Melting Away: In China’s Far North a once proud tradition of reindeer herding breathes its last

Matthew Walsh, with Daniel Holmes, Wu Huiyuan and Li You:

Such is the modern herder’s life, one of GPS trackers, long truck rides, store-bought feed — and bureaucracy. These days, He Lei must submit paperwork and pass through checkpoints just to see his animals. “We’re restricted,” he grumbles. “We can’t go here, we can’t go there.”

He Lei is a giant of a man. Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, he wears his hair in an unkempt tumble and stretches jazzy-colored T-shirts over his formidable belly. His lifestyle is fairly typical of today’s reindeer herders: He spends most of his time at home in New Aoluguya with his wife, 2-year-old daughter, and grandmother. His animals remain in the surrounding forest, where they forage for meager amounts of the lichen that’s supposed to form the mainstay of their diet. He Lei keeps a cabin in the woods.

He Lei says that reindeer herding — and Evenki culture itself — is dying out.

Winters are long and bitter. Genhe, the city that governs New Aoluguya, holds the record for China’s coldest recorded temperature, a soul-numbing minus 58 degrees Celsius. When the snows come, He Lei often spends several days in his cabin, rearing his reindeer on city-bought feed. Things get busier in the spring, when the doe give birth to lanky fawns. Some summers, He Lei saws off a few antlers and sells them for profit.

Life for today’s herders is a far cry from that of their ancestors. Historically, the Evenki lived in urilen, close-knit communities of families linked through the male bloodline. The urilen spent life permanently on the move, setting up camp every few days before heading on to new pastures when they or their reindeer had exhausted local food sources.