Reindeer herders don’t need the government to protect their land

Turkish researcher Selcen Kucukustel and a Dukha woman

The Dukha people of northern Mongolia represent the most southern reindeer herders of Siberia. They are the only reindeer herders in Mongolia and live in the northern forests and mountains with their reindeers, moving all year round. The Dukha people originally came from Tuva in early 1940s and became citizens of Mongolia.

Today they are in a transition period, still trying to maintain their traditional way of life while their children go to schools in cities and adapt to the urban way of life. Most Dukha families own 10 to 40 reindeers.

Despite relying on the reindeers for a living, the Dukha do not slaughter their reindeers unless a reindeer is too old or in times of food shortage and difficult natural conditions. They use reindeers mainly for transport and for their milk because horses cannot survive in the taiga in winter. That is why the reindeers of the Dukha are very precious to the people and rarely slaughtered for food.

The Dukha believe that their ancestors domesticated reindeers hundreds of years ago but the current Dukha are not able to domesticate reindeers from the wild anymore and rely heavily on domesticated breeds. The Dukha have established a relation with their reindeers that supports partnership instead of ownership and they look after their reindeers as if taking care of children.

If they lose their reindeers, they cannot stay in the taiga because it is the only animal that can walk on deep snow and find food buried beneath it. The Dukha are traditionally hunters. They hunt wild animals such as muse, wild boar, bear, wild reindeer, deer, and rabbit from the nature and collect wild potatoes or berries in spring. In the cold places they live in, there are hardly any plants that grow in the area, meaning that they rely heavily on hunting for food.

Recently, the area they inhabit, northern territories of Khuvsgul Province including Shishged and Tengis River regions, has been declared a special protected zone, which means that hunting has been banned since 2013. They also have limitations on where they can migrate to. They are not allowed to go to the faraway camps they used to inhabit.

Today, the Dukha make living by selling souvenirs to tourists and receive some help from the government as hunting has been banned in the region. They purchase meat from sheep and goat herders near them and buy necessities such as flour and rice with the money they receive from the local government through benefits.

Most people think that hunting is just a way of finding food, however for indigenous people like the Dukha, it is much more. It is their way of life and the central characteristic of their culture.

First of all, the Dukha live in a harsh geographic condition and they need to migrate far away from their camps to reach their reindeers, which can take many hours or days. Hence they cannot just go to the market to buy meat when they need it. It is not realistic or practical for them.

Secondly, hunting is an old tradition that is directly related with many of their practices and ancestral roots. The Dukha practice animistic and shamanistic rituals. They believe that all animals and nature have spirits so they respect all living organisms. Dukha men pray to the nature before going on hunting trips and they apologize to the soul of the animal after hunting and killing an animal. They never hunt more than their necessities and consumption, and always share their game meat among all families.

Because they are hunters, they know that their own survival is directly related with the survival of animals. This makes them dependent on wild animals and very careful about protecting animals and nature. That is why the Dukha do not need laws to protect their homeland; they already have ancient rules to protect the animals and nature. For example, they do not hunt young or pregnant animals, do not cut trees and do not put a dirty thing into a river.

They try to shoot mostly male animals so that females can give birth and continue the species. When they are hunting a bear, they do not even shoot the bear from behind. They respect the bear so much that they shout at the animal first and then shoot it.

We live in a world in which technology is developing fast, while global warming and environmental degradation puts our planet at risk. People are consuming so much that the natural balance of the world is dramatically changing – natural disasters are becoming more common, and as a consequence, it presents a danger to people.

Thus, the few remaining traditional nomadic people like the Dukha are very precious as they teach us the core values of humanity. Their lifestyle and practices are extremely valuable to all of us.

Although nomadic tribes are few in the world, reindeer herding is an even rarer way of life. There are approximately 15 reindeer herding communities in the world and it makes Mongolia all the more special for having an important cultural heritage of the world.

The Dukha do not see themselves as the owners of the universe, they are just a part of it. People relate to their environment through the land spirits and serve as mediators between all living things to maintain justice and harmony.

Today the traditional Dukha way of life has been put at a risk because of the government’s decision, and their old traditional values and modern legacy are suffering. An old Dukha man said that the hunting ban makes him feel like a prisoner in his home land.

To help the Dukha maintain their lifestyle, the government of Mongolia could issues a hunting quota and some special rules can be applied to them. Commercial hunting is very harmful for the environment but the Dukha do not hunt for money. They can protect animals and their land from those who seek to exploit them. For example, in Canada, commercial whale hunting is forbidden but the Inuit people are allowed to hunt whales under a strict quota because it is an important tradition for them. Like this, they can maintain an important way of life.

The government can also find similar solutions for the Dukha and keep this culture, which is a world heritage, while protecting the nature. The Dukha people already take care of their nature and animals because it is an important part of their culture. They just need the government to understand this and cooperate with them to sustain their way of life and protect the environment at the same time.

Turkish anthropological research Selcen Kucukustel studying for PhD in Central Asian studies at Humboldt University in Germany pointed out that helping maintain the traditional way of the Dukhas and promoting their nomadic form are of significant importance to keeping their local environment safe and healthy.

She said that when she stayed with the Dukha for 10 months during her research, she felt that the Dukha are the best protectors of their environment as the forests, animals, and plants living with them are vital for their life.

Kucukustel added that the Dukha protect their local areas from bushmeat hunters who cause severe environmental damage to protected areas. The government, especially the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, is hoping to develop tourism in Mongolia.

Most tourists visiting Mongolia are interested in the Dukha culture and traditional way of life. In recent years, a large portion of the tourists visiting Mongolia spent time in the tents of the Dukha, tried to ride their reindeers, drank reindeer milk, and stayed with them for a while to observe their way of lives.

Mongolia’s nomadic culture and lifestyle are a great attraction for tourists, and reindeer herders are also a piece of our culture. We do not need to spend more money developing an attraction based around the Dukha people; just promoting their precious culture to foreign tourists through policy and support is enough to bring tourists to Mongolia.