The Reindeer Life Project (RLP) is a dynamic endeavor that seeks to revitalize and protect the Tsaatan reindeer-herding community of northern Mongolia. The Tsaatan are Mongolia’s smallest ethnic minority, and are a nomadic people who depend on reindeer for nearly all aspects of survival. In response to challenges such as unstable health among the community’s reindeer herd and lack of socio-economic opportunities, Itgel’s Reindeer Life Project has incorporated a wide-range of activities designed to ensure the community’s long term health and sustainability.

The RLP’s activities include research, treatments, and training on a variety of human and animal health issues, including calf mortality, infectious disease mitigation, nutrition, and herd management. Designed to build capacity at the local level, the RLP features exchanges with international experts including veterinarians, epidemiologists, reindeer biologists, dentists and physicians, who train and consult with local health professionals and community members to seek long term health solutions. The project is shaped by the core belief that a healthy, stable reindeer herd is essential for Tsaatan community health, and that a healthy community of herders is essential for successful reindeer husbandry.

Reindeer Life Project Update - July 2008

Since the project’s launch in 2003, Itgel’s Reindeer Life Project has continued to expand and produce exciting results. Initially designed to explore the Tsaatan community’s concerns about loss of genetic diversity (inbreeding) in their reindeer herd, the RLP has diversified enormously, with genetic issues coming to represent only a small portion of the project’s total activities.

Itgel’s comparative genetic analysis of the Tsaatan’s reindeer herd, completed in conjunction with Norwegian and Canadian reindeer geneticists, suggests a confirmation of the belief that genetic diversity of the herd has likely been reduced as a result of historic culling programs and forced relocations. However, the results also suggest that enough genetic diversity exists within the population that management strategies such as bull swaps and selective breeding could likely mitigate the threat of inbreeding, without the need for more costly and involved efforts such as artificial insemination or the import of live reindeer from abroad. More importantly, the project’s early years of research indicated that a variety of other factors were at play in stifling the health of the herd.

Seasonal field work throughout 2004 and 2008 by Itgel’s international team of health professionals has produced a set of data that is unmatched in its comprehensiveness on the current health and conditions of the Tsaatan’s reindeer herd. This one-of-a-kind information set has revealed that infectious disease, parasites, management strategies, and nutrition are among the factors that have contributed to sub-optimal herd health in previous years. Armed with quantitative data backed by qualitative understanding of herders’ needs and priorities, Itgel has worked to develop mitigation programs and initiatives with one goal in mind: strengthen the health and overall herd numbers of the Tsaatan’s reindeer population so that the community will have a sustainable, viable resource for meeting their basic needs and maintaining their way of life.

In recent years, the RLP has featured research and treatments on diseases such as anaplasma and tick-borne infections, Brucellosis, viral lesions, and pneumonia. Our research has uncovered three never-before-seen ailments in the species, and catalyzed new treatment protocols that have significantly improved the acute health of individual animals in the herd. We have also worked with Tsaatan veterinary technicians and herders to train them on prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases, fulfilling Itgel’s goal of ensuring 100% sustainability in all our efforts. We have seen a steady decline in the number of acutely sick animals, and a decrease in morbidity.

We have also conducted ground-breaking research on nutrition and forage availability that has generated critical information on the composition of taiga pasture resources and the effectiveness of herd management decision-making. Nutritional analysis of taiga pastures show that a far greater number of reindeer could be supported by the ecosystem, but that improved nutrition and body condition could be achieved through new management techniques. We have therefore consulted with herders to develop strategies for ensuring long-term nutrition such as pasture selection based on understanding of reindeer nutritional needs and supplemental feeding when necessary.

Throughout its history, the RLP has also responded to herder’s requests for improved record-keeping and identification of individual animals. This is of critical importance if diseases are to be controlled and selective breeding is to be successful. Itgel has therefore delivered customized herd record keeping books to each Tsaatan household, and developed a reindeer ID system using unique codes for each animal. Annual herd census counts that parallel this work are now being used to track individual reindeer health and population-wide trends. We are proud to report that as of summer 2008, the reindeer population was approximately 900 animals, a significant increase from a count of roughly 450 reindeer when Itgel first conducted a herd-wide census.

In sum, the RLP has addressed reindeer health through comprehensive, holistic activities that incorporate scientific research, direct treatments and perhaps most importantly training and consultations with herders. By incorporating community members in all aspects of the project, we continue to work towards our goal of a point when Itgel’s support is no longer needed, and the community has an internal capacity to maintain and promote reindeer health for generations to come.

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Project Updates At-a-Glance...

2008 Activities

  • Diagnostic and typing activities on the disease Brucellosis using cutting-edge field and lab procedures, working towards the goal of creating a Tsaatan reindeer-specific brucella vaccine
  • Treatment and training activities on acutely-ill reindeer continue, led by Dr. Bruce Smith (Animal Clinic of Parker) in conjunction with Tsaatan vet techs Borhoo and Ganbat, and visiting veterinarians Dr. Erdenebaatar and Dr. Sophia Papageorgiou
  • First-ever investigations on tick-borne diseases, led by Dr. Sophia Papageorgiou (Univ. of California Davis)
  • Partnerships with Mongolia’s Institute of Veterinary Medicine continue, featuring joint field work with Dr. Erdenebaatar, and collaborative laboratory work with Dr. Erdenebaatar and Dr. Battsetseg
  • Body condition score (BCS) monitoring continues and first-ever data on calf weight is collected in order to track herd nutrition and health
  • Collection of forage species and research on herd nutrition continues, led by Dr. Greg Finstad (Univ. of Alaska’s Reindeer Research Program)
  • Immunological investigations commence, led by Zoe Purtzer (Oregon Health Sciences University)
  • Delivery of herd health reports and recommendations to the Mongolian Ministry of Agriculture, Hovsgol Province Veterinary Department, and local veterinary clinics
  • Support in coordinating a site visit by British dentist to perform much-needed dental work for Tsaatan herders

Previous Years Accomplishments

  • Hosted world-leading veterinarian Dr. Jerry Haigh (Univ. of Saskatchewan) to conduct research, treatments, and training programs related to genetics, epidemiology, and management (2004, 2005, 2006)
  • Hosted research scientist Victoria Gerwing (Bova-Can Research Laboratories) in conjunction with Veterinarians Without Borders (Canada) to conduct advanced PCR laboratory work related to disease diagnostics and genetics (2005-06)
  • Hosted reindeer biologist Dr. Greg Finstad ((Univ. of Alaska’s Reindeer Research Program) to conduct first-ever nutrition and forage research and consultations with herders to maximize herd health (2006, 2008)
  • Optional screen testing for infectious diseases and general health for Tsaatan herders, led by Dr. Sara Enebish (Mongolian Health Sciences University) (2006)
  • Facilitated disease prevention workshops with Tsaatan herders focusing largely on Brucellosis (2004-08)
  • Distribution of medicine and treatments for herders suffering from Brucellosis and other diseases (2004-08)
  • Annual mass screen testing for Brucellosis and other infections among the entire reindeer population (2004-08)
  • Delivery of treatment supplies and vet kits for Tsaatan veterinary technicians with sponsorship from Schering Plough Animal Health (2004-08)
  • Production and distribution of herd record-keeping books (2004)
  • Delivery and application of ear tags to satisfy herders’ request to implement an animal ID system (2007-08)
  • Annual provision of herd-wide anti-parasite treatments (ivermectin) with support from the Reindeer Owner’s and Breeder’s Association (ROBA) (2004-2007) and lobbying activities to secure long-term supplies through the Mongolian Ministry of Agriculture
  • And much more!
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