Mongolia's Reindeer Herders Defend Their Way of Life

A Dukha woman releases reindeer to graze at dusk near Tsagaannuur, Mongolia. (Credit: Taylor Weidman) 

A Dukha woman releases reindeer to graze at dusk near Tsagaannuur, Mongolia. (Credit: Taylor Weidman) 

By Dene-Hern Chen
With reporting contribution by Munkhbat Batbekh

March 18, 2017

More photos by Taylor Weidman can be found here.

In northern Mongolia, an ethnic group of reindeer herders and rangers face mutual distrust in protecting the same land


TSAGAANNUUR, Mongolia - Seated in a white teepee perched on a cliff that overlooks a snow-covered coniferous forest, Delger Gorshik talks about how his life as a Dukha, one of the world's smallest ethnic minorities, has changed over the years.

"When I was a child, the only thing we could use for a light was a candle. Today, we have electric lamps and solar panels. This teepee used to be covered with animal skin; today, we use cloth canvas," the 55-year-old says.

"And now," he adds, gesturing downhill to where his daughter and son-in-law live. "As you can see, we even have wooden houses."

Within the northern Mongolian snow forest, or taiga, the Dukha - whose population is estimated to be fewer than 300 - live as nomadic reindeer herders.

Often referred to as the Tsaatan in the Mongolian language, which literally means "reindeer people", the Dukha's lives are structured around their animals. They move between seasonal locations within the east and west taiga according to their herds' grazing needs and comfort.

This year was the first winter in the west taiga that Gorshik's family had ever built a log cabin, a feat that took his son-in-law five months to complete. Eschewing the teepee - known as an ortz, the Dukha's traditional dwelling - Gorshik admits that his daughter's cabin was much warmer and he would consider building one for the following winter.

"Some of the change is good, like having a lamp or TV," he says. "But development could lead to my culture diminishing as well."

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