The Buriyads of Mongolia are a nomadic people. But their way of life is threatened due to mismanagement of their environment. The WWF wants to change this.
These Mongolian camels can still graze peacefully in the grasslands. But their habitat is threatened.
Northeastern Mongolia, where the grasslands meet the Siberian Taiga, is a region with a unique history and biodiversity. Declared a national park in 2000, it’s also home to a unique people: the Buriyads.
This ethnic minority faces a difficult situation in Mongolia. Since most of their relatives live across the nearby border in the Buriyad Republic of the Russian Federation, they have little ties to the country.
"Most of them moved here to the Mongolian side of the border during the October Revolution," says Giikhnaran, manager of the Society for the National Parks and herself a Buriyad. "Later, the border was closed and they couldn't move back."
She points out that nomads are dependent on moving with nature, and not being restricted by borders. "Now, these Buriyads are Mongolian citizens, just like the rest. But they still have a different culture and a lifestyle that's more like it is in Russian villages."
This makes life hard for them, because Mongolians live to a large extent in their families and communities. And Buriyads tend to have few relatives here.
Buriyad wooden house
The Buriyad culture is also in danger of disappearing in Mongolia. "We used to be really good at working with wood," Giikhnaran says. Now, only a few people still know this craft. This group is also gradually losing their language, she adds. "I would like to do everything in my power to ensure these traditions don't get lost."
Fortunately, Giikhnaran is not alone. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has identified the Buriyads and their culture, together with the area where they live, as in need of special protection and support.
Restoring the harmony between man and nature
The WWF wants to involve the local Buriyad communities in the management of their natural resources. And the organization can pick up on a long tradition, says Batbold, head of conservation at WWF Mongolia.
"Mongolia is a nomadic nation and we move seasonally, as the needs of our livestock dictate," he explains. "And because of that, our lifestyle is in very close contact with nature." Traditionally, the Buriyads have great respect towards the environment.
Wolf in Mongolia
But unfortunately, the harmony between man and nature has got out of balance in Mongolia.
Compared with the western world, the nomadic way of keeping livestock is very much in tune with the environment, says Batbold. But when the number of grazing animals exceeds the permissible limit, there's a problem. "And now we have that problem."
In spite of all the well-meaning efforts of the government since democratization back in 1990, progress has been slow. Following the end of the farming collectives and other state-subsided enterprises, many people found themselves without work and returned to life as herders. This increased the number of animals and the strain on the land.
A further problem has also surfaced as a result of weak law enforcement, says Batbold. Hunting the region’s wildlife is being misused. Animal parts are being sold to neighboring China, where they are implemented in traditional medicine.
Irene Quaile with Zunduidorj
Zunduidorj, famed as one of the region's most successful hunters, has lived all his 83 years in the Onon Balj national park (photo with DW-RADIO's Irene Quaile). He says it is sad to see the hunters of today.
"They are very different from we were. At that time, when we shot an elk, we would put a stone under the head, we had rituals and a ceremony, where we asked to be allowed to take it," Zunduidorj explains.
"Nowadays, so-called hunters kill animals and pick up what they need: embryos, the tail of a female elk, the penis of a male elk and those sort of things and that's it."
Helping sustain the environment
Giikhnaran from the National Parks Society says that over the last 10 years, the number of large mammals in the region has dwindled: elks, deer, brown bears, wild boars, also fish.
"In our park, poverty is the major problem," she says. Around 1,300 people live there and almost all of them are herders. "Traders come up here and give very little in exchange for a calf or for parts of wild animals. These people are fighting for survival. We want to help reduce poverty."
In an effort to do just that, WWF is providing a grant for co-management projects in the Onon Balj National Park. "Only the local people, using the way of living they've had for thousands of years in their land, only they can do something," says Batbold.
This is why the WWF is putting the management of their environment in their hands. "This land belongs to them, to their next generation. They should keep this environment usable for their next generation," he says.