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Photographer Spends Seven Years Capturing a Lost Tribe’s Reindeer Culture in Mongolia



Dukha Deer

A glimpse into the simple nomadic lifestyle serves as proof reminding us it’s all about the little things.

Photographer and anthropologist, Hamid Sardar-Afkhami spent seven years with the Dukha tribe. Hamid always chooses to fully immerse himself in the cultures he visits to get the most out of his photos. During his time with the Dukha, he learned valuable lessons about an ever-changing world.


Photo by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

The Dukha tribe, also known as the Tsataans, descend from Russia’s Siberia and the northern province in Mongolia. They are mostly nomadic spending parts of the year traveling from pasture to pasture every seven to ten weeks. 

Most of their culture is made up of travel and herding reindeer. The reindeer are gentle animals and make excellent companions. Typically looked to as a means for transportation, when the reindeer are too young to ride the Dukha children are responsible for raising them.


Photo by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

As the reindeer mature, they are raised for milk, yogurt, and cheese. The reindeer are also a tourist attraction during various parts of the year. Offering reindeer rides to visitors, they make up to 5,000 Mongolian tugriks ($2.50) per ride or picture taken. On average, they make $250 a day from tourism. 

The Dukha are deeply spiritual and have formed a strong connection with the land and their animals. Aside from raising deer, they also train wolves, bears, and eagles. The eagles are trained to help with hunting and to train them marks a symbol of greatness in the tribe.  


Photo by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

The Dukha a Dying Tribe?

Much hasn’t changed in their day to day living from what it was hundreds of years ago. However, the modernized world continues to play a role in threatening their lineage. According to the last census in 2010, their population maxes at 282 people. This is less than 44 families. Their population, as well as the reindeer, dwindles as the world continues to advance in modern living and technology. 

“The number of families has fallen because a lot of them have been synthesized with the mainstream community,” Hamid mentions to CNN. “Many of them have moved to the towns and even to the capital cities.”

Many of the tribe’s youth are attracted to the appeal of modern life. Warm cabins and cars for travel become more inviting when faced with difficulty to continue tribal life as it once was. 

As the surrounding government protects grounds as national parks and close land off to hunting, the Dukha tribe struggle for food. The reindeer also face starvation as they typically use the space for grazing. 

However, there is hope for tribal rebirth. Enkatuya, a leader of a group of Dukhans, believes things will turn around. “Our young people are returning to continue our ancestral tradition,” she says. “They’re as close to the tribe and culture as they ever were. They’re continuing to speak our native language.”


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