The Last Reindeer Tribes

Posted by Crooked Compass

Once a thriving community of reindeer herders, the Tsaatan people (also known as Tsaachin or Duhka) of northern Mongolia are now on the brink of losing their cultural traditions and nomadic traditions as the population continues to decline.

Only accessible on horseback, the extreme remoteness of this community has allowed them to remain relatively untouched by western culture. A fascinating culture - so incredibly diverse to other nomadic clans in Mongolia.

A Duhka lady with her reindeer.
A Duhka lady with her reindeer.

Origins

The Tsaatan people originated from the area currently known as the Tuva Republic of Russia, before moving into the area known as Taiga in Mongolia's Hovsgol province. Following the end of World War II in 1942, the Tuva region inhabited by the Tsaatan people was annexed by the Soviet Union, fearing persecution and food shortages the community migrated south of the border and settled in Mongolia.  It has been estimated that there was once around 200 families of reindeer farmers living in this region, now there are only 40 families left with approximately 1,000 reindeer's.

The Tsaatan people utilise a nomadic lifestyle to sustain the health of their herds, moving camps up to ten times per year. In summer months, tribes take their herds to high altitude pastures as reindeer's cannot handle the summer heat well. Winter in Mongolia is harsh with snow falling for days at a time and bitterly strong winds that chill to the bone. In winter, the nomadic Tsaatan tribes move into deep forests at lower altitudes to escape the frosty winds, staying at one campsite for no longer than one month at a time before packing up and migrating to their next campsite.

Duhka reindeer tribe winter
Winter in northern Mongolia.

Threats to survival

The survival of the Tsaatan community and their nomadic way of life has been under threat for several decades, with several external factors influencing the diminishing population. The most significant of these factors is the communities desire to be closer to schools and hospitals for their children. The extreme remoteness of the Tsaatan people means that regular access to education or medicinal supplies is almost impossible, parents in the community must make the tough decision between being closer to their children in town's and cities or maintaining the nomadic traditions of their ancestors. Another damaging factor to the Tsaatan people is the younger generations tendencies to defect from this lifestyle in favour of modern amenities offered in the city.

A child asleep on his reindeer
A child asleep on his reindeer - Photo credit: Pascal Mannaerts

It is not only the Tsaatan community that is facing extinction, the tribes reindeer herds have also seen a dramatic decrease in numbers over the last two decades. The decrease in reindeer herds can be attributed to three leading factors; government restriction of traditional Tsaatan hunting grounds, inbreeding of livestock and the impact of non-human predators. The Tsaatan people have traditionally relied on hunting to provide food for the community and it is very rare for the tribe to eat one of their reindeer. The Mongolian government has restricted the Tsaatan hunting grounds by declaring the region as part of a national park, without the ability to hunt for their food the community has had to look elsewhere to sustain their lifestyle.

The second factor influencing the decline of herd populations is the poor health of the reindeer's, stemming from decades of inbreeding. With the border between Russia & Mongolia closed, reindeer herds have been separated into small groups, forcing the Tsaatan people to inbreed their livestock. Decades of inbreeding has caused the reindeer's average life expectancy to be reduced and their immune systems to be weak.

The third diminishing factor is that of non-human predators, mainly wolves and bears. With government restrictions on hunting, predators population numbers have significantly increased, causing alarm amongst Tsaatan communities who see this as a major threat to the survival of their herds.

Mongolia Tsaachin reindeer and urt
Reindeer surrounding a traditional Urt

Beliefs

The religious beliefs of the Tsaatan community are centred around Shamanism, a belief system that is based on nature worship. The community believes that their ancestors spirit lives on through animals in the sacred forest, sometimes thought of as being a guide for the living. The Tsaatan variation of Shamanism use rituals as part of their daily lives, from blessing trackers prior to a hunt, to rituals that ask for rain. This variation of Shamanism is said to be one of the oldest forms of Shamanism practised in Mongolia and is currently facing resurgence across Central Asia as communities take up beliefs that they were forced to disband during the Soviet occupation.

A Tsaatan Shaman prepares for a ritual.
A Tsaatan Shaman prepares for a ritual. Photo Credit: Taylor Weidman

Sustainable Tourism

As traditional hunting grounds grow smaller, due to government restrictions, and the population of reindeer herds shrink, the Tsaatan community have had to look elsewhere for financial support. Tourism has become significant for these communities, travellers will often pay for a photo with a reindeer and are able to buy some small goods from the community. The Tsaatan people are well known for their hospitality and friendliness, and Crooked Compass is proud to support the local economy of the Tsaatan through responsible practices on our small group tour.

A Tsaatan child rides his reindeer in winter.
A Tsaatan child rides his reindeer in winter. Photo Credit: Jimmy Nelson

Fascinated by diminishing cultures and want to experience the nomadic lifestyle of the Tsaatan community? Join our Reindeer Tribes of Mongolia small group tour.