Gift reindeer may help for a while, but global warming dooms the herding way of life
YAMAL PENINSULA, Siberia––Reindeer did not deliver presents to 45 families of herders on the remote Yamal Peninsula of Siberia at Christmas Eve 2016, but rather were the presents.
The reindeer were sent to help the Yamalo-Nenets residents recover from herd losses resulting from three recent anthrax outbreaks caused by global warming.
Will gas bring prosperity?
The deliveries of reindeer were a well-meant and much appreciated gesture from thousands of ordinary Russians to some of the poorest people in the world, who have few other ways to make a living, at least until Russian investors develop some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves to the point of needing to hire lots of local help.
The Gazprom company has initiated gas development on the Yamal Peninsula, beginning by completing the 400-mile Obskaya–Bovanenkovo railway in 2011––the northernmost railway in the world.
Meanwhile, rebuilding the Yamal reindeer herds will help the 45 families to get through a difficult winter in a region where even the summers tend to be harsh, temporarily perpetuating an increasingly unviable way of life for the people, and promising nothing positive for the reindeer.
For better or worse, the habitat for both humans and reindeer has already irrevocably changed, and is likely to continue changing for the foreseeable future.
“The zombie disease”
In a region where few if any people ever heard of Santa Claus, or have much reason to believe in strangers bearing gifts of any sort, the Cooperation of Yamal Foundation raised 65 million rubles, equivalent to $600,000 U.S. dollars, to help the herding families, according to the December 23, 2016 edition of Siberian Times.
Decades-old and perhaps even centuries-old anthrax spores released from thawing permafrost during the summer of 2016 killed a 12-year-old boy, nearly 2,400 domesticated reindeer, and several dogs who fed on the infected carcasses.
Dozens of other people fell ill, but recovered after receiving antibiotics.
“Once the zombie disease had come back to life,” Siberian Times said, “it was spread distances of up to 12 miles from the epicenter [of each outbreak] by bloodsucking flies and mosquitoes.”
The anthrax outbreaks were quelled after “Russian bio- and chemical-warfare troops were deployed to destroy infected reindeer carcasses,” Siberian Times explained.
“All the new ‘Christmas deer’ are from [elsewhere on] Yamal,” Siberian Times added, “and unaffected by the infection. A separate program to cull up to a quarter of a million reindeer by the end of 2016 was dramatically reduced,” because of the losses to anthrax.
“Scientists argued that a cull was needed because the Yamal peninsula can no longer sustain so many reindeer” as have traditionally lived there, Siberian Times said. “But this season’s slaughter campaign will aim to produce 3,000 tons of venison, some 600 tons more than last year,” from the remains of as many 60,000 deer.
Reindeer have been hunted in Siberia and elsewhere at the edges of the Arctic ice pack for at least 45,000 years. Written accounts of reindeer domestication from outside visitors go back about 500 years, but reindeer are believed to have been domesticated in the Yamalo-Nanets region for at least 500 years longer than that.
Martin Hugh-Jones investigated
Offered Louisiana State University epidemiology professor emeritus Martin Hugh Jones, in his capacity as an infectious disease moderator for the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED), “As an experienced practitioner with 40 years of involvement in anthrax outbreaks and a master of science degree on the population effect of the disease on wildebeest in Africa, I traveled to the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous district in northwest Siberia in January 2016,” to personally investigate reports that Yamal “had the most spectacular anthrax outbreaks of them all.
“Reports said anthrax would sometimes kill a third of the reindeer in the area,” Hugh-Jones recounted, “or that it ruined the reindeer meat industry; and there were many hundreds of thousands of reindeer in the area. An enormous number of animals died. In Russia, a country with plenty of anthrax,” anthrax “became known as Yamal disease.
“About 1925,” Hugh-Jones recalled, “the government started mass vaccination of farm animals and reindeer with a Pasteur-type vaccine, and disposed of [infected] carcasses in permafrost pits. Fifteen years later the disease was last reported in 1941, a very cold year. The mass vaccinations were stopped and for 75 years anthrax did not return, until the extremely hot summer of 2016. This is by far the most successful anthrax control program I know of,” Hugh-Jones said.
“Climate change has already taken toll”
While Hugh-Jones was optimistic that further anthrax outbreaks on the Yamal Peninsula can be controlled with inexpensive antibiotics, anthrax––and the prospect of gas pipelines bisecting the peninsula––may be the least of the longterm threats to reindeer there.
“Climate change has already taken its toll on this region,” recently wrote Tatiana Vasilieva for Greenpeace International. “Two years ago, on the Yamal there were even worse reindeer losses [than those from anthrax], also owing to extreme weather conditions. First came a heavy snowfall followed by hot weather and then––all of a sudden––freezing conditions again. As a result, the top layer of the tundra turned from snow to ice. Fifty-eight thousand reindeer died of starvation that year, struggling to get food from under the ice, even damaging their hooves in their desperate attempts to find something to eat.”
Vasileva’s estimate of the reindeer deaths during the winter of 2013-2014 was actually on the low side. Other sources put the toll at about 61,000.
12% average weight loss
The remote Yamal herding families received their Christmas reindeer just two weeks after Steve Albon and colleagues of the James Hutton Institute in Scotland presented data to the British Ecological Society annual meeting in Liverpool, England, showing that the average weight of adult reindeer in Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic has dropped by 12 percent since 1994, to about 48 kilograms, or about 96 pounds.
“Twelve percent may not sound like very much, but given how important body weight is to reproduction and survival, it’s potentially huge,” Albon told Agence France-Presse.
Summarized Agence France-Presse, “Previous research showed that when the average adult [reindeer] weight in April is less than 50 kilograms, the population as a whole declines. Albon and his fellow researchers blame climate change for the shrinking reindeer. Warmer winters mean more rain, which falls on snow and freezes. The ice prevents reindeer from getting to the lichen which comprises the bulk of their winter diet and for which they usually forage in the snow.
“Lichen,” Agence France-Presse explained, “are complex organisms comprised of a fungus living in symbiosis with an alga or bacterium.”
Lichen can be found on almost any large rock, but few mammals have evolved the ability to live on lichen.
Cultural historians tend to agree that reindeer came to be associated with Christmas in much the same manner as Christmas trees, as lingering remnants of pagan traditions that survived into the Christian era. Reindeer were the steeds of some of the Norse gods who were believed to live under the northern lights, within the Arctic Circle, and for many people in the far north were the most abundant species available to hunt or slaughter for winter meat.
“The first known written account of reindeer in association with the legend of Santa Claus,” according to Altogether Christmas web site author Deborah Whipp, “occurred in 1821,” in a book of anonymous poems published by New York printer William Gilley.
According to one verse, “Old Santeclaus with much delight / His reindeer drives this frosty night / O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow, / To bring his yearly gifts to you.
Reindeer, or caribou?
Continues Whipp, “During an 1822 interview, New York’s Troy Sentinel editor Orville L. Holley questioned Mr. Gilley regarding the booklet’s author and the topic of reindeer. Though he did not identify the author, Mr. Gilley responded:
“Dear Sir, the idea of Santeclaus was not mine nor was the idea of a reindeer. The author of the tale but submitted the piece, with little added information. However, it should be noted that he did mention the reindeer in a subsequent correspondence. He stated that far in the north near the Arctic lands a series of animals exist, these hooven and antlered animals resemble the reindeer and are feared and honored by those around, as you see he claims to have heard they could fly from his mother. His mother being an Indian of the area.”
This would suggest that in Gilley’s understanding, Santa’s reindeer were not actually the Old World subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, but rather the New World subspecies, commonly called caribou.
The differences between them, however, are slight, and among reindeer are chiefly attributed to the effects of domestication. Neither branch of the heavily antlered family appears to be faring well as the Arctic warms.
(See also “Cargo cult” politics make caribou the bison of the Canadian North.)