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On the Trail of Siberia's Huge Reindeer Herds : Herdsmen Endure a Hard Life as They Oversee the Animals for the Government

Charles Hillinger's America

September 23, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER

TULENEUT ON BOL'SHOY ANYUY RIVER, Soviet Union — The thundering hoofs of 3,000 reindeer making their way down the steep arctic mountain slopes grew steadily louder.

Whistles and shouted commands from eight herders added to the clamor as the huge antlered animals headed for the turquoise-colored, ice-choked Bol'shoy Anyuy River.

Every time some of the herd peeled off and headed in the wrong direction, dogs raced to the strays, leaping high into the air and nipping at their legs.

Gathered at the foot of the treeless mountain in the grass and lichen-covered river valley were the reindeer herders' wives and children.

There also were four doctors and two nurses from a Soviet government-sponsored medical brigade making their periodic visit. They were accompanied by a dozen members of an Alaskan medical expedition, who had come to share information and observe the procedures of caring for these nomadic people in this faraway place.

Tuleneut, the reindeer herders camp, is 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle and an equal distance from the nearest town. No roads lead here.

The Eveni herdsmen were not surprised by the presence of the medical brigade. Nor was the bright orange Aeroflot helicopter they had come in considered unusual.

But the Americans, now that was something else. The Eveni had never seen Americans before. To mark this most unusual occasion, they decided to prepare a feast.

A herdsman lassoed a reindeer from those gathered along the shores of the frozen river. He ran alongside it for several minutes, gradually reeling in the rope.

He wrestled the reindeer to the ground, holding onto its antlers as the other herdsmen and their families ran toward him. One of the men plunged a long knife repeatedly into the animal until it was dead.

Two of the wives quickly cut the hide away, then they removed the heart, ribs and various body parts as small children gathered close to watch.

The meat was carried into one of the herders' reindeer-hide yarangas (huge tent home), where it was boiled in big pots over an open fire.

People picked the meat from a serving bowl and ate it with their hands; the Americans, the medical brigade and the Eveni all enjoyed the meal of tender and flavorful--not gamy--reindeer.

There are more reindeer in the Magadan Region (an area more than three times the size of California) of eastern Siberia than anywhere else in the world. Upwards of 500,000 of the animals are cared for by the nomadic Chukchi, Eveni and other native people, and scores of camps, like Tuleneut, are scattered across thousands of miles of otherwise uninhabited permafrost and tundra.

For three weeks, the reindeer herders and their animals had wandered the countryside, where reindeer grazed in lush valleys and mountain slopes. Now the herders would spend three days in Tuleneut with their families and the medical brigade, their herd foraging close by.

While herders tend animals that are constantly on the move, their wives and children live alone in the yarangas. The men drive the herd back to the camp once every three weeks to a month.

"It's a hard life, but it's a life our people have been accustomed to for generations, for hundreds of years," said Vera Diachkova, 47, speaking Russian in her yaranga with her daughter, Anna, 12, and granddaughter, Ella, 6. She speaks Russian and her native Eveni. Her home was filled with smoke from a heating fire.

Diachkova explained that the herd is the property of the Soviet government, except for 30 deer each herder's family is allowed to own. The herders receive 200 rubles a month ($34 U.S.) for tending the herds.

In the fall, the deer are driven to central locations to be slaughtered by government butchers. Reindeer meat in Siberia is as common as pork and beef in America, and deer sausage is popular throughout the Soviet Union. Herders salt and preserve the meat that is the mainstay of their diet.

The government's medical brigades fly in helicopters to remote camps, spending one to three days in each location. Dr. Faina Shtock, a 40-year-old dentist, was one of the group visiting Tuleneut.

She explained why she has chosen the duty for six years: "I enjoy this work tremendously. The reindeer herders and their families live in this miserable Siberian climate miles from civilization. It is a difficult life, but the only life they know. We try to help them in every way we can."

Dr. Larissa Abrutena, 35, head of the medical brigade, said herders have foot problems, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory ailments and sicknesses due to cold exposure in winter when temperatures here dip to 50 to 80 below zero.

The Alaskan medical expedition, led by Dr. Ted Mala of the University of Alaska, also visited Rytkuchi on Chaunskaya Bay in the Arctic Ocean's East Siberian Sea.

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