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Ecological development revives, preserves Chinese reindeer tribe

Gu Musen feeds reindeer at his breeding area in Aoluguya nationality township in Genhe, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, on Aug 6, 2020. [Photo by Zhao Shiyue/]

It was an early December morning when the sun, as always, rose from the east, and shined on a dense birch forest filled with snow. With temperatures at 40 below in the northwestern Greater Hinggan Mountains of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Gu Musen called his reindeer out to feed them with moss.

Two years ago, when the 33-year-old herdsman began raising reindeer and recording his daily life via the short video app Douyin, also known as TikTok, his posts have gone viral, garnering millions of likes and has attracted nearly 160,000 followers.

To revive China’s last ancient reindeer herding tribe and help Ewenki’s inhabitants leave the mountains, local authorities of the Aoluguya nationality township have spent decades on efforts to boost the area’s sustainable growth, focusing on cultural heritage inheritance, environmental protection and ecological tourism development.

Gu is one of the 200 or so herders in the tribe who have reaped the benefits. He worked as a veterinarian after the government set up a reindeer conservation station in 2015, and started his own business four years later breeding reindeer in the forest.

“I have over 30 reindeer now and mainly make money through selling velvet antlers, which are known for culinary and medicinal properties,” Gu said. “In addition, as tourism has been booming in recent years and more people come here to experience Ewenki’s Arctic culture, I can earn over 1,000 yuan ($143.9) per day during peak season in summer.”

To revive reindeer culture and sustain increase in herders’ income, local officials carried out tax-free policies and offered tents, recreational vehicles and daily supplies free of charge. With years of effort, the number of breeding centers has grown to 16 in operation, and the reindeer population witnessed a steady growth, from about 100 to 1,200.

Tourists interact with a reindeer at Gu Musen’s breeding area at Aoluguya nationality township in Genhe, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, on Aug 6, 2020. [Photo by Zhao Shiyue/]

As Gu Musen’s videos gained popularity on social media platforms, he gradually recognized his responsibility to inherit and spread the tribe’s traditional culture. “I used to show little ethnic identity towards my hometown, and considered reindeer breeding tiring and old-fashioned work,” Gu said. “However, I’ve developed a deep connection with these lovely creatures, which exists as belief and spiritual support for Ewenkis.”

When talking of the future, Gu Musen decided to further expand the reindeer population and partner with schools on education, spreading the minority group’s heritage from one generation to the next.

Zhang Guofeng’s family hotel at Aoluguya nationality township in Genhe, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, on Aug 6, 2020. [Photo by Zhao Shiyue/]

Zhang Guofeng, 58, who manages a family hotel with three rooms in Aoluguya, has also lifted herself out of the low-income group and found a way to wealth. After working away from home for over 10 years, Zhang and her husband have returned as tourism prospers in this remote forest area.

“All rooms are fully booked during the peak tourism season from July to August,” said Zhang, “and my income reaches around 20,000 yuan for those two months.”

Zhang is one of the ecological migrants of 62 Ewenki families who moved from mountains to the national minority community under the government’s environmental protection project starting in 2002. With 160 million yuan of investment, local authorities constructed 32 units of two-tier houses in the city suburb, with 88 square meters each.

To maintain the balance between local inhabitants and natural resources, a permanent hunting ban was also enforced the same year.

The interior of Zhang Guofeng’s family hotel at Aoluguya nationality township in Genhe, Inner Mongolia autonomous region on Aug 6, 2020. [Photo by Zhao Shiyue/]

“Before 2003, the Ewenkis in Aoluguya earned a living via hunting wildlife and made only about 300 yuan a month, while their lives saw significant improvement after ecological migration,” said Zhang Wanjun, head of the Aoluguya nationality township.

According to official statistics, the government has injected over 100 million yuan since 2003 to stimulate local tourism by taking advantage of the town’s unique culture and natural resources.

By selling reindeer products and managing homestay businesses, the net income per capita of rural hunters soared from 1,277 yuan to around 20,000 yuan a year, statistics show.

De Keli makes reindeer leather handicrafts at Aoluguya nationality township in Genhe, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, on Aug 6, 2020. [Photo by Zhao Shiyue/]

Although Ewenkis in Aoguluya have left the mountains and stepped into modern life, they still maintain the traditional lifestyle and remain devoted to preserving the tribe’s precious cultural heritage.

De Keli, 48-year-old, has been making ethic clothing and leather handicrafts for nearly 20 years. As one of the intangible cultural heritage inheritors in Innner Mongolia autonomous region, she tries to integrate contemporary aesthetic ideas with Ewenki’s traditional totems by engraving complex graphics on reindeer fur.

In 2018, with help of the government, De Keli set up an entrepreneurial base and offered training courses for rural women on how to make fur and leather crafts.

“Poverty alleviation is not a matter of making money alone, but learning practical skills to earn a living,” De Keli said. “By working in my handicraft base, their income could reach 8,000 to 20,000 yuan in two months.”

Zhang considers the key of sustainable development to be the transformation in locals’ ideas, concepts and thoughts. “Only when we explore new ways of development can the Ewenki reindeer tribe experience more opportunities for ethnic prosperity.”

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