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Mongolia's 'reindeer' people jump into the future

HOVSGOL PROVINCE, Mongolia –  Bayanjargal laughed as she watched the three of us from NBC News turn on our cell phones for the first time in 24 hours and maniacally start emailing and texting. We probably were a ridiculous sight – hungry, dishevelled, basically slightly worse for wear after having flown two hours and then bumped along another ten hours inside a Russian UAZ van.  But that wasn't why Bayanjargal was grinning so widely.

"I'm happy to see you on your cell phones," said the 40-year-old, who like many Mongolians goes by just one name. "It means there is a signal up here!"

"Up here" was Tsagaannuur, the northernmost town in this part of Mongolia, where we had stopped briefly during a strenuous three-day journey to the taiga, a subarctic area on the Siberian border. The region ranks amongst the most isolated and harsh environments in the northern hemisphere. It's so remote there are no power or phone lines. But there is cell phone service, which became available this past year. 

VIDEO: Helping Mongolia's reindeer people

Mongolia's smallest ethnic minority
Bayanjargal moved to Tsagaannuur when she was eight, but she still misses the taiga despite annual visits.

"It's my parents' birthplace," she told us over mugs of hot tea and coffee as we stretched out our legs. "I miss the environment, and I miss especially the reindeer milk."

Yes, reindeer milk. 

Bayanjargal is one of the remaining 500-odd Tsaatan, or "reindeer" people – half of whom still live in Mongolia's Hovsgol Province. Originally from Siberia, the Tsaatan are a Turkic people who make up the nation's smallest ethnic minority. Their native tongue is Tuvan, and they practice shamanism, not Buddhism.

For thousands of years, these nomadic herders have survived the damp climate of the forested mountains, moving their families, tepees, animals and a few worldly possessions anywhere from five to ten times a year. They have always lived in the forests of the taiga – the only environment in which their reindeer can survive.

On the edge of subsistence living, the Tsaatan rely on the reindeer for all their basic needs – the milk, which is also used to make cheese (it tastes, by the way, like a very sharp Parmesan); the antlers, which they use to make tools; and transport. Unlike similar reindeer herding communities in Siberia itself or Scandinavia, however, they usually do not eat reindeer meat, instead relying on wild game such as elk, moose, or boar.

"The reindeer is the most important thing in our lives," said Ganbat, a community leader.  "If there were no reindeer, we would not exist."

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
"If there were no reindeer, we would not exist," say the Tsaatan people. Click to watch video of how the Tsaatan people live with reindeer.

A one-time visit turns into a calling
In 2002, the Tsaatan were facing the threat of possible extinction.  Their herd – then numbering fewer than 500 – was suffering from a host of diseases, some of which were previously unknown to the community. One in particular, a type of bacterial infection, was causing sterility in the reindeer.

"We didn't have money to buy medicine or treatment for the reindeer," recalled Ganbat.  So they reached out to a young American woman named Morgan Keay, who at the time was researching the community.

Keay – a tall redhead from Chappaqua, N.Y. – was then just a junior at the University of Colorado-Boulder, majoring in environmental biology and religious studies.  Driven by the twin desires to explore the world and to do some good, Keay was spending a year abroad in Mongolia when she went up north to study the Tsaatan.

"I expected it to be a one-time visit to the community," said Keay, who accompanied us on our trip. But she wound up making a full commitment to them and to Mongolia by establishing a non-governmental organization, the Itgel Foundation

Through the organization, she raised money and found veterinary and health experts from overseas and from within the country. They worked with the Tsaatan, she said, "to make sure that they are learning the cutting-edge skills and treatments so that when we leave, when we are not there, they can make the same treatments for generations to come."

The health project has been so successful that this year the reindeer population reached 1,000 – more than double what they had been when Keay first visited the area. 

However, recovering the health of their animals was just the beginning for the Tsaatan, a proud people who wanted a means to generate income for themselves and the community.

"There's a veterinary aspect, and there's also this sustainability aspect in the 21st century that [Itgel is] working on," said Sophia Papageorgiou, a PhD candidate in epidemiology at the University of California-Davis who has been working through Itgel to research tick-borne disease among the reindeer. 

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
A view of the subarctic lake at Tsagaannuur. Click to watch video of the beautiful, but bone-jarring journey up to Mongolia's Hovsgol Province.

Bringing the Tsaatan people into the 21st century

"Of course the health of their reindeers is of critical importance to their survival and subsistence, but the community faces other challenges," said Keay. After the upheavals of Mongolia's socialist era (1921-1991) and more recent regulations like strict hunting laws and land use in the region, the herders had become "extremely marginalized politically, socially, economically, and culturally."

The Tsaatan had a solution in mind: eco-tourism.

"The tourists were coming here…and treated us like objects in a museum," said Bayanjargal, referring to the growing presence of safari-like tours popping up in the taiga.  Ethnic Mongolian guides with no ties to the community were leading extremely lucrative tours to the herder camps. "Tour operators were taking Americans and Europeans out to this remote place, charging thousands of dollars," said Keay.  "And the community wasn't getting a penny of that."

So Keay – who was concerned about the possible negative impacts of widespread tourism on the Tsaatan and the taiga – worked closely with them on coming up with a sustainable approach. 

One of the results is the Tsaatan Community & Visitors Centre (TCVC) in Tsagaannuur. Volunteers once again were brought in, this time to help train the reindeer herders and teach them much-needed skills like how to run and manage the center. In its first full year of operation, the TCVC – which is now managed by Bayanjargal – hosted more than 100 tourists.

"The biggest achievement was establishing the TCVC," said Borhuu, one of the Tsaatan managers of the project who also doubles as a guide. "Before, we didn't have an income source like this. Now we are working and earn a salary."

"I enjoy being in this environment, with nature, but I also like having a job," echoed Bayanmunkh, another guide (and, with his high cheekbones and the jaunty tilt of his fisherman's bucket hat, one of the Tsaatan's most dashing poster-boys).

Income earned from the TCVC also goes to a community fund, which Bayanjargal said helps with health care, education and emergencies, services the Tsaatan were never able to afford in the past.

"What we do is not about reducing poverty, increasing wealth or moving towards wealth in a material, monetary sense," said Keay.  "A lot of what we've done is about empowering the community to use their voices to express their needs on their own."

And so Itgel seeks to aim for longer-term strategies that don't just focus on the basic needs of survival.  "You need to think about the ambitions, hopes and dreams of the community," continued Keay.  In fact, the name "Itgel" means "hope" in Mongolian.

"I see us as being successful," said Bayanmunkh confidently.  "Morgan has done what she needed to do [to help us].  Now it's up to us to follow through." 

For more information about visiting the Tsaatan, see this website: http://visittaiga.org/index.html

Click here to see more of Mongolia's scenic sights

Click here to read about Mongolia's 'manly' Olympics

Listen to a Podcast of NBC's Adrienne Mong discussing how China is viewed in Mongolia