Friday, October 25, 2019

Summer Migration in the Taiga

Urts (teepee) poles left after the migration, after a storm.The Dukha east taiga summer camp in northern Mongolia.

Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal native to the north. Reindeer herding is believed to have originated around two to three thousand years ago in the Sayan Mountains, located between Russia and Mongolia. Today, 24 different indigenous groups in nine circumpolar countries herd reindeer, or rangifer tarandas. The smallest of these groups are the Dukha of northern Mongolia. Today, about 58 families herd roughly 2700 reindeer in the east and west taiga (boreal forest) located on Mongolia's border with Russia. Unlike other reindeer herders, the Dukha do not regularly slaughter their animals for food. Instead, they are milked and used as pack animals.

The Dukha say that the reindeer let them know when it is time to migrate, roughly four to six times a year. Every June, a few weeks after school has ended, families migrate from the spring camp to the summer camp high in the Sayan mountains. They stay until mid August when it is time to pack up and migrate back to the winter camp near the town. While some families and young people will remain at the winter camp, children, their mothers and the elderly will return to the nearby town for the beginning of the school year on September 1. Older students will stay in a newly built dorm while those younger than third grade will commute from their homes. Most Dukha have a small winter house or a ger (yurt) in town.

Taking down an urts (a birch pole and canvas tepee) and packing up for migration, then traveling from the spring to summer camp is accomplished in one day, regardless of the weather. In 2016 when I visited, the days were dry and beautiful, the sky a clear deep blue. This past year, there were freezing rain storms in the east and snow in the west during the days we traveled with the herders to their summer camps. We learned that intense weather is no match for a warm deel (Mongolian traditional robe), a durable rubber Russian raincoat and a sturdy taiga horse.