Wolves and sticks to beat
What is the biggest danger for the Taiga? A wolf, a bear, the cold? No. Lawlessness and law enforcers.
Since a decade it is illegal to hunt for anyone. Mongolian herders rear their own animals to eat, so they are only missing out on a fancy hat or an occasional tasty hamster. They ride their horses and eat from their big flock of sheep. Killing one is not exactly a drastic thing to do.
The Reindeer Riders have quite different way of getting meat. They are not just herds-people, they are hunter gatherers too. The Reindeer Riders do not live in the cultural landscape of the steppe. They live in the wilderness between the bears and wolves. Herds grow slowly and there are often casualties. A family has about ten to thirty reindeer for milk and transportation. If they slaughter an animal they lose a substantial part of the herd. ‘They are our family. I do not have children but they almost feel like my babies’ Zaya says. Only hurt and old animals are killed by their hands. ‘We have an old female reindeer and we do not want to lose her. Her son over there is our riding animal. We know them all for so long. I hope she will give birth this spring so we can keep her another year.’
Since ages long gone the Reindeer Riders eat wild animals. Elk, moose, caribou, deer, sable, hare or even bear and wolf. The men are sometimes gone for weeks. They ride on their reindeer and sleep in their Mongolian deel on a bed of few branches. In the winter it can get minus 55 centigrades. But all they carry on their hunt are their rifles and specially made cookies by their wives. In spite of what you might think, the winter is the best time to hunt. In the winter the wolves circle the steppe herders and only reindeer can move in the taiga. Even more important, the animal- and border patrol can get nowhere on their horses.
Now that hunting is illegal, the law enforcers are an additional thread to their journeys in the wilderness. Whoever is caught can end up in jail for three to seven years. The reindeer riders have to hide whatever other meat they found on the taiga, along with their rifles and bullets.
Since August, sixteen animals were killed by wolves. This is the reason that Oltsan and Zaya moved their herd for ten days, to feed them on safe pastures. It was a female and her two cups that caused all the trouble. During my stay the men organized a search party for the wolves. Six men and their riding reindeers hunted them down towards the black lake where the mother wolf tripped and fell dead. The wolf was stripped and bones were scattered around the camp to keep the cups away. The day before I left a horse was bitten by one of them. It can only be hoped that the wolf trouble will be over when the camp is moved to the winter pastures.
I am happy that a wolf is dead. It is something I would never have thought. I had this ethic that wolfs balance an eco-system and you should just deal with the loss of your animals. But when a tenth of all reindeers are killed within six weeks and it is unsafe to leave the camp alone day or night, ethics takes on a different meaning. As the cliché goes: in the wild it is to eat or being eaten. And my hopes are for the Reindeer Riders to have the lunch.