Course:FRST370/Projects/Evenki community in Aoluguya township, Inner Mongolia, China: the last reindeer herders and hunters in China

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Evenki people in 1862

Old Aoluguya is the settlement of the Evenki people who comprise the reindeer tribe, where is located in the northern end of the Genhe City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. It is the place deep in China’s largest continuous area of primitive forest in the Greater Khingan Range. Therefore, the “Evenki” are also known as “the people who live deep in the mountains”.  Reindeer herders and hunters there had a great life selling what they made and gathered in mountains, such as the antler velvet, which can be precious medicine.  For more than 300 years, this unique ethnic minority has considered the reindeer hunting and herding in forests as a key source of livelihood, and as a symbol of unique identity of the Reindeer Evenki. However, in 2003, as China called for “ecological migration” to better protect the forests along the Greater Khingan Range, the Aoluguya local government undertook resettlement of the Evenki and their reindeer 260 km southwards to a new Aoluguya township, the western suburb of Genhe City. The hunters were asked for their guns back for the compliance of the hunting ban. The herders compromised on the reindeer to be hand-fed and kept permanently in enclosures near the settlement. Some Evenki people began to accept new modern life, but their traditional culture is fading, their own language is being forgotten, and the hunters are also becoming farmers gradually.  Nevertheless, there are some traditional Evenki people still trying to return to forests, and now herders have to rotate seasonally between the new settlement where they are officially supposed to live and the hunting campsites where they herd reindeer. Therefore, the new phenomenon formed: “settling but not living". 

Evenk family in the early 1900s


Regional Context

Genhe City
Location of Genhe in Hulunbuir City

Aoluguya township is located in Genhe City, which is one of the most northerly county-level administrative regions in China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and where the lowest temperature in China, about -58°C, has been recorded[1]. This area is 700 to 1,443 meters above sea level, and it is a hilly region that is dominated by plateaus[2]. Besides, Genhe has the largest continuous area of primeval forest in the Greater Khingan Range, where is dominated by birch (Betula platyphylla), pine (Larix gmelinii) and red spruce (Picea asperata) [1] [2]. Genhe is covered by forests more than 91% of the land[1]. Reindeer, moose, bears, boars and wolves are popular in the forests; besides, fox, hare and otter are important fur species there[3]. Among them, wolverines, bears, and wolves are the most serious predators[3]

Within these taiga mountains the Manchu-Tungusic Evenki people of Aoluguya and their reindeer live here [1]. The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) is listed as the "least concerned" species on the Red List of Threatened Species under the World Conservation Union (IUCN) at that time [2]. They are semi-domesticated species and need fresh lichens grown in the forests as food [1][2]. They were found mostly in the Genhe river because of such a favorable regional condition there; and they had been herded by the Evenki for more than 300 years [2]. Therefore, that is where the name of “Aoluguya” and “Evenki” come from: “Aoluguya” actually means " flourishing aspen" in the Evenki language, refers to the river where they live; and “Evenki" are known as "the people who live deep in the mountains”[1].

Evenki Community

Traditional Culture

This branch of the Aoluguya Evenki tribe originated in the region around Lake Baikal[1]. However, they migrated to the forests of the Greater Khingan Range 300 years ago[1]. The indigenous “Reindeer Evenki” people of China have settled in farming and pastoral areas, using a traditional reindeer herding system unique to the Siberian taiga forests[1][4]. Their nomadic camps, the cone-shaped dwelling is called a palatka (‘tent’ in Russian)[5]. The holy monuments called "oboo", numerous stone heaps decorated with colorful flags on mountains and hills, are worshiped by local people annually to ensure prosperity and prevent calamities[5]. The oboo is usually followed by three ‘manly games’ as traditional custom, naadam, archery, horse racing and wrestling[5]

Holy Monument : oboo

In addition, Evenki people are considered addicted to drinking[6]. Because of this alcohol culture, violent deaths can occur under the influence of alcohol in drinking incidents, even murder committed under the influence of alcohol is not considered as a crime for local Evenki people[7].

However, they are also full of love instead of just “savage”[7]. They would help each other in times of need, even providing new reindeer for families who lost animals to wild animals or epidemics[7]. Even the wild animals they hunt are as important as their co-inhabitants of the places they share[7]. They have a very close, almost loving relationship with the reindeer, so they never plan to hunt these animals to the point of exploitation and would not take more game than they needed[7]. They relied on hunting and migratory life in the forests, raising reindeer and following their traditional beliefs in shamanism that embraced animism and honors nature[7].

Social Structure

As for the Evenki community, society is organized according to the principles of patriarchy, and strictly abides by the system of exogamy[7]. The clan (Evenk: chala, kala) is the most important unit for building a reindeer Evenki society, and each clan has its own unique tradition and origin myth[7]. Therefore, the community (Evenk: diu) usually consists of four families (though there may be as many as eight unions for economic activity in the summer, they do not hunt together[7]. In this case, the families involved often belong to clans[7].

In terms of election office, some people were elected by tribal adult members to office for an unspecified period of time, at the annual tribal meetings held in summer[7].There was also a quasicouncil of clan elders (Evenk: suchlen)[7].However, the authority of the clan elders and of their council does not really matter in reality, since nomadic communities roaming their vast hunting areas, and would barely meet each other[7].

Policy History 

(1) 1957: First Relocation

In the socialist period, ethnic policy is a combination of the Qing legacy and socialist affirmative action[5]. The Communists built a multi ethnic society in which all groups are equal but must also remain loyal to the Socialist state[5]. Following the Soviet project of "abandoning nomadism as a way of life" and "nomadism as a way of production”, the first Evenki “ethnic township” was established in Qiqian, in Inner Mongolia[1]. There were about 600 reindeer in Evenki community at the time[1].

(2) 1965: Second Relocation to Old Aoluguya

Evenki were forced to leave their hunting settlement and settle down to a newly built village named Aoluguya (255 km north of Genhe), as a result of the collapse of the China-Sauvish alliance [1][8]. New Communist administration actively integrating the community into its project of socialist modernization and officially terminating their Russian affiliation[8]. Moreover, State reorganized Evenki by reconstructing Aoluguya, a settlement which became the principal domain of the community and included wooden houses and an antler-processing factory[8]

(3) 1967: Collectivization

Before Collectivization, communities depend on hunting as their primary means of livelihood[8]. The way of the Evenki people live was to be self-sufficient, and reindeer were used as pack-animals and self-sufficient milking[8].

After Collectivization, government launched a hunting production brigade (lieye shengchandui) to turn the former small-scale reindeer herding into a more intensive reindeer breeding business[1]. The state purchased the animals from the herders, providing them with a salary in return, collecting the harvested antler on an annual basis and marketing the product[8]. Approximately 1,000 head of reindeer were collectivized[8].

(4) 1984: Household Responsibility System

The Household Responsibility System was implemented throughout China[8]. State reformed the antler industry and returned the reindeer to the 20 remaining herding families, in order to increase the profits through privatization[8]. The household responsibility herding system replaced the collective reindeer herding system[4].

(5) 1996:  Policy of “Converting Pasture to Forest” (tuimu huanlin)

The policy of “Converting Pasture to Forest” (tuimu huanlin) was implemented, the goal is “adopting settled residences and controlling livestock stocking rates”[1].

(6) 1998: Hunting ban

A state-imposed hunting ban and the confiscation of hunters' weapons[8].

Hunting ended when guns were confiscated, but reindeer populations still declined significantly, a combination of inbreeding, poaching, predation and tourism[1].

(7) 2003: Third Relocation to New Aoluguya-------“Ecological Migration” (shengtai yimin)

The Great Khingan Range was redefined as an ecological zone that requiring state protection, and relocation has been justified as a direct result of such policy transformations at the national level[8]. Hence, the local government of Aoluguya relocated the Evenks and their reindeer south to the new Aoluguya township, claiming to better protect the forests along the Greater Khingan Range[1]. The reindeer moved 260km south to their present location, where populations have still plunged because of the persistent condition of unsuitable climate, poor habitat conditions and food shortages[4]

Affected Stakeholders

Affected Stakeholders Main Relevant Objectives Power & Interest
Production Brigade (lieye shengchandadui)” --managing this community, with the state acquiring a portion of the hunted pelts, furs and meat in exchange for production points, credits and, subsequently, monetary payment[8]. Medium Power, High Interest
Clan Elders and of Their Council --the authority of the clan elders and of their council does not really matter in reality. Since nomadic communities roaming their vast hunting areas, and would barely meet each other[7].

--they rely on the traditional way for living, such as hunting and herding reindeer.

Low Power, High Interest
Evenki people relying on Reindeer --most Evenki people especially elder Evenki prefer their previous lifestyle[6].

--rely on reindeer as main income for livelihood.

Low Power, High Interest
Evenki young generations --prefer to play with computers rather than hunt in the mountains[9].

--in Even youth's eyes, the reindeer economy doesn't look attractive.

Low Power, low Interest

Interested Stakeholders

Interested Stakeholders Main Relevant Objectives Power & Interest
State Government --designate protected areas (ziran baohuqu) where human habitation and logging have been restricted[8].

--fully control the antler crop[8].

High Power, Low Interest
Regional Government --handle the distribution of pasture to each family[5];

-- insist on tourism, which is achieved through the natural beauty of the Great Khingan mountains and the "unique culture" of the Reindeer-Evenki[8];

-- clearly want to modernize Evenki and incorporate it into the region's political and economic framework, and to use the community's "reindeer culture" for regional self-promotion[8].

-- expand its powers, starting with the construction of old settlements[8].

High Power, Medium Interest
Antler-processing factory/ Medicinal Market --the state gives priority to the antler industry rather than hunting[8];

--the company is responsible for packaging processing antler in exchange for 20 per cent of the profits[8];

--reindeer remain in the hands of Evenki, but the antler crop was under full state control[8].

High Power, Low Interest
Tourism Industry --has received funding from the World Bank and technical support from a Finnish Consultancy firm[8];

--tourism emerged as a medium for the state to achieve its modernization goals, commercializing the "Evenki culture" so that it was fit for public presentation[8].

Medium Power, Medium Interest
Timber Industry --harvest timber for national industrialization under the protection of state[8]. Medium Power, Low Interest
Finnish Consultancy Firm (Private Company) --the entire site of the old Aoluguya was sold to a private company[10];

--the government commissioned a Finnish consulting firm to design the site in the image of a Scandinavian hamlet[11];

--identify themselves to represent the Evenki as reindeer herders[10].

Medium Power, Low Interest

Tenure and Administrative Arrangement

The land is owned by the state, and there are no disputes on land ownership. Since the eighteenth century, virtually every male-based social group —banners and sum [village], clans (if they existed), colleges (Aimag) of lamas—has had its own oboo, which is a sign of its connection to the land[5]. Old Aoluguya was founded in 1965, Evenki people were forced to leave their hunting settlement and settle down as a result of the collapse of the China-Sauvish alliance[10]. The construction was undertaken with an absolute high authority[8]. A small but significant minority of Evenks became members of the Chinese Communist Party, and the community was actively integrated in the project of socialist modernization by New Communist administration[8].

After collectivization in 1967, the “production brigade (lieye shengchandui)” is responsible for the management in this community[8]. Because the reindeer were still under the care of their former owners, they continued to engage in subsistence hunting and living in taiga encampments[8]. Over this period, reform policies helped to boost this livestock business in Aoluguya, and reindeer populations (more than 1,080 animals) peaked in the 1970s[1][2].

State was aware of the viability and value for traditional Chinese medicine by analyzing the community's reindeer antlers, so they reorganized the hunting economy into a collective enterprise modelled on the Soviet sovkhoz [state farm] design[8]. The value of reindeer has shifted from social, practical and religious characteristics to a merely economic one[1][10]. Since the growth of emerging industries of antler harvesting for medicinal market, the mainstream social criticism of shamanism and the Evenki “backward” hunting and herding lifestyle, reindeer were declared as government property and the Evenki were drawn to China's socialist market economy[8][10].

There are broader reforms of Household Responsibility System taking place across Inner Mongolia, where the social engineering of the state was replaced by the current administrative procedure of increasing autonomy within the domestic sphere of production[8]. The Reindeer-Evenki experienced a partial transformation, since the government wants the Evenki people to become sedentary reindeer ranchers, they generally accept the changes only to a certain extent, while adhering to a certain continuity of tradition[8][10]. The antler crop was under full state control in 1997, while the reindeer remain in the hands of local people[8].

Evenki Museum

The deterioration of ranches and forests forced the government to act in the late 1990s, when the policy of “Converting Pasture to Forest” and “hunting ban” were implemented[1]. These new regulations restricted the freedom of accessing to the forests for local people, and forced them to change the hunting lifestyle to herding[1].

During last several decades, since the rapid industrial development largely neglected the carrying capacity of taiga forest, the reindeer population has declined by at least 28 percent since the 1970s, posing a threat to the reindeer and the indigenous people whose culture depends on them[1][4]. Besides, the reindeer habitat also constraints a lot, which is mainly caused by timber production and climate change[4]. What’s more, China's socio-economic changes threaten reindeer grazing systems and reindeer population sizes and the management of land limits foraging and seasonal migration[4]. Therefore, the third forced relocation was carried out in 2003[10].

The state relocated Evenki people to the new Aoluguya with constructing a new settlement and providing them with benefits as a compensation for accepting new implemented hunting ban, including 62 wooden homes, 48 reindeer enclosures, a school, a museum as well as medical and shopping facilities[1][8]. However, most families in Inner Mongolia lease their land to neighboring farmers and wait until autumn to get the money[6]. Land leases won't be good for them in the long run, but they don't seem to care about the future[6]. Moreover, National state has designated protected areas (ziran baohuqu) where human habitation and logging have been restricted[8].

Despite welfare for resettlement and limited support for reindeer herders, regional governments have not taken seriously the antler industry, which is herders' main source of income and the last remaining features of the reindeer living world[8]. Besides, old Aoluguya was sold to a private company, which is a Finnish consulting firm; and Aoluguya's latest museum was also designed by it[10]. With the appreciation of tourism by regional government, the relocation will transform the Evenki lifeworld into the tourism product itself, not necessarily perpetuating a taiga-based lifeworld[8].

Impact of Relocation 

Change of Geographic Location

The government provided them with ready-made houses and farmland for them to settle in after forced relocation[6]. However, Reindeer need fresh lichens grown in the forests, so the herders have to back to taiga, where offers the important forage lacking in the new settlement[1]. With the acquiescence of local government, new reindeer herding camps have been erected in the forest[1].

Evenki herders thus now rotate seasonally between the new settlements they officially live in and the camps where they graze their reindeer, forming the phenomenon of “settling but not living” (ding er bu ju)[1]. Currently, fewer than 100 Evenks are directly or indirectly involved in reindeer herding, and fewer than 50 often live in campsites[4].

Change of Consciousness

The Evenki people are less and less aware of the former "communist" lifestyle, which is the consciousness of everything should be shared between people, especially the game hunted and the consumption of wild herbs[6]. Now, when a family gets something, it's the family, not the community[6].

Their concept of time is also forced to change, because former hunters and Evenki people did not have the time count as the farmers do[6]. For example, the Evenki count the year as three different periods, not months, there are Spring (the time to catch the pageant deer from mid-March to mid-April), Summer (the time to search for fresh antlers, mid-May to June) and Autumn (the time to search for hiding, October to February)[6]. Local people used not to name the months as the Chinese Han people do[6].



(1) Increasing attention by Chinese government

They attach more and more importance to wildlife protection[2]. Including the Wildlife Protection Law, the Environmental Protection Law and the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law[2]. Reindeer then are listed as the second category of China's national list of protected wildlife, which means that they cannot be captured or hunted without official permission, and anyone who illegally catches, trades or hunts them will be prosecuted[2].

(2) Increasing investment linked to national or global economy

After the decollectivization of the antler industry, Evenki-based tourism industry initiated followed by rapidly flourishing[8]. It has received funding from the World Bank and technical support from a Finnish Consultancy firm[8].

(3) Increasing social status of Evenki people

2008: The Evenki people of the Aoluguya joined the Association of World Reindeer Herders[2].

2013: Aoluguya will host the Fifth World Reindeer Herders Congress [8]. At that time, international reindeer herders will meet to advance the progress of reindeer breeding technology and develop cooperative arrangements, conservation measures and related themes[2].


(1) Endangered Situation of Reindeer


Reindeer populations peaked in the 1970s with more than 1,080 animals, but have declined dramatically since 1998, largely due to inbreeding, poaching, predation and tourism[1][2]. In 2003, there are many deaths of reindeer, as a result of different living conditions and lack of lichens, when they were transported by vehicles to newly constructed stables on the outskirts of the settlement[8]. New breeding methods, such as captive breeding, were developed in 2003, but were unsuccessful[2]. In September 2012, the artificial insemination program was launched[2]. However, no authoritative nature reserves or national parks have been established to protect China's reindeer until now.

(2) Loss of Language and Culture

Evenki shaman costume

In all Evenki communities, no more than 40 people can speak traditional Evenki language now[4]. In addition, indigenous cultural practices have declined, such as the shamanistic performances, traditional medical use and traditional dress; while the incidence of alcoholism has increased[4]. And most of the time they refuse to learn agriculture although they know little about it, making them even less accustomed to it[6].

(3) Ambiguous Right

Even production brigades were dismantled in 1980, and rights to animals and ranches would be distributed to individual pastoralists and farmers, this has not yet been fully implemented in Aoluguya [10]. Evenks reclaimed ownership of their reindeer, but not being granted use-rights to taiga pasture; and they continue subsistence hunting after implementing de-collectivization[8]. Reindeer remain in the hands of Evenki, but the antler crop was under full state control[8].The failure of the state to designate grazing rights will only destabilize the reindeer economy and create uncertainty about the state's privatization[8].

After “Ecological Migration” in 2003, the phenomenon of “Reindeer Herding in Flux” emerged since both men and woman now are herding reindeer instead of hunting[10]. The current situation is attributable to ongoing negotiations between the Evenki and the government[10]. By emphasizing the ambiguous transition, the Evenki find themselves in the "liminal space of law"[10]. Besides, a growing number of herders have to allocate more time between settlements and coniferous forests[8]. There are only old people and children in the town, all the herdsmen are in the forest[8]. Therefore, one manifestation of this is the establishment of shops selling antlers from individual houses, often herders who employ family members as sales staff[8]. Moreover, another ambiguity is that the plan for Evenks to occupy guiding positions for tourist hunting trips, while they themselves do not have hunting rights[10].

Voice from Local People

  •  "The city doesn't smell good.” (p.1)

------ From Maliya Suo, more than 90 years old, who was once the greatest reindeer herder in her tribe[11].

  • "It's not good here. We can't hunt anymore, like I did when I was younger." (p.2)

------From An Tabu, a 66-year-old Evenki woman, who lives in Genhe[9].

  • "We've always depended on our hunting for survival, if we don't have that, then what else do we have?" (p.2)

------ From Ma Lindong, 45, a herder who is married to one of Suo's nieces[11].

  • “Our lifestyle has been affected, because we Evenki are born hunters. From older generations to younger generations we used to live on hunting. It's in our blood." (p.1)

------From Gu Gejun, a 37-year-old man, feeds his deer at a forest park in Genhe[9].

  •  "So many Evenki people have married Han Chinese. It is unfortunate because Evenki people should protect their traditions." (p.2)

------ From Suo Ronghua, a 33-year-old mother of two. She once lived in the mountains until she was seven. Then married with a man from China's Han[9].

Based on their comments, most Evenki people, with the exception of some modern young people, prefer their previous lifestyle exposed to fresh air and more space in forests and rivers[6]. Many young Evenki now prefer to play with computers rather than hunt in the mountains[9]. Hence, local voice revealed their consideration of Evenki youth, they hope the young generation could know more about the old hunting culture[10]. It is clear that there is still a conception of historical and cultural heritage in contemporary Evenki consciousness[10].

According to the claim of government officials, they said their goal is to provide new opportunities for nomads while protecting the environment from overgrazing and over-hunting; and the resettlement work is carried out in strict accordance with the conditions of the government[11].  The state shirks responsibility to local residents for the degradation of the taiga, deflecting attention away from its own role as a facilitator of the timber industry and national industrialization[8].

  • “History shows that the forest ecosystem was never damaged until the government initiated large-scale industrialization.”

------from Siqinfu[10]. As for the reason of dramatic population decline of reindeer, the official explanation is blamed on the Evenki's "primitive" methods[10]. However, Siqinfu points out that the problem stems mainly from poachers, traffic accidents, pesticides, diseases and predators[10].

Such relocations often result in greater impoverishment and marginalization in the new communities[11].  "When changes happen to an ethnic group in this way, so quickly, this can be very painful." said Bai Lan, a professor at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences[11].

****Here are the YouTube Videos about Evenki in Aoluguya China: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.


Reindeer deserve protection area in the forest

The reindeer, as a cultural symbol of the indigenous Evenks, has adapted to taiga life for hundreds of years of survival[12]. They are not as humans can adapt to changing environments as quickly as possible[12]. They are inherently free animals in the forest, and their captivity will gradually degrade their own advantages[12]. Therefore, a part of the area can be set aside as a reindeer reserve in the forest to protect and prosper the reindeer industry, while inheriting the reindeer culture of the Aoluguya Evenki people[12]. At the same time, we could mimic JFM (Joint Forest Management) system in West Bengal, India, to provide local Evenks with job opportunities such as patrolling; and give them proper legal power for co-managing forests.

The combination of reindeer and tourism in the mountains

The mountain reindeer activities can be resumed according to the season[12]. Due to the local climatic conditions, the tourist season is in summer and autumn[12]. Therefore, in spring and autumn, the reindeer can be brought back to the forest[12]. And the tourists will also be able to experience the life of the Evenki people in the mountains and bring the reindeer back to the mountain at the end of the fall[12].

Improvement of government support and legal regulation

During last few decades, government helped Evenki to broaden the reindeer by-product sales channels by organizing party members to help the hunters[12]. Besides, eight reindeer grazing sites were inoculated with BCG vaccination to improve the reindeer's special resistance to the disease[12]. On this basis, the government should continue to strengthen investment in science and technology and increase financial support[12].

The aim to sustainable reindeer herding businesses can be achieved when the government recognizes the requirements and characteristics of the reindeer grazing living world, including the value of people for subsistence hunting and taiga-based habitation[8]. Furthermore, the future-generation Evenki should be granted legal reindeer grazing rights and provided more skills[8]


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  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 Menga, X., & Aryal, A. (2014). Population Trends, Distribution and Conservation Status of Semi-domesticated Reindeer (Rangifer Tarandus) in China. Nature Conservation, 22, 539-546.
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  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Sanderson, H. (2009, October 3). Ewenki Traditions Fading. Waterloo Region Record. Retrieved from: 
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 10.15 10.16 10.17 Lykkegård, J. (2015). Uncovering the Contemporary Lives of the Little Known Chinese Ewenki. Anthropology Book Forum.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Jonathan, K. (2011, December 20). Reindeer Wranglers won't be Herded; Government trying to Force Nomads to Relocate into Modern, Urban Life. The Vancouver Sun; Vancouver, B.C. Canada, Vancouver, B.C.: Infomart, a division of Postmedia Network Inc.
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Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by JIAQI LI.