Russia Wants To Kill 250,000 Reindeer

Just in time for Christmas.

Reindeer living in a region of Siberia known as "the ends of the earth" sound like mythical creatures - but they're in very real danger.

Because of an anthrax outbreak the government believes was indirectly caused by overgrazing, the Russian government wants to cull the herds of Yamal. Currently over 700,000 reindeer live in the region, and 250,000 of them could be killed if the plan goes through.

Because of a record hot summer in the Arctic, permafrost melted for the first time in decades this year, releasing infectious spores of the frozen virus from a 75-year-old reindeer carcass that had been buried in the ice. As a result, a boy, four dogs and 2,350 reindeer died of anthrax, which can be transmitted through breathing in the spores, handling animal caracasses or eating undercooked meat infected with the disease.

In addition to cutting down on overgrazing, the Russian government believes the cull would decrease the potential for anthrax to spread if it is released from the permafrost again.

"Reindeer livestock numbers in Yamal are too high," Nikolai Vlasov, deputy head of Russia's Federal Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance Service, told the Siberian Times. "'The more dense the animal population is, the worse the disease transfer medium (and) the more often animals get sick."

Nomadic people on the Yamal peninsula, called Nenets, have raised reindeer herds for centuries. Every year, these indigenous people kill some reindeer for food and clothing - but Russia's plan would incentivize them to slaughter many more.

Reindeer at a nomadic camp in the Yamal region. | Shutterstock

An alternative to killing the reindeer would potentially wipe out an age-old nomadic tradition. The tribes would be offered mortgages by the government to give up this life and live in apartments, and their reindeer would be put in fenced-in areas.

But both measures would be stop-gap solutions, some say, to a much more complicated ecological problem.

"I can say with certainty that for Yamal to switch from its open nomadic reindeer grazing to one resembling the fenced-in pastures of Finland would be to simply replace one set of problems with another," Bruce C. Forbes, researcher and professor at the Arctic Center at Finland's University of Lapland, said in an op-ed for the Siberian Times. Forbes has 25 years of experience studying Yamal tundra pastures and more than two decades of experience with reindeer pastures in Finland.

When Forbes and his team of researchers analyzed the data, they actually found that since reindeer numbers have increased since the 1970s, vegetation has actually also been more productive. So, "overgrazing," Forbes suggested, couldn't be the main problem.

There are potentially many more factors that went into the outbreak of anthrax in the region last summer. Forbes points out that the region is also where natural gas is sourced - and this industry has been expanding.

"The issue may be anthrax, vegetation damages, or expanding gas development, climate change or some combination of all of these," he said.

Forbes added that it is "a basic fact that as progressively more land is used for gas infrastructure, less will be available for utilization as pastures by herders."

And that means the reindeer are running out of room. With Russia's plan, they could also be running out of time.