Santa’s reindeer may work only once a year, but in real life, reindeer herding is a never-ending task.
Filmmaker Joel Santos saw that firsthand when he went deep into Northern Mongolia to visit a tiny Tsaatan community, one of the few left who still pursue the ancient tradition of nomadic reindeer herding.
The people of Zyyn Taiga depend on reindeer for meat, milk and cheese, as well as transportation and clothing. Reindeer hides also serve as the covering for teepees, which are heated by burning the animal’s dung, according to Barcroft TV.
Zyyn Taiga’s people have access to horses, but prefer to ride reindeer for reasons that Santos grew to understand during his time at their camp.
“I’ve interacted both with horses and reindeer, and the latter almost behave like a dog, in the sense that they are extremely docile. They smell your hands out of curiosity. They even lick them, always in a gentle way,” he told Barcroft TV.
Fewer than 40 Tsaatan families are herding reindeer nomadically these days, in part because of restrictions on hunting and economic pressures that make it a difficult life to pursue.
The global reindeer population is also shrinking. Scientists say that climate change makes it harder for reindeer to feed by covering the lichens and moss they eat with hard sheets of ice rather than softer snow.