Mongolia's reindeer herders fear lost identity under hunting ban

TSAGAANNUUR, Mongolia (Reuters) - Erdenebat Chuluu, a nomadic herder, shouts words of encouragement to the reindeer he is riding.

“Chu!, Chu!,” he calls, as he urges the animal out of a cedar wood and onto a plain in the southern reaches of the Mongolian Taiga, a predominantly forested area some 200 km from the nearest paved road.

Once in the open, the beast and its rider gingerly step over fallen trees and navigate creeks of melted snow, seemingly oblivious to a late winter chill.

Chuluu has lived all his life in the centuries-old tradition of his Dukha ancestors, renowned for their reindeer-herding and hunter-gathering skills in the forests of the rugged Sayan Mountains straddling the Russian border.

28 PHOTOS
Reindeer herders in Mongolia
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Reindeer herders in Mongolia

Tsetse, six-year-old daughter of Dukha herder Erdenebat Chuluu, sits among her family's reindeer in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 21, 2018.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A reindeer stands in the evening sun after an afternoon of grazing in the camp of Dukha reindeer herder Erdenebat Chuluu in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 18, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Dukha reindeer herder Erdenebat Chuluu rests on a stick as he travels with his animals to visit neighbors near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. Chuluu has lived all his life in the centuries-old tradition of his Dukha ancestors, renowned for their reindeer-herding and hunter-gathering skills in the forests of the rugged Sayan Mountains straddling the Russian border. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Tsetse, six-year-old daughter of Dukha herder Erdenebat Chuluu, leads a reindeer by the leash as she brings in the herd before nightfall in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 18, 2018. The herd is taken to nearby grazing spots twice a day. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Baigalmaa Munkhbat prepares food for her nomad family in their tent near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A Dukha nomad drives a herd of reindeer in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 20, 2018. This herd of some 300 heads is the combined property of four families. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Reindeer lick the salt off the coat of a Dukha nomad in the camp of her family in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 20, 2018.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A reindeer of Dukha herder Erdenebat Chuluu stands in front of a white backdrop in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 21, 2018. Reindeer lose their antlers once a year and grow a new rack in late spring to early summer. Females, like this one, keep their antlers longer than males. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Ethnic Dukha nomad Jargal Gombosed drinks salty milk tea in her tent in the forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 20, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Local doctor Davaajav Nyamaa rides a reindeer to visit nomads in the forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. Nyamaa is an ethnic Darkhad, herders of northern Mongolia who have historically inhabited the steppe that borders the Taiga forests. He grew up around the Dukha, whom he visits as a doctor for checkups and treatments in their tents on a regular basis. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Baigalmaa Munkhbat dresses her six-year-old daughter Tsetse, as her husband Erdenebat Chuluu watches, in their tent near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. "My husband is a very good person, he provides for us in every way," Munkhbat said. "My daughter is very smart for her age. I want to make sure my only daughter has all the skills she needs for life," she said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Baigalmaa Munkhbat prepares food for her family in their tent near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. The diet of the nomad consists mainly of meat and products made with flour, like dough to make dumplings and a local type of pasta. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Shaman Kyzyl-ool reacts outside his tent after performing a ritual near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. "At the beginning I often thought, why me? I didn't like carrying these spirits, but I can't do anything about it, because I was chosen," he said about becoming a Shaman. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A reindeer lies in the snow in the camp of Dukha reindeer herder Erdenebat Chuluu at daybreak in the forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. Reindeer feel most comfortable in cold climate, which is why the Dukha move their camps higher up the mountains in summer. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Ethnic Dukha Jargal Gombosed talks with her daughter and granddaughter in their tent in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 20, 2018. "In my day, everything, like rice and flour, were really rare. But now, as long as you have money, you can get anything, any clothes," Gombosed said. "Things were different in the past," she said. "When I was young we didn't have any such thing as a phone, so you would only hear news when you went down to the village centre. But now people have phones and also TVs." 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Smoke rises from the chimney of the family tent of Dukha herder Erdenebat Chuluu in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 21, 2018. "We wake up and have breakfast then release the reindeer. We herd them and at twelve o'clock we make them come back. Then while they are tied up, I chop some wood and do some other chores. I then relax for an hour or so. Later I release the reindeer again and around seven or eight o'clock I bring them back and tie them up again. By then, the woman of the family would have prepared some food, so this is how we spend our day," Chuluu said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Ethnic Dukha nomad Jargal Gombosed holds her grandchild outside her family's reindeer pen in the forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 20, 2018. The pen holds the reindeer herd of the families of four of her children. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Local doctor Davaajav Nyamaa visits a patient in her family's tent in the Taiga forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Tsetse, six-year-old daughter of Dukha herder Erdenebat, rides a reindeer in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 18, 2018.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Pupils leave the village school in Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 23, 2018. People who are between 35-40 years old, belong to the last generation that speak the Dukhan language, linguist Elisabetta Ragagnin said. Together with the head teacher of the school in Tsagaannuur, she is writing grammar and textbooks in the nomad's native tongue to help preserve traditional knowledge, she said. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Shaman Kyzyl-ool collapses after performing a ritual in his tent near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 19, 2018. "When I begin the ritual I know what I'm doing, but when the spirit comes to me, I'm not in control anymore. When the spirit comes, I feel like I'm going into a dark hole," he said after performing a ritual marking the first day of the lunar month in his tent. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Local doctor Davaajav Nyamaa uses a telephone to call patients in a tent in the Taiga forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 20, 2018. The nomads use large antennas which they attach to the trees to connect to the 3G mobile network.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Ethnic Dukha pupil Davaajargal Taivan stands outside the rented house of her family in Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 23, 2018. Taivan's family decided to use government's monthly handout to rent a house in the village, so that her mother can be with her and her brother while they attend school.

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Ethnic Dukha Purevjav Roslov sells jewellery made from wolf ankles to tourists in the settlement of Ulaan-Uul, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 17, 2018. "We kill the wolves to protect the reindeer and to earn money from the tourists," he said, adding that this was his main business, as it is more lucrative than herding reindeer. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Otgonkhuu Tseveen, the son of a Dukha family, talks to his teacher at the village school in Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 23, 2018. "Tuvan... I don't really know... my parents sometimes speak it as they're older and I've picked up a few words but even though I know a bit, I can't say a full sentence," he said about the native language of the Dukha. "I regret that I don't know how to speak this traditional language that my parents speak."

 (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

An aerial picture shows the camp of Dukha reindeer herder Erdenebat Chuluu and his daughter Tsetse riding a reindeer in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 21, 2018. The tepee-style tent of the Dukha has a conical frame made of wooden poles and canvas and serves as a family home all year around. The pole structure is left behind when they move to a new camp to be re-used the following year.

(REUTERS/Natalie Thomas)

An aerial picture shows the village of Tsagaannuur at Dod Nuur Lake, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 23, 2018. Tsagaannuur is the nearest village for reindeer herders living in the forests. It was built during Soviet times to support a fishing collective that also employed many Dukha, until it ceased operation after the collapse of the Soviet economy in the 1990s. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Tsetse, six-year-old daughter of Dukha herder Erdenebat Chuluu, rides a reindeer in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol aimag, Mongolia, April 21, 2018. Tsetse spends many hours every day darting through the forest on reindeer back. Because of their lighter bodyweight, children train young reindeer to get them used to carrying a rider and responding to a combination of vocal commands, prodding, heel-kicking and pulling the leash. 

(REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

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But the Dukha fear they are losing their identity in the face of a conservation order by the government that bans unlicensed hunting on most of their traditional land.

Reindeer outdo horses in this steep and snowy terrain and have allowed the Dukha to evade many of the upheavals that have historically afflicted people in the lowlands, from Genghis Khan to Communism.

Chuluu’s people, around 280 of them, are spread out across 59 households, about a day’s ride from the village of Tsagaannuur.

“It’s our will to maintain the tradition of herding the reindeer in the same way as our ancestors did,” Chuluu told Reuters in April.

In 2012, Mongolia’s government designated the majority of the Dukha’s traditional herding grounds as part of a national park in an attempt to protect an eco-system ravaged in the preceding couple of decades.

During that period, a Soviet-era quota system for hunting, which had provided a living for people like the Dukha and maintained wildlife numbers, broke down. The Dukha and other locals began to aggressively hunt animals like moose and red deer for the Chinese market, seriously depleting their numbers.

Now, the government pays the herders a monthly handout to compensate for the hunting ban, but many Dukha feel they have lost half of their identity.

The hunting tradition has always defined a man in the Taiga, said Chuluu’s neighbor.

26 PHOTOS
Reindeer farming in Russia
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Reindeer farming in Russia
Reindeers graze in the tundra area during sunset in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 26, 2016. Picture taken November 26, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Reindeer herders cook and have a meal inside a tent in the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 27, 2016. Picture taken November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Herders cut off reindeer antlers inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Reindeer antlers cut off by herders lie inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herder smokes while selecting and sorting reindeer inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Herders select and sort reindeer inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Herders select and sort reindeer inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Herders select and sort reindeer inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herder sits inside the enclosure where they select and sort reindeer in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Herders select and sort reindeer inside an enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside an enclosure as herders select and sort them in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A girl watches herders selecting and sorting reindeer near the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A man stands at a site, which is holy for local residents, during the sunrise in the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 26, 2016. Picture taken November 26, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside an enclosure as herders select and sort them during sunrise in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside an enclosure as herders select and sort them in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A view shows a tent belonging to reindeer herders in the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 27, 2016. Picture taken November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY. 
A barrel with a sign "Lukoil" is seen in the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 26, 2016. Picture taken November 26, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside the enclosure as herders select and sort them in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herder walks with reindeers along the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 27, 2016. Picture taken November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
An Orthodox church is seen in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 25, 2016. Picture taken November 25, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herder stops for reindeers to have a rest while riding along the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 27, 2016. Picture taken November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside an enclosure as herders select and sort them in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Farm employees process reindeer carcasses in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Farm employees process reindeer skin in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Farm employees process reindeer carcasses in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
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“It feels like we’ve lost something because we can’t move to whichever area we like in this land, which has been handed down to us from our ancestors,” said Naran-Erdene Bayar, 26.

The head ranger of the National Park, Tumursukh Jal, grew up in the area and knows the Dukha’s history well. He insisted they must follow the law.

“It’s not about Dukha or Mongolian, it’s about people illegally hunting,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the Taiga, herders release hundreds of reindeer from a pen to graze.

After lifting the beams of the hold, the herd pours into the clearing and the animals, snouts nuzzling the snow-covered ground in search of moss, disappear from view as the evening light fades.

(Reporting by Thomas Peter and Natalie Thomas; Additional reporting by Munkhchimeg Davaasharav in ULAANBATAAR; Editing by Ryan Woo and Neil Fullick)

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