Photo Essay

Mongolian Reindeer Herders Defend Traditions

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and photograph in Mongolia extensively over the past 5 years. I’ve traveled all around the country and met hundreds of Mongolian nomads caring for their herds of horses, sheep, goats, camels, and yaks. I’d always heard stories of the Dukha, who herd reindeer in the forests in far northern Mongolia, bordering Siberia, but had never been able to visit due to the remoteness of their camps. Earlier this year, I was lucky to receive an assignment shooting an ice festival on Lake Khovsgol, a location far enough north to put me within striking distance of the Dukha. After the festival, I decided to travel up to the Dukha to learn about how a newly created conservation area is affecting their lives. After driving over the frozen surface of the lake, off-roading through thick snowfields, and finally riding horses for half a day through the wintry forests, we finally made it to the Dukha camps.

The Dukha are one of the smallest ethnic minority groups in the world and lead a traditional nomadic lifestyle dependent on the reindeer they herd. For decades, they have relied on hunting, gathering firewood, and accessing pasture for their reindeer and livestock in the taiga. Through our conversations, we learned that this changed in 2011 when the Mongolian government established a national reserve within the taiga to protect its many endangered species. Park rangers began patrolling the protected areas, and the sustainable hunting practices of the Dukha became seen as poaching while their reindeer herds were restricted to limited pasture areas.

The Dukha explained that their lifestyle was now impeded and closely guarded and they are worried that their traditions will die out. Some have continued the practices illegally and in secret which has resulted in arrests, community schisms, and a growing cry to change the reservation's forward-looking conservation rules. While the government has been proactive in preserving their environment by creating this park, the Dukha believe that the planning was conducted without adequate consultation and has pushed out other voices. Ironically, after hours of discussion, we found that both the Dukha and the rangers have the same goal: to preserve the taiga and the species that thrive on it.

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