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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

244 Reindeer Are Fulfilling a Yakut's Dream

MTReindeer gathering to be dehorned at the Tomtor corral in the taiga of Sakha. The northern republic is trying to build a new industry around the animals.
Editor's note: This is the first of two stories.

TOMTOR CORRAL, Sakha Republic -- Several times a week, Innokenty Ivanov gets up before dawn and bangs on a metal bowl with a wooden stick. As the clanging pierces the still air, a dull rumbling reverberates through the surrounding forest as 244 hungry reindeer make their way to breakfast.

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Welcome to the Tomtor corral, nestled in Sakha's snow-blanketed taiga. The corral represents the region's hopes to revive the local tradition of reindeer herding -- and to build a new industry around it.

"My dream is coming true," Ivanov, a native Yakut, said through an ice-covered moustache and beard. "I want the numbers to recover; I want people to keep reindeer," he said, speaking in Russian with an accent so thick that he often turned to his fellow herders to explain his comments to a reporter.

At 68, Ivanov is the eldest of the four herders who work here and is referred to as "The Old Man." It was he who chose the location for Tomtor -- which means "small hill" -- and he is now teaching others to care for the half-domesticated livestock.

The herd roams the forest freely but several times a week comes to the corral to eat. "They should feel that they have a home," said Afanasy Petrov, an on-site veterinarian.

When the animals are outside the corral, the herders guard them by snowmobile; in the corral, they feed, weigh and count them. The reindeer are being raised for their antlers and blood, which are processed to make bath treatments, energy drinks and other health products at a small plant that opened in Yakutsk in late December.

Sakha, one of the world's major reindeer-herding regions, boasts 174,000 reindeer, according the republic's branch of the Agriculture Ministry. Some live in the taiga, a subarctic evergreen forest; others live in treeless, witheringly cold tundra hundreds of kilometers from the republic's capital, Yakutsk.

Getting to Tomtor, the nearest corral to Yakutsk, requires a bumpy, 140-kilometer ride in a UAZ Patriot followed by another 20 kilometers through taiga at a crawling pace of 20 kilometers per hour. First-time visitors are asked to please the spirits. On the way to Tomtor, a reporter was asked to get out of the car in the middle of the taiga, thank the land for its hospitality, pour some vodka on the ground and drink the rest. In old times, kumys, a traditional Asian drink made of fermented horse milk, was poured on the ground. The elders frown on the current practice of using vodka instead, said Arnold Fyodorov, an official with a reindeer-breeding company called Taba, which works under the auspices of the regional agriculture authority and owns the Tomtor herd.

For years, the antlers of Maral deer and reindeer have been exported abroad, but Sakha officials believe the time has come to process reindeer products at home.

"Being close to such riches, we need to start implementing innovative technologies," Sakha's top agriculture official, Aiaal Stepanov, said in an interview. "That's what I support." A local agricultural research institute that Stepanov directs is overseeing the pilot project at the Tomtor corral.

On a recent visit to Tomtor, many reindeer that had been dehorned recently looked more like cows than the graceful creatures of Christmas cards. One animal still had drops of blood on its forehead. It took the herders about one hour to round up the unruly animals and place them in a special enclosure to be counted.

Fyodorov, who heads the reindeer-breeding department at Taba, explained that the reindeer were afraid of the pen, a place associated with pain. "They were hurt there. That memory stays," he said.

He quickly pointed out, however, that cutting off the antlers and making cuts in the reindeers' necks to collect blood were about the only way that the herders could earn money without killing the animals.

Reindeer herding as well as horse breeding are critical to the livelihood and identity of Northern peoples like the Yakuts and Evenkis. President Vladimir Putin visited Sakha last year, and he agreed to make reindeer and horse breeding a priority in the national projects, the multibillion-dollar social programs aimed at improving agriculture, housing, health care and education.

On Thursday, Putin drew attention to the peoples of the North, saying during his annual news conference that "large companies, when investing, should take care to retain the traditional activities of these peoples."

Putin's trip to Sakha was preceded by a visit by Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev, the first federal agriculture minister to travel to the region since the early 1970s. Sakha is the largest subnational territory in the world, spanning more than 3,000 kilometers and three time zones.

The planned economy of the Soviet Union used to prop up Sakha herders, but the post-Soviet chaos took a huge toll on them. As the reindeer population declined, many Yakuts were left with no means of support. More than 35 percent of Sakha's population lives in the countryside.

Stepanov, the agriculture chief, said the government managed to reverse the trend in 2002 by paying salaries to the region's 1,900 herders as well as their wives, known as chum rabotnitsy, or workers of the chum, a domed single-room dwelling used by herders in the tundra.

"They should be able to get normal wages," Stepanov said. This year, he said, federal authorities would start allocating subsidies to support reindeer and horse breeding.

Because few crops grow in the permafrost, animal breeding accounts for 75 percent of the local agriculture. At 290,000 heads of cattle, beef is the most popular meat, but horsemeat is also widely eaten and served in local restaurants.

The hardy Yakut horse is smaller than most other breeds, has a thick skin and requires no shelter. A symbol of pride for the Yakut people, it is featured on the republic's coat of arms and the 10-ruble coin, among other things.

Local scientists believe Yakut horsemeat is a powerful protector from radiation and say the Japanese used to buy it back in Soviet times.

Hiroki Takakura, who specializes in Siberian ethnography at the Center for Northeast Asian Studies at Japan's Tohoku University, said he had heard that Yakut horsemeat had medicinal qualities but expressed doubt that it had been widely sold. "Even livestock specialists in Japan usually do not know about the existence of the Yakut horse," he said by e-mail.

Sakha officials are pinning their hopes on the small plant in Yakutsk.

"We long dreamed of opening the plant," said Alexei Mandarov, general director of Taba, which runs the plant.

"Selling unprocessed antlers doesn't make much economic sense," he said in his office, a simple room containing a wooden desk and table and faux wooden walls. The wall behind him is adorned with two portraits, one of Putin and the other of the republic's president, Vyacheslav Shtyrov.

The plant, which employs just six people, expects to process 18 ton of reindeer products this year and to expand its product range down the road, Mandarov said. "I want to start with small things," he added, pointing to a cluster of little plastic jars containing bath powder made of reindeer blood. The powder is dissolved in water to create a modern version of the traditional blood bath, which is popular among the indigenous peoples as a cure for many ailments.

The agriculture chief has bigger plans. Stepanov, the grandson of a hunter who studied at a Tokyo university, spoke of establishing a venture fund of sorts that would invest in start-up companies similar to Taba. He reckoned the fund would need 45 million rubles to 60 million rubles ($1.7 million to $2.3 million) per year. His agency spent 6 million rubles on research last year and 5 million in 2005.

While the reindeer project is profit oriented, some of the other regional investment programs seem aimed more at keeping Yakuts and other Northern peoples busy -- and sober. Sakhabult, a fur and leather products plant and one of the republic's major industrial enterprises, is a case in point. The region-owned company has been supporting local hunters by purchasing their furs since the early 1990s. It now buys from 5,000 hunters, and "most of them make their livelihood off this work," said Nikolai Smetanin, first deputy director at Sakhabult. It would be a financially sound company if not for a farm of 10,000 to 15,000 silver foxes that operates at a loss because, Smetanin said, "long-haired furs are not fashionable at the moment." The feed for the foxes is expensive and some of it, like Alaska Pollock fillet, has to be shipped in from Vladivostok.

Despite the difficulties, the regional government will not let Sakhabult jettison the farm in Khangalassky Ulus, Smetanin said. "If we shut it down, the settlement will be left without jobs," he said.

Subsidized jobs are not the only challenge facing the indigenous communities. Major looming problems include climate change, the loss of grazing land and further industrial development. Moreover, state pipeline monopoly Transneft is building a major pipeline to Asian markets and last year was forced to reroute it through Sakha, instead of Lake Baikal, to address environmental concerns.

"The permafrost hasn't been studied in full yet. If a pipe explodes, it will be a catastrophe," said Fyodorov, the Taba official.

But those problems are not discouraging people like Mandarov, the head of Taba and a Yakut by nationality.

"The main thing is for the indigenous peoples to retain their way of life," he said.

And that is what he and everyone else involved in the Tomtor corral are trying to do.