Today just 207 reindeer people live in Tsagaannuur in northern Khovsgol province, 900km from the capital Ulan Bator, tending about 600 reindeer in the traditional way.   

Their life revolves around their vast but shrinking reindeer herds. They move, riding the bulls, from place to place throughout the year to care for their stock.

The cows provide milk while meat and hides are also used, though increasingly sparingly. When a reindeer is culled, nothing is wasted.

"Three hundred of us have left the taiga (coniferous forest) because it is such a hard life," said Ouynbadan, a woman in her 30s who teaches the traditional tuva language - the mother tongue of the reindeer people, which she says risks being lost forever.

"But we want to stay here, to maintain our lifestyle, tradition and culture. We will never leave the taiga."

Bleak future

Nomads' life centres around their
vast but dwindling reindeer herds

Those remaining, living in tepee-like structures, represent the southernmost reindeer culture in the world, but like many hunter-gatherer minorities across the globe, their future is bleak.

Some of their stock suffer from a disease that attacks the reproductive system, causing stillbirths, and there is little veterinary care.

Years of inbreeding by reindeer also contributes to their decline.

The nomads are also under pressure from mining, gold and mineral exploration, the demands of ecotourism and timber exploitation.

Plea to government

Last year, representatives of the reindeer people went to Ulan Bator and met ministers for the first time to discuss their predicament.

"Tourists asked me why these people should live in such a difficult situation. But I say to them they also have a right to keep their own culture and tradition. This is what the reindeer people say"

Javzandulam
Ulan Bator tour guide

A key request was a limit on tourism in the area which they say is harming the taiga - the pine forests that lie between tundra and steppe in this part of the world where the reindeer roam - and encroaching on their way of life.

The novelty of reindeer people and their bleak life on the taiga is a big attraction for foreign visitors. Many want to see them up close.

"Last summer I have been to the taiga twice with tourists. It is really a different world, even for me," said Ulan Bator tour guide Javzandulam.

"Tourists asked me why these people should live in such a difficult situation. They say they should have a right to live in a modern society, a modern culture with a modern lifestyle.

"But I say to them they also have a right to keep their own culture and tradition. This is what the reindeer people say."

Help

At their meeting with the government, the reindeer people also asked for financial assistance and other help such as better access to doctors.

At present it can take as long as four days to access medical help from remote camps in the high mountain pastures.

They also want better access to relatives, many of whom are in Russia on the other side of what is now a strictly controlled border, spanning the Sayan Mountains which divide the two countries.

A Mongolian National Human Rights Commission research team has visited them. But so far they have received no help - and no recognition of their indigenous rights or status as a minority people.