Life Changes of Dukha Reindeer Herders Family in Mongolia

Tsetse, the six-year-old daughter of Dukha herder Erdenebat, rides a reindeer in a forest near the village of Tsagaannuur.

In north central Mongolia, in the taiga along the border with Russia, the Dukha people have lived a nomadic life for generations, roaming with their reindeer herds and hunting to fill in a diet based largely on reindeer milk.

Local doctor Davaajav Nyamaa rides a reindeer to visit nomads in a forest near Tsagaannuur. Nyamaa is an ethnic Darkhad, herders from northern Mongolia who historically inhabited the steppe that borders the taiga forests. He grew up around the Dukha, who he visits as a doctor for checkups and treatments in their tents on a regular basis.

Tsetse leads a reindeer as she helps bring in the herd before nightfall. The herd is taken to nearby grazing spots twice a day.

Reuters photographer Thomas Peter traveled to Mongolia's Khovsgol Aimag, near the village of Tsagaannuur, to spend time with several Dukha families, as their traditional culture is facing serious challenges. Thomas Peter says:“The Dukha fear, they are losing their identity in the face of a conservation order by the government that bans unlicensed hunting on most of their traditional land.”

Tsetse, who spends many hours every day darting through the forest on reindeer back, rides a reindeer in a forest on. Because of their lighter weight, children train young reindeer to get them used to carrying a rider and responding to a combination of vocal commands, prodding, heel-kicking, and pulling the leash.

Tsetse's father walks through a forest to bring in his reindeer before nightfall.

Six years ago, the Mongolian government added most of the Dukha's herding grounds to a national park, aiming to stop unregulated hunting that had caused serious damage over previous decades. A stipend is being paid to families affected, and some have used that money to leave the nomadic life and move to villages where the next generation spends their day with peers in houses and classrooms, instead of with reindeer in tents and forests.

A Dukha nomad drives a herd of reindeer. This herd of about 300 animals is the combined property of four families.

Smoke rises from the chimney of the Erdenebat family's tent near the village of Tsagaannuur, Khovsgol Aimag, Mongolia. "We wake up and have breakfast then release the reindeer, and then herd them and at twelve o'clock we make them come back. Afterwards, while they are tied up, we chop some wood and do some other chores, and then relax for an hour or so. Later, we release the reindeer again and around seven or eight o'clock, and bring them back and tie them up again. By then, the woman of the family would have prepared some food, so this is how we spend our day," the Erdenebats says.

▲ A reindeer stands in the evening sun after an afternoon of grazing in the camp of Erdenebats.

▲ An aerial picture of the village of Tsagaannuur alongside Dod Nuur Lake in northern Mongolia. Tsagaannuur is the nearest village for reindeer herders living in the forests. It was built during Soviet times to support a fishing collective that also employed many Dukha, until that ceased operation after the collapse of the Soviet economy in the 1990s.

▲ A reindeer of the Erdenebats stands in front of a white backdrop in a forest. Reindeer lose their antlers once a year and grow a new rack in late spring to early summer. Females, like this one, keep their antlers longer than males.

(All photos reserved Thomas Peter)


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