Ancient Mongolian Reindeer Face Extinction in the Modern World

By Sadie Bass

Sep 28, 2009 6:06pm

ABC's Clarissa Ward reports: 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. 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. "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. 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. 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." Dukha children go to school far from home and are educated in Mongolian, not their native Tuvan language. More and more, young people are opting to move to the cities rather than face the hardships of their traditional way of life. Plumley brings boxes filled with veterinary equipment. Over the last 10 years, the Totem Project has worked closely with the Dukha and local veterinarians to improve the health of the reindeer. So far the herd has grown from a pitiful 400 to just under 1,000. "When we spend time with the reindeer herders, we get back to the basics and we get back to what it really means to be human," Plumley said, "And you can't spend time with the herders without being touched, without being shaken." Most people will never visit this remote corner of the world, will never meet the Dukha or play with their reindeer. But they have populated these mountains for thousands of years, and advocates hope that, with a little help, they will continue to do so for generations to come. To learn more about the Dukha, visit the Totem People's Project Web site.

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