Last of the reindeer hunters

Updated: 2013-10-15 07:35

(China Daily)

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China launched a nationwide project to preserve forests and counter natural disasters in the late 1990s; the program reduced tree felling in the Greater Hinggan Mountains, which range from the northeast to the southwest of Inner Mongolia for 1,200 km, and are the source of almost all the major rivers in northeastern China.

In 2003, as the country called for "ecological migration" to better protect the forests along the Greater Hinggan Mountains and improve local people's standard of living, two major non-Han ethnic groups that lived in this area, the Ewenki and the Oroqen, were relocated to the towns. The Aoluguya township was originally 200 km from Genhe, but the entire settlement was moved to the western outskirts of the city. Although the tribe had relocated around the forests several times in the preceding decades, the last move was the biggest change of all, because the people had never before lived so close to a city.

Yu Lan, 33, deputy head of the new Aoluguya township government, settled in with the tribe in 1999 and worked as a music teacher at a primary school.

"When I arrived, people's lives were not as poor as the outside world imagined," said Yu, who is Han, but whose husband is Ewenki. "The hunters had a good life selling what they made and gathered in the mountains. Precious antler velvet attracted many customers. Life was cozy, but relatively restricted to a small circle.

"The only major problems were the inconvenience of transport and the aging infrastructure," she recalled. The old township was 17 km from Mangui, the nearest town, and only one train per day ran between Mangui to Genhe.

"An increasing number of local high school students went to Genhe to gain a better education, but shuttling between the two spots was difficult. The power supplies and dams were out of repair. The clinic in the township could only treat minor illnesses and seeing a doctor was very inconvenient in the event of an emergency. "

Each of the 62 families made jobless by the relocation was provided with a free 5-square-meter cabin in the new neighborhood. At first, Xiao welcomed the relocation because of the improved living conditions, but he worried about losing his reindeer.

"Everyone began to raise reindeer in the yards of their new homes," he said. "But you have to realize that reindeer die if they leave the forests, so a short time after the relocation, many people swarmed back to live in the mountains."

Official statistics show that 244 people live in the new township, but some, including Xiao, opt to shuttle between their houses and their homes back at the hunting stations.

However, another change has proved more dramatic for Xiao. In 1996, a law was passed regulating the use of firearms. Following the 2003 relocation, a government order required all the Ewenki's hunting rifles to be taken into "collective custody".

"We are now hunters without guns," said Xiao, looking sullen. "Actually, the guns were not used for hunting in general, they were there to protect us and the reindeer."

In the old days, if a reindeer failed to return from its nocturnal foraging the hunters would search for the missing animal and they always carried guns in case of attack by black bears. Times have changed and now they have no weapons in their hands.

Because of this, Xiao only allows a few of his reindeer to rummage for food in the wild, and vigilantly keeps the rest near his camp. He clearly recalls June 10, 2013, when disaster hit his brother's reindeer.

"It had rained heavily. My sister-in-law was alarmed to see several young reindeer struggling to stand in the muddy ground, so she released them into the forest. And, they met a bear. . .

"Now if I encounter a bear in the forest, the only thing I can do is run away. Therefore, young people no longer dare to chase after missing reindeer.

"Please don't talk about guns anymore," Xiao paused, tears in his eyes. As if on cue, snowflakes begin to fall in the woods.

Yu admitted that the lack of protection is one of the major reasons that an increasing number of the Aoluguya have abandoned reindeer husbandry. Her husband's parents stopped around 2005, but more than 20 families still follow the old traditions today. She added that one family with a herd of about 100 reindeer once lost 38 of them in a bear attack.

"The Aoluguya people consider the loss as part of the natural cycle and thus generally remain calm, but this problem is looming over the whole forest. If we don't come up with a good idea, I'm afraid that reindeer husbandry will finally disappear," she explained.

The hunters have applied to get their guns back, but although the government has promised to resolve the dilemma, Xiao said he will have to wait for an unspecified period of time and he is unsure whether he will ever hold a rifle again.

"My 26-year-old son prefers to live in the town, and even as a child he didn't like shooting," he added.