For Mongolia's Dukha Tribe, Reindeers Are Way of Life

Reindeer Herders in Mongolia

Deep in the Larch Forests of Northern Mongolia lives a tiny tribe of people known as the Dukha. For more than 3,000 years they have survived as nomads, moving camp 10 times a year across the mountains. Their existence is pinned on one animal: the reindeer. But their unique way of life now hangs in the balance.

Getting to the taiga, where the Dukha live, is a long and arduous process. From the traffic-choked streets of Mongolia's capital, Ulaan Bataar, it's an hour's flight to the tiny city of Murun. From there it's two long days of intense off-roading through the vast, wild landscape of the Mongolian steppe.

Our guide was Dan Plumley, an American who first encountered the Dukha more than 10 years ago and who went on to create the Totem People's Project, an organization that works to empower and protect nomadic reindeer herders in Northern Mongolia and Eastern Siberia.

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"They just basically grabbed me by the lapels and said, 'You can't leave us, you're the only who knows that we're challenged people and we're facing extinction and we need help,'" Plumley explained.

The final stage of the journey into the taiga is the most grueling: a 10-hour trek on horseback, crossing three mountains through thick mud and dense forest. And then, in the distance, we catch the first glimpse, almost surreal, of a Dukha man riding a reindeer.

Click here to see photos of the Dukha.

There are 52 Dukha families in the taiga. They live in small groups in tepees spread out over an area of some 6 million acres. Unlike most reindeer-herding cultures, the Dukha raise their deer primarily for milk production. Reindeer milk, reindeer yoghurt and reindeer cheese are the staples of the Dukha diet. Only a small amount of reindeer are actually slaughtered for meat and pelts.

The most important function of the reindeer is as a means of transportation. The deer may look small, but they have extremely strong necks from the heavy weight of their antlers, which weigh up to 50 pounds.

From a very young age, Dukha children learn to ride the deer, often without saddles. The relationship between the Dukha and their deer is very loving -- these are the oldest domesticated reindeer in the world.

Sanjin is a revered Dukha elder. His son is also a reindeer herder.

"The reindeer are our life," he said, "Everything we do is connected to them."

"It's a great heritage from our ancestors," added his son.

Without Electricity, Running Water, Dukha Separated from Modern World

Life for the Dukha tribe is simple and hard. There is no electricity or running water, and the temperature can drop to 40-below-zero in the winter. While they are starting to incorporate elements of the modern world, such as solar-panel batteries and satellite dishes, into their daily life, they are doing it at their own pace.

"They're interested in bettering their life, but they want to do it on their terms," explained Plumley, "And living on their terms is a window for us from a harried world into what's really important in life: friends and family, spending time laughing and telling stories, seeing nature and all of its beauty."

It's easy to get swept up in the dramatic beauty of the landscape and the velvety fur of the reindeer. But the animals face very real threats to their existence. Increased mineral prospecting, gold mining and timber cutting are destroying the reindeer habitat.

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