The Dukha or Tsaatan The declining culture of Mongolian reindeer herders

The Dukha: The Declining Culture of Mongolian Reindeer Herders

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The Dukha: The Declining Culture of Mongolian Reindeer Herders

The taiga, a vast Siberian forest spilling over the Russian border into Mongolia, is one of the world's least habitable environments. On top of lack of accessibility, and the threat of predators, temperatures can quickly drop to -50°C in the winter here. Despite all the hardships, one group of people had thrived in these forests for thousands of years. They are the Dukha people, whom Mongolians refer to as the Tsaatan or 'Those with the reindeer.'


As their name indicates, the life of the Dukha people revolves entirely around one thing – their herd of reindeer. The reindeer provide the Dukha with their basic needs – milk, pelts, antlers, and transportation. In return, the Dukha protects them from predators and addresses the deers' specific dietary needs as they migrate within the forests seasonally to find proper graze. The task is not that easy, considering the objective hurdles. A single household shall not survive this desolate, remote, cold land on its own. Thus, the Dukha live within a community consisting of several families camping near each other to raise their large herd of reindeer together. They share all the tasks amongst the camp, including hunting, milking reindeer, taking animals to the pasture, and migrating. Herding tasks are given to the children at a young age to teach them how to care for the reindeer. The women do the milking and make dairy products. Men stay with the reindeer in the winter, living in the open with the herds to protect them from predators. They also do the hunting, crafts, and repair of reindeer saddles and other appliances. Unlike other reindeer herding groups, the Dukha rarely butcher their reindeer, opting to hunt wild game. They only consume reindeer meat after the animal dies of natural causes.

Mongolia Tsaatan, Reindeer, Dukha People

For millennia, Dukha nomads moved up to 10 times a year, passing back and forth across the unmarked border between modern-day Russia and Mongolia. They had good trade relationships with the Mongol nomads and Russian settlers, providing them with furs and reindeer antlers. Traditionally, the Dukha would choose a white male reindeer from their herd and allow the animal to lead the family to a new graze. Their freedom was only constrained by the extent of high forest and mountain tundra that fostered the grass and lichens that fed their reindeer. However, their blissful existence had drastically shifted due to the storm clouds of war gathering in Europe. Nazi Germany's assault during World War II caused mass starvation across the Soviet Union, forcing the government to confiscate all domestic animals. Some Dukha people, fearing the loss of their herds, fled to Mongolia. The Soviet Union before long closed its border in 1947, cutting the Dukha's relations with their relatives in Russia. In Mongolia, the Dukha people struggled to support themselves financially. In the Soviet Union, they received subsidies from the government, but the Mongolian government didn't even acknowledge them. They became people without a state, unrecognized by any government as legal residents.


Mongolia granted the Dukha people citizenship in 1956, but it didn't have much good impact. The government has been introducing Soviet-style agricultural reforms since the 1940s. Once the Dukha became citizens, they could no longer escape collectivization, even in the high mountains of northern Mongolia. The government declared the Dukha's hunting territories and herds as state property. They could only hunt wild game for the government and receive payment for their trophy. The authorities established reindeer collectives where Dukha would not have ownership of their animals and only receive a salary for taking care of them. New laws also left the reindeer breeding task to the elders because reindeer herding was considered non-beneficial by the government. All working-age adults were forced to come down from the forest to work in nearby fish farms and processing factories. This sudden change endorsed a settled lifestyle, which appealed to many young adults. Communism also attempted to separate Dukha from their faith. All religious practices, including shamanistic rituals, were forbidden by law. The Dukha practiced shamanism in secret and faced the consequences if caught. Their traditional lifestyle only gained a degree of formal recognition in the 1980s, when the Mongolian communist party started following Mikhail Gorbachev's reformation movements of glasnost and perestroika.

Mongolian tsaatan shaman in the taiga

Following the 1990 Democratic Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which used to provide significant aid to the state budget, Mongolia experienced a severe economic downturn. Dukha herders and settled workers lost their state salaries and were left impoverished. They regained ownership over their reindeer herds but found themselves forced to sell or slaughter their animals for survival. The economic pressure, the loss of practical knowledge of reindeer husbandry, as many of them were forced into different professions, and the lack of veterinary care formerly provided by the state resulted in the decline of the reindeer population. While the Dukha raised over 2,200 head of reindeer by the 1970s, the number dwindled to less than 500 in 1998. The Dukha recognized that a further decrease in the number of reindeer herds would cause the end of their culture. International aid has temporarily halted the extinction of the Dukha lifestyle. Today, there are only 44 families left herding about 2,000 reindeer. They are divided into two major territorial groups – the East and West Taiga. The Western group tends to live more traditionally in smaller groups of two to three families, owning between 20 and 180 animals per family. The Eastern group practices less traditional nomadism, living in larger groups of 11 to 19 households.

Mongolian Tsaatan Dukha man with his reindeers in taiga

Although communism is no longer pressuring them into cultural assimilation with their neighbor Mongolians, the Dukha face more challenges regarding their cultural survival than they did a century ago. Since the 1990s, there has been an increase in mineral prospecting, gold mining, wildlife poaching, and timber cutting activities around the taiga, destroying the reindeer's habitat. In response to environmentalists' petition, the Mongolian government made their habitat a Special Protected Area in 2011 and canceled all 44 mining licenses in the region. However, the new regulations banned hunting, fishing, cutting down trees, and grazing in most areas. The Dukha found themselves no longer able to hunt for revenue, and some began consuming their own reindeer, formerly a taboo. Restrictions on access to pastures have also had a negative impact. The Dukha can now only migrate within three plots of land, leading to overgrazing and poorer reindeer health.

Mongolian Tsaatan Dukha herding reindeers in the taiga

The new adjustments prompted the previously self-supporting ethnic minority to rely on government handouts and tourism. They are now trying to earn money from tourists to provide their own supplies and necessities. They sell handmade souvenirs from antlers and stones. Families often prepare tepees to accommodate travelers, which became a significant source of income. A few of them even move down to Lake Khuvsgul, the tourist hub of northern Mongolia, during summertime, even though this is not favorable for the deer during this time of the year, often resulting in serious health impacts to the livestock. Here, by the lake, they invite travelers into their tepees and charge for taking pictures. Such developments led many to fear that increasing dependence on tourism would soon turn the Dukha into human exhibits like the long-necked ladies of northern Thailand. The Mongolian government provides monthly welfare of 70 USD to every Dukha adult and 30 USD for kids to sustain their unique lifestyle. But it is certainly not enough to prevent the younger generation from wanting to move to the urban areas. The tribe's elders say that their school children, who were once satisfied with what their parents provided, now desire more luxury items as they are more exposed to the outside world through TV and social media. This exposure would probably influence them to pursue a different lifestyle outside the taiga once they grow up.

Mongolian Tsaatan Dukha girl in taiga

While the Dukha criticizes the conservation law, the park rangers, the administrators placed in the national park, rebuke how some reindeer herding families refer to their habitat like a stranger's home. Mongolia doesn't have many forests, and due to its harsh climate, the growth of its forests is slow. Meanwhile, the Dukha households cut down young trees to build tepees whenever they move to a different camp while they could transfer the wooden poles of their old tepees to the new location. The park rangers turn a blind eye when the reindeer herders illegally hunt least-concern species and only punish them for hunting endangered animals. However, the Dukha men chase rare animals such as moose and musk deer and kill them at the Russian border to escape punishment. Such actions create an ongoing tension between the rangers and the reindeer herders. The Dukha people argue that the park rangers accuse them of poaching when they are simply performing traditional chores like picking up antlers. As there are always two sides to each story, it is difficult to say who is to blame. Either way, if the Dukha can at least migrate around the taiga as they wish, their reindeer herds would grow in number and increase their revenue. It may even encourage some youngsters to continue the tradition of following a white stag.

Video of a tour to the Dukha people - Tsaatan - the Reindeer people of Khuvsgul in northern Mongolia.

Reindeer People Adventure in Mongolia

The journey consists of overlanding through some of Mongolia’s remotest regions, and horse riding from the depth of the Darkhad Valley to the elevated Taiga to join the Dukha for an up-close encounter with their unique culture and traditions. Stay the nights in their tepees, join them as they take their herds to graze, and enjoy with them traditional meals by the hearth.



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