If you missed the first part of our trip to visit the Tsaatan you can find it here http://adventurecalls.us/a-journey-of-a-lifetime/
As we approach the Tsaatan camp after a long and strenuous journey, we are elated to have finally reached our destination. Curious and shy stares from the children soon turn into big smiles as they welcome us. We would spend the next couple of days living alongside the Tsaatan reindeer-herding families and get a better understanding of their life and daily activities.
A trip to visit the Tsaatan is difficult and exhausting but well worth the effort. The climate is exceedingly harsh, and the terrain is rough and mountainous. Their camps can only be reached on horseback or on foot. My first thought when we arrived was “how do they keep all these animals in check?” The answer is quite simple and really ingenious, as the chief of the tribe would explain: they keep the young reindeer tied up so that the mothers will return to the babies, and the male reindeer will in turn follow the ladies. The first thing you will notice as you enter the camp is that the Tsaatan do not live in Gers like most Mongolian herders do, but rather in teepees which, like Gers, are easy to move and transport.
The Tsaatan tribe is one of a few tribes in the world who rely completely on their reindeer for their daily survival. The reindeer are used as pack animals and for transport; their milk to create butter, curd, and other dairy products; their antlers to create tools such as knives; and their pelts for clothing.
The Tsaatan live right on the border to the Siberian forests, and their lifestyle immediately takes you back in time. The herders consist of around 45 families spread over a few different areas in the Taiga forest, and today they have around 1,800 reindeer split between them. Traditionally they also relied on hunting for food, but the government has put in strict hunting regulations which are enforced by severe penalties such as jail time and huge fines. The fines are nearly impossible to pay for a reindeer herder without much of an income. The estimated combined income for the dozen or so families in the settlement that we visited is around $6,000 per year. Tourism has become an essential element of their life for both good and bad. On the positive side, the tourists bring greatly needed funds to the community, but not everyone in the community benefits from this. Currently the main way that these families gain revenue is by selling souvenirs and crafts to the visitors and charging a small fee for staying in the teepees. In order to make it more attractive for tourists to visit, they have moved their camp closer the nearest towns, despite the location being unsuitable for the survival of the reindeer herds. This is very sad to hear and goes against the entire foundation of their nomadic lifestyle. There are also some tourist donations handled by the Tsaatan Community Visitor Center (TCVC), but the donations are inconsistent and not mandatory. In addition, the government has agreed to give a small pension to the tribespeople, which does help to some extent.
Now there is a brighter outlook for the future. We believe there are ways to make it sustainable and possible to create a long-term beneficial relationship between tourist visitors and the tribe family members. Since 2006 the TCVC has been run and owned 100% by the Tsaatan community and has been an important part of creating a sustainable outlet for the Tsaatan. The foundation is there, but it needs to be taken to the next level. We were fortunate enough to have a long and productive discussion with the Chief of the tribe and Byamba, our guide, who is one of the original founders of the TCVC. We discussed what future efforts would be needed in order to ensure a successful outcome for all. For example, a mandatory conservation fee from every visitor should be implemented, and outposts should be built to serve as camps along the way to visit the Tsaatan. This way the Tsaatan can stay and live on their preferred grazing grounds, while the travelers will have an easier and more comfortable journey to reach them. We will stay in touch with Byamba through the TCVC and follow the development of these efforts as they unfold. We believe that the future of the Tsaatan will be decided now; hopefully it will go in the right direction.
As tourists, we have a huge responsibility and must be extremely careful not to exploit tribal communities like the Tsaatan. We must always show our utmost respect for their ways.