Mongolia’s reindeer herders defend their way of life

In northern Mongolia, an ethnic group of reindeer herders and rangers face mutual distrust in protecting the same land.

A Dukha woman releases reindeer to graze at dusk near Tsagaannuur, Mongolia. [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]
A Dukha woman releases reindeer to graze at dusk near Tsagaannuur, Mongolia. [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]

Tsagaannuur, Mongolia – Seated in a white teepee perched on a cliff that overlooks a snow-covered coniferous forest, Delger Gorshik talks about how his life as a Dukha, one of the world’s smallest ethnic minorities, has changed over the years.

“When I was a child, the only thing we could use for a light was a candle. Today, we have electric lamps and solar panels. This teepee used to be covered with animal skin; today, we use cloth canvas,” the 55-year-old says.

“And now,” he adds, gesturing downhill to where his daughter and son-in-law live. “As you can see, we even have wooden houses.”

Within the northern Mongolian snow forest, or taiga, the Dukha – whose population is estimated to be fewer than 300 – live as nomadic reindeer herders.

Often referred to as the Tsaatan in the Mongolian language, which literally means “reindeer people”, the Dukha’s lives are structured around their animals. They move between seasonal locations within the east and west taiga according to their herds’ grazing needs and comfort.

This year was the first winter in the west taiga that Gorshik’s family had ever built a log cabin, a feat that took his son-in-law five months to complete. Eschewing the teepee – known as an ortz, the Dukha’s traditional dwelling – Gorshik admits that his daughter’s cabin was much warmer and he would consider building one for the following winter.

“Some of the change is good, like having a lamp or TV,” he says. “But development could lead to my culture diminishing as well.”

A Dukha boy poses with two reindeer [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]

Conservation zone

Gorshik’s greatest source of anxiety comes from the creation in 2011 of a conservation zone named the Tengis-Shishged Protected Area, which borders the land that the Dukha live on in northern Khovsgol province.

Since its establishment, Gorshik and his family say that hunting – something that the Dukha have relied on for food and money since 1992 when the socialist government was abolished, and with it, the hunting collectives they worked in – has been forbidden.

“No one hunts any more. Everyone eats the reindeer if we need meat,” Gorshik says. “But to have meat, we also need to be able to raise them.”

He explains that their reindeer, once free to graze all over the taiga’s biodiverse-rich land, are now restricted to pasture outside the protected zone. If rangers catch the Dukha in the protected area, they chase them out.

“When it comes to hunting, I can understand the regulations in place. I can live without hunting,” he says. “But the main problem is that the regulations also limit our pastureland. We can stay in the same area with 30 reindeer, but after all the grass is gone, we need to change to a different spot.”

His laments are echoed by many of his fellow Dukha.

For the tiny ethnic minority, the regulations of the protected zone, enforced with fines and prison sentences, feel like a personal affront to the Dukha’s existence, especially since they say they were not properly consulted before the zone’s establishment.

But proponents of the conservation zone, including rangers, insist that the rules are necessary to preserve the taiga, which is home to many protected and endangered species such as the snow leopard, the argali mountain sheep, the musk deer, and the ibex. According to rangers, these creatures are vulnerable not only to the Dukha’s hunting practices, but also to the illegal miners invested in plumbing the gold and jade-rich mountain ranges. 

With mutual distrust on both sides marring conducive discussion, this tug-of-war surrounding the taiga’s survival – and what that means for either party – is replayed across the world, serving as a reminder of the complexities involved in conservation projects with local communities living within them.

Delger Gorshik, seated in his teepee, says the Dukha are now restricted in where they can go to let their reindeer graze [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]

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Up-hill battle for rangers

To reach the Dukha’s camps in the winter, one must drive across the frozen Lake Khovsgol, a wide expanse of deep-blue ice, followed by a nine-hour trawl through shin-deep snow that marks every inch of the rolling hills.

For the Dukha camps in the west taiga, travelling by horseback on the ever-rising terrain is often the sole way to ensure passage through the seemingly never-ending valleys, which trap biting wind coming from Siberia. In the east, the Dukha communities live in the thick of the forest, their teepees surrounded by trees and shrubbery.

With only 39 rangers patrolling the combined 875,771-hectare area of the east and west taiga, Tumursukh Jal – head of the Tengis-Shishged protected area and a Darkhad, an ethnic minority group that lives mostly in Khovsgol province – often feels that protecting the region is an uphill battle.

But his 30-year tenure in the province has been marked with successes, resulting in a vast swatch of land in Mongolia’s northernmost region being designated as three separate protected zones due to their unique fauna and endangered animals, like the snow leopards.

Jal and his colleagues’ lobbying and advocacy led to the Khovsgol government cancelling more than 40 mining licences that were awarded to companies, including Mongolian mining giants Altan Dornod and Mongol Gazar.

“In 2009, the local government of Khovsgol started the regulations [for the protected zones]. They decided to protect,” Dal says. “By 2011, all 44 mining licences were cancelled completely.”

While the mining companies are no longer zeroing in on his beloved taiga, Jal and his rangers still face threats from unregulated predators.

He describes a month in 2015 to Al Jazeera: On September 16, his rangers found two separate groups of about 20 people traipsing around the protected zone with jade stones that they believe were illegally mined. The next day, he caught two officers from the local border patrol guard fishing illegally within the taiga’s rivers. “We arrested them,” he says.

Then, on September 29, rangers caught five people hunting a moose. One of them was a Dukha, while another turned out to be the head of Tsagaannuur district, a revelation that disgusted Jal.

“I just lost faith because the head of Tsagaannuur district has the responsibility to protect the nature, but he was also hunting,” he says.

Tumursukh Jal is head of the protected zone that borders the land where the Dukha live [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]

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While the number of illegal hunting and fishing cases within Tengis-Shishged appears modest – 16 in 2016, eight in 2015, and 23 in 2014 – Jal says these numbers don’t reflect the hunts they have stopped due to the rangers’ close watch on the Dukha community and their summer patrols.

“In terms of prevention, we stopped over 300 cases [in 2015].”

Despite the September 2015 moose-hunting incident being the sole instance involving a Dukha, Jal carries a great sense of distrust towards their community. He attributes this to the diminishing wildlife around their summer and winter camps before the Tengis-Shishged Protected Area was established, which he has observed by counting the footprints of certain animals after each snowfall. Now, only five years after the protected area was established, Jal says that the number of elk and moose has increased.

When we counted the moose population last year, there were 210 moose so we are very happy about that because that means it has increased.

Tumursukh Jal, head of the Tengis-Shishged protected area

“When we counted the moose population last year, there were 210 moose so we are very happy about that because that means it has increased,” he says. “In 2010, there was almost none left. This was all happening around the areas where they live.”

Jal also does not believe the Dukha’s claims about subsistence hunting.

“In the old days, the traditional subsistence-hunting model existed. That meant they hunted only for their own food. But after the socialist system was changed, it became more like hunting for money,” he says. “It is this type of hunting that has destroyed the wildlife in the taiga.”

Uwugdorj Delger, a former ranger and a Dukha, at home with his wife. [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]

Delger with two of his reindeer. [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]

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Caught in the middle

For Uwugdorj Delger, a former ranger who retired last year, Jal’s statements ring true. A 62-year-old Dukha living in the east taiga, Delger was recruited by Jal in 2013 to patrol the east and west taiga to quell the illegal mining activities and poaching.

“We used to hunt a lot, it was out of control,” he admits. In fact, Delger’s hunting prowess was useful under Mongolia’s socialist system, when he worked as a state hunter, felling and skinning mink to sell to Russia.

“We used to think that since we live here in the forest, all the animals around us belong to us and we should be able to hunt and eat them as we please,” Delger, who owns about 30 reindeer, says.

His change of heart came after the fall of the regime when he saw that blood sports continued unabated. “It hurt me because with this type of pace, I felt like the wildlife will just disappear,” he says.

We used to think that since we live here in the forest, all the animals around us belong to us and we should be able to hunt and eat them as we please.

Uwugdorj Delger, a former ranger and a Dukha

During his three-year tenure as a ranger, the elderly reindeer herder often felt like he was caught between his community and his duty. He started losing friends and neighbours and young Dukha men would attempt to punch him when they got drunk. Some even threatened to kill him.

“The regulations have been in place for four or five years, so it’s getting better and people are more used to it,” he says, adding that some Dukha still secretly hunt.

Many others within the east and the west taiga flatly deny this, saying that they only hunt to protect their reindeer herds from wolves.

Aside from the hunting restrictions, the hardest part for many is the sense of losing ownership over the land they have inhabited for decades.

Dawaajaw Balanish, 47, says that when rangers visited the camps they would interrogate the Dukha about the whereabouts of absent neighbours who had taken their reindeer out to graze. Worse, the rangers would always insinuate that a missing person was off hunting.

“If someone is not there, they would keep on interrogating us about where the other people are, what they are doing,” Balanish says. “It makes me feel like I’m a prisoner.”

A young Dukha boy plays in front of his family’s teepee near Tsagaannuur, Mongolia, on March 7. [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]
A young Dukha boy chops firewood near Tsagaannuur [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]

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Dialogue with the communities

According to Simon Counsell, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, this type of police-like monitoring of local communities within conservation projects can actually be detrimental to a protected zone’s goals. These communities typically have an invested interest in their environment, and would therefore be amenable to resisting poachers from the outside, he says.

“For people who used to hunt sustainably for their own needs, if you deny them their rights to do it and they are completely dispossessed from it, then they would feel like they might as well go along with the commercial poachers from [outside the zone],” Counsell says. “So what they may have done … is that they may have turned the gamekeepers into poachers when they take away [the local community’s] own right to do it sustainably.”

To arrive at a conversation about manageable hunting, he says, the project’s administrators need to engage the local community in what is known as Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), where residents are given a proper chance to accept or reject changes to the laws of their homeland.

“To just say, ‘We had a meeting in the village,’ or ‘We met with the tribal elders’ – that wouldn’t qualify as proper FPIC. People might have felt that they were under duress to accept proposals, they probably weren’t informed on all the consequences of what the changes would do to their livelihoods, and they may not have understood if they even had a chance to say yes or no to these proposals,” Counsell says.

“Did these people really have the Free Prior Informed Consent? Because if not, [the protected zone’s staff] have to accept that they have to go back and do that again,” he says. “They need to have meaningful dialogue with people.”

After the reindeer return from their early morning grazing, Dukha men and women herd the animals to a camp in the east taiga near Tsagaannuur, Mongolia [Taylor Weidman/Al Jazeera]

Working with the Dukha

Interviews with the Dukha living in the east and west taiga show that there is a lack of clarity about what is allowed or restricted and only a vociferous flood of objections to how the zone is maintained.

Some Dukha say that absolutely no hunting is permitted. Others believe that they could hunt animals that were not protected, like wolves or foxes. Some believed that they had to get a permit to go within the protected zone’s pasture to let their reindeer to graze.

The zone’s head, Jal, says that a permit isn’t necessary – just a commitment not to hunt. However, he acknowledges that his rangers have chased the Dukha out of pasture in the protected area in the past because of their belief that they were actually using their herds as a cover for hunts.

Our reindeer are the most important part of who we are.

Delger Gorshik, a Dukha

More than five years after the zone’s establishment, Jal concedes that his rangers should wield a softer approach to enforcing the regulations. When they first started out, the absolute priority was to expel the illegal miners excavating the taiga’s mountain scraggly ranges, and that required tough monitoring methods, he says.

“Now it’s getting better. So what we are planning now is to work with the Tsaatan. Now we can try to have better people management. We didn’t have time to do that before, to focus on our behaviour towards them,” Jal says. “Now, we will work on that, on establishing a softer relationship between the rangers and locals.”

Inclusiveness is all Gorshik, the Dukha in the west taiga, asks for.

“The government didn’t cooperate with us or talk to us about this,” he says, wringing his hands in exasperation. “If they had cooperated with us, I would personally say okay to the regulations. We can live without hunting. We can stop cutting down trees.”

The Dukha have just one demand. “Just let us stay here,” Gorshik says. “Our reindeer are the most important part of who we are.”

With reporting contributions by Munkhbat Batbekh

Source: Al Jazeera


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