At the northernmost edge of Mongolia, where the country shifts from rolling steppe to forested Siberian taiga, a small group of people keeps herds of domestic reindeer among the high pastures of the Sayan Mountains. These people, who call themselves the Dukha and who are referred to as Tsataan or Tsachin in Mongolian, are of Tuvan origin; they came to Mongolia in the 1950’s, seeking refuge from conscription into the Russian army, and established a unique place for themselves within the wider sweep of Mongolian pastoralism. The Dukha, unlike Mongolians, keep their animals almost exclusively for dairy products and for transportation; most of the protein in the Dukha diet comes from elk, moose, deer, bear, wild caribou, and the other inhabitants of the high forested mountains along the Russian border. This reliance on hunting has created a corps of men who possess a unique and intimate knowledge of the landscape and wildlife of one of the world’s great wildernesses. For anyone trying to learn about wildlife in the region, the Dukha are an obvious and very important source.
Last year Jason Wilmot, our field assistant Miki, and I interviewed a Dukha man who had married a Mongolian woman and moved down to the steppe; his knowledge of wolverines was impressive, but we didn’t have time to ride up into the Dukha camps to seek more information from other hunters. This year, I returned to the Darhad Valley and the surrounding mountains; a serendipitous encounter with a young hunter in a café in the town of Tsagaan Nuur led me to the East Taiga, the smaller of the two Dukha camps, where men had hunted wolverine within the past year. Purevjau, the hunter with whom I first talked, shared endless stories of wolverines, which in the Tuvan language of the Dukha are referred to as jek’ve.
Jek’ve, Purevjau explained, are fairly useless; no one pays much attention to them, even though they cause some trouble for hunters. In the winter, when the Dukha men go out for weeks’-long hunting expeditions, wolverines break into the log boxes that the hunters build to store meat. Once, Purevjau and his fellow hunters killed a moose and built a log-box and placed the meat inside. They returned a month later to discover a hole chewed through the box. Inside, they found nothing but a pile of wolverine scat on one edge of the box, a puddle of frozen urine on the other. Wolverines, Purevjau concluded, are clean animals, doing their business as far away from their food as they can manage, even within the confines of a small space. On another occasion, Purevjau said, hunters opened a chewed-through meat cache to discover an angry wolverine inside; having devoured an entire moose, the animal had grown too fat to get back out.
Another time, about a decade ago, the hunters and two of their dogs encountered a wolverine and the dogs went after the animal. The hunters assumed that since it was two against one, the battle would be quick. Instead, the wolverine pinned one of the dogs and was on the point of killing her. The hunters tried to beat the wolverine away from the dog, hitting it again and again with a large stick. “It wouldn’t let go. It didn’t even seem to feel it,” Purevjau said around a cigarette. “Finally we knocked it out, but we had to hit it for a long time. The dog has a big scar here.” He passed his hand across the left side of his face.
“What happened to the wolverine?” I asked.
He hesitated, and then said, “We left it there.”
I wasn’t sure I believed this, but I didn’t press him. We were drinking reindeer-milk tea in Purevjau and his wife Zaya’s ortz, the tipi-like structure in which most Dukha live during the summer. My maps and wildlife pictures spread haphazardly across the floor, next to the tools that Purevjau uses to carve reindeer-antler sculpture. Hanging from the wall was an ongot, a hunting spirit. Strips of drying elk meat festooned a line stretched above the stove. Purevjau and his fellow hunters, looking through the maps, pointed out the drainages where they most frequently see wolverine tracks in the winter, and indicated places where they’d seen or killed animals. Despite on-going incredulity about my interest in a ‘useless’ and troublesome species, Purevjau’s enthusiasm for the topic matched mine.
“You want us to kill some wolverines for you this winter?” he asked.
This is always Mongolian hunters’ first suggestion, the legacy of a society in which the only way to get an animal to slow down enough to get a good look at it – let alone understand it – is to shoot it. The question and the response are precarious; I’m never sure I’m conveying how absolutely we do not want people killing wolverines for the sake of our project. But Zaya, who speaks English, helped clarify the details of what we can learn from living animals, particularly the difficult-to-explain technologies involved – DNA, GPS, telemetry, camera-traps. This year, I was aided by a copy of Doug Chadwick’s The Wolverine Way; the numerous photos of people handling live, sedated wolverines illustrated the processes we were discussing, and a map showing a week’s worth of travel by a collared wolverine earned approval.
I also had a copy of the PBS documentary in my backpack, and on the afternoon of my second day in the camp, we gathered in one of the neighboring ortz. The owner hitched a color television and a DVD player to a car battery and with half the camp gathered, Zaya pressed ‘play’ and proceeded to translate the entire show into Mongolian. After the showing, the audience said that they now understood why we were interested and that maybe wolverines weren’t so useless after all, just not very well understood. Later still, apparently, the people who had seen the film held a debate about the possibility of capturing and raising a wolverine kit, since the two in the film had been so endearing. Zaya reported that they concluded that all of the dogs would have to be kept permanently tied up if there was a wolverine in camp, and since that wouldn’t be fair to the dogs, the idea was scrapped.
Between wolverine sessions, I spent time hiking in the mountains around the camp, having tea and Tuvan lessons with the shaman, discussing mountain worship with Purevjau, and – I admit it – following the reindeer around with near-constant delight and wonder. It takes some time to get over the idea that these antlered creatures are domestic; instinct suggests that they should be wild and that you must possess some kind of personal magic to draw them so close. Dukha deer, however, are friendlier than horses and curious as puppies. Emerging from my ortz the first morning, I stood in astonishment as the nearest deer trotted toward me, passing so close that I saw my reflection in its eye. It paused, turned, extended its nose towards my hand, sniffed, looked at me, and then trotted off. The reindeer are salt-deprived, which explains some of their attentiveness to humans (anyone feeling the need to visit the bushes, beware….) but it’s hard to think that they aren’t genuinely interested in the people around them.
Dukha reindeer are the largest domestic reindeer in the world, as well as the gentlest; in winter, when their muscles are stronger than in the heat of summer, male reindeer can carry grown men or 100 kilograms of equipment. In Sweden, the Saami keep large herds of animals for meat, but the Saami deer are smaller and more wary of people. Turned loose in large herds on the tundra, Swedish reindeer are also susceptible to predators – chief among them, wolverines, which are regarded as pests and, at least until the Swedish government instituted a payment scheme for successful dens on Saami grazing lands, were frequently killed for depredating.
I anticipated similar stories from the Dukha, and we speculated that retaliatory killings for reindeer depredation would be a major cause of wolverine mortality in Mongolia. Our initial Dukha interviewee, however, had laughed at the idea that a wolverine could take down a reindeer. Purevjau reaffirmed that wolverines are a minor problem at most, which was a huge relief. Wolves, they said, were the big issue; jek’ve contented themselves with carrion most of the time, although they were also capable of hunting musk deer with great skill. Other potential food sources included marmots and pikas and, of course, the caches of unlucky hunters.
Looking at Doug Chadwick’s book, Purevjau and the other hunters pointed out that the live traps that we use in North America look very similar to the hunting boxes in which Dukha hunters store meat. Mongolian wolverines, Purevjau said, would be perfectly at ease going inside something that looked like that, and it would therefore be easy to catch them. He and the rest of the camp seemed disappointed when I said that I would first want to work only with camera traps, and move on to handling live animals later. They were, however, enthusiastic about the idea of participating in research. The Dukha camps are swarmed with foreigners whose varying agendas range from tourism to filmmaking to becoming shamans to serious academic research, but Purevjau and Zaya said that very few biologists have approached them about wildlife work. The small community is, like most small communities, beset by internal strife and political complications, but by the time I rode back down to the steppe three days later, I was convinced that the Dukha hunters would be a major asset to any research project. All that remains is to figure out how to make it happen.
The Dukha carve figurines out of reindeer antler to sell to tourists, and when I first heard about this, I asked if they happened to have a wolverine carving. Purevjau laughed and reiterated that no one paid enough attention to the species to want to carve it. The morning I left the camp, Purevjau came over and handed me something; a small wolverine loping across the snow, tail extended as it runs. He had carved it the night before, in anticipation of future research efforts, so that I would have my own jek’ve to accompany me until I returned.