In the last five years, dwindling legal gold supplies and a spike in black market demand from China have made work much more lucrative for Mongolia’s “ninja miners” – so named because of the large green pans carried on their backs that look like turtle shells. For thousands of dirt-poor herders, the soaring prices alone are enough to justify years of harassment, abuse and hard labour.

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Horses graze on grasslands located south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner sits in a traditional Mongolian tent located at a mining camp south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Old Russian-made van sits in a yard in a small-scale mining camp located south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miners take a break on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miners dig holes as they search for gold on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner rests next to a deep hole he dug searching for gold south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner removes rocks from a hole he dug to search for gold on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner rests next to a hole he dug while searching for gold on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner rests on his shovel next to equipment as he takes a break from digging for gold on a small hill overlooking grassland south-west of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner digs a hole searching for gold on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miners dig holes searching for gold on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner shows the gold he and his colleagues have found in one day on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miners watch as a colleague uses a pan to sift gold on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner digs a hole searching for gold on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner shows the gold flakes he found at the bottom of his pan on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miners watch a machine used to siphon gold from crushed rocks at a processing plant north of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miners remove mats placed to capture gold from a crushing machine at a processing plant north of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Worker's tools sit on top of a small stove used to melt gold at a processing plant north of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miners wait for their gold to be melted into one piece before being weighed and sold at a processing plant north of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner watches his gold being weighed at a processing plant north of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Woman performs a water displacement test to determine the purity of some gold that was brought in by small-scale miners at a processing plant north of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miners work on digging holes as they search for gold on a small hill overlooking grasslands south-west of Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner pours water into a crushing machine in an attempt to siphon gold at a processing plant north of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

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Small-scale miner holds his gold that was melted together at a processing plant north of the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. DAVID GRAY/REUTERS