugdorj slipped through the pines and disappeared from sight. With Darima and their daughter, I scanned the few reindeer weakened by winter. Between efforts, I watched the looks the family exchanged. 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-shaped tents, called ortz, arrived at an astonishing speed. About twenty families were migrating.

Darima went out to milk the reindeer. After tying the animals to stakes for the night, everyone gathered around a crackling fire.

The Dukha come from the Tuva region in Russia to the north. Tuva was an independent country for many years, until it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. As children under the communist regime, Uwugdorj and Darima were sent to boarding schools and suffered countless attempts to erase their identity, they said. Uwugdorj remembers escaping the village at night because it was too hot in the dormitories. “We were hungry, we were cold,” he said. In winter, pieces of reindeer skin were boiled into a broth that he swallowed to survive. The furs went to wealthy clients in the cities.

With their savings, Uwugdorj and Darima had a house built in the village of Tsagaannuur, west of Lake Khovsgol, so that their grandchildren could receive adequate education.

The next morning, going through the moss and lichen, I met a woman in her sixties who was treating her six reindeer. She told me how the lives of the Dukha changed dramatically when the border to the north was redrawn – families were separated, their seasonal migrations delayed. Many Dukha became refugees in the Soviet Union or Mongolia. “We wanted to escape,” she said, “from the people who forbade us to live in the taiga”.

Every summer, a constant stream of tourists – from countries like China, Israel, the United States and New Zealand – cross the taiga to visit the ranchers. But not all Dukha families benefit from visitors. Instead, they make a living selling antlers and skins, collecting pine seeds and receiving small grants, even if “that is not enough to raise our family,” said Dawasurun Mangaljav, 28. , who spoke to me alongside her husband, Galbadrakh, who is 34 years old.

“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 go back to school every 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 once worked as a government hunter, knows the country. 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 almost four degrees Fahrenheit, more than double the world average.

“We are not statues in a museum,” Uwugdorj said. “We are like our reindeer: on the move. “

And their struggle, he added, is to persevere in a world that seems determined to challenge their way of life.

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