Opinion: coverage of the Tsaatan people by two American networks

Recently, two large american TV networks have done identical stories on Tsaatan people that live in Tsagaan nuur soum of Khovsgol aimag in remote northern province neighboring Russia. However, their angle is different.Both featured Americans attempting to assist the reindeer people. Different names have been used for same group of people by the networks. MSNB uses "Reindeer people and Tsaatan." ABC calls the same people "Dukha" a relatively less used name.

MSNBC's Adrienne Mong, news producer of NBC called her story " Mongolia's Reindeer People Jump Into the Future" . Mong writes " 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.So they reached out to a young American woman named Morgan Keay, who at the time was researching the community."

Dan Plumley, an American who founded Totem People's Project told to Clarissa Ward, reporter of ABC News" they just basically grabbed me by the lapels and said, 'You can't leave us, you're the only who knows that we're challenged people and we're facing extinction and we need help".

Wow....Wait here, I think Mr.Dan Plumley is slightly exagerrating his role and importance. He can't be the only one...Let me explain why Mr.Dan Plumley can not be the only one who knows how to save the Reindeer people. I'll start with the history of Tsaatan people.

In Mongolia, they are referred to as "Tsaatan" or "Reindeer people".
Tsaatan people live in deep taiga forests north of lake "Khovsgol" Mongolian main tourist area. They are few in numbers and live off the reindeer.Previously during 1950s, Mongolian government formed Tsagaannuur soum for the Tsaatan and built schools and hospital and administrative centers there. Reindeers were collectivized and Tsaatan became members of collective reindeer farm. By early 1990s, Mongolia shifted to free market economy and democracy and collective farms throughout Mongolia privatized. Tsaatan did not avoid this fate and once again, they are back to their traditional nomadic root on their own.No more state policy on protecting gene pool of reindeer herds and import of more reindeer from Tuva, a reighboring Russian republic.

That is where, international NGOs stepped in.... A vacuum left since disintegration of the previous social system. Many non-governmental organizations have been formed and started to raise funding in the name of Tsaatan. Objective and goal of these NGOs are strikingly similar-to save the reindeer people from extinction.However, many miserably failed and gone as they were active just in papers only and attempted to capitalize on exotic "Tsaatan" people. Today, reindeer people are used to attract tourist flow in the Khovsgol lake area. One can see announcements as " join trips to see reindeer people in Khovsgol lake. Space available and no profit" in guesthouses of UB and websites often.
During summer, some of the Tsaatan comes down to the lake "Khovgsol" and act as tourist objects.. Tour operators include "visit the genuine tsaatan" in their tour list. Tourists started to distinguish between "genuine" and "fake" Tsaatans. Extinction of the Tsaatan will be real if the existing few reindeers die down and no new reindeer herds are imported across the border from Tuva. However, it seems, no NGO has been doing that. Couple of years ago, there was talk of Mongolian government to import 500 reindeer. Nobody knows what happened of that.

At least at seems Ms.Keyan's "Itgel" foundation is attempting to organize Tsaatan into cooperatives and companies so, tsaatan can benefit from the tourism.

How much of the tourism industry's profit really benefits the very people it uses as a " bait" to lure tourists in the area? How are these NGOs really "assisting" the Tsaatan people?
These are the tough questions the reporters apparently avoided.....

By Ganbat of MonInfo news service



  1. Ganbat:

    Thanks for your excellent editorial on the ABC and MSNBC news peices on the Tsaatan/Dukha and their reindeer. My quotes were factual from my experience with the Dukha and related Soyot herders to the north in Russia with whom I have worked since 1993. Back then, there were no other foreigners working across both borders on aid to the reindeer herders and these were their words. Short news pieces edit down stories and often short quotes are taken out of context -- still this has been valuable coverage of at least some of the challenges facing native, nomadic reindeer herders. Our project, one of a few now, have helped significantly restore the reindeer from around 400 to nearly 1,000 head of far healthier animals and create the antler craft market that most herder families use for some key income. Our Mongolian veterinarian is in the field with herders right now, as she has done for 10 years. The biggest threat the herders now have is the lack of legal surety to their lands in the face of mining leases, timber interests, tourism developer interests and, of course, climate change impacting their habitat and hunting wild game resources. Projects like the Totem Project, Itgel and others can and have made significant strides due to the herder's own leadership, but government action on both Russia and Mongolia's part will be key.

    Thanks for the great blog on Mongolia views. It is a great resource for all of us who care deeply about the future of your great country Mongolia.


    Dan Plumley

  2. Dan,
    Thank you for your comment and kudos to your Project and Itgel foundations efforts to help tiny Tsaatan community in Khovsgol. My story on the coverage of Tsaatan is not intended to be a personal attack on you and the others. My concern was the story did not provide full picture of plight of Tsaatan or Dukha people in Khovsgol. Currently, Tsaatan is seen as exotic people living in idealized environment. Not many knows about hardships and difficulties of Tsaatan life.

    We, at MonInfo News Service try to do stories praising good efforts by people like you.



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