Survival Alert: Where Reindeer Decline, Tribal Peoples Falter

Reindeer—emblematic of seasonal cheer in shopping malls worldwide—are a year-round necessity for survival to tribal people of the north.

A boy of the Siberian Evenk tribal people sits with a reindeer. (Photo: © Raipon/Survival International)

Dec 17, 2012

Survival Alert is a fortnightly update on the state of indigenous peoples around the world from Survival International. Founded in 1969, Survival International is the globe’s foremost organization working for tribal peoples rights.

It has the thickest, sweetest milk of any mammal and lives in the world’s largest biome—the taiga, a boreal forest that exists as a nearly continuous belt of coniferous trees across North America and Eurasia. The Eveni people of northeastern Siberia have more than 1,500 words to describe it; the Innu of Canada believe one of their ancestors once ran off to marry one.

It is the reindeer, known as the caribou in North America. Every Christmas, its image appears on cards, jumpers and shop windows in the western world, working its way into the popular imagination.

To the world’s indigenous Arctic and sub-Arctic peoples, however, the reindeer is central to their lives throughout the year, providing them with food, transport, shelter and warmth.

MORE: Survival Alert: India’s Human Zoo and Why It Must Be Stopped

However, a variety of threats are now endangering the survival of reindeer and their indigenous herders.

Survival has campaigned for the rights of reindeer-herding tribes in Siberia, and those of the Innu tribe in northeastern Canada, for decades.

Earlier this month, the charity reported on a Christmas crisis for Canada’s iconic George River Herd, after a recent Canadian government survey discovered that only 27,600 animals survive of a herd that once numbered 800 to 900 thousand.

George Rich, an Innu elder, said, “One of the major factors in the decline of the George River Herd population is the continued mining and mineral exploration in the region.”

The herd’s decline has led some biologists to blame indigenous hunting practices. But the Innu, who have coexisted with the caribou for thousands of years, are quick to defend themselves.

Rich said, “The government always blames the Aboriginal people, but we are deeply connected to the caribou and have lived with them for generations.”

Reindeer are vital to the survival and human story of many tribal peoples. (Photo: Raipon/Survival International)

In Russia, Vladimir Putin recently ordered Russia’s Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), to close.

RAIPON has represented 41 indigenous groups—totalling 270,000 people—since 1990, and has given a voice to tribal peoples in some of the most remote places on Earth. 

Now that the development of huge industrial projects in Arctic regions is having a harmful effect on the lives of reindeer-herding peoples, it is crucial that organizations such as RAIPON are able to exist and function freely.

Industrial projects, resource prospecting and associated infrastructure are disrupting reindeer migration routes, destroying vital grazing grounds and reducing previously healthy herds to a fraction of their original size. As a result, indigenous ways of life are at risk of disappearing.

Survival recently published a picture gallery using images and words to tell 12 fascinating stories about reindeer, to coincide with the festive season.

It describes how every autumn, hundreds of reindeer belonging to the Sámi people swim across the waters of Norway's Kågsundet fjord, between their summer pastures and the wintering mainland, and how the Nenets tribe of Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula migrate seasonally with their reindeer along ancient migration routes.

Reindeer are vital to the survival and the human story of many tribal peoples. It is a tragedy that the burgeoning Arctic extractive industry is exacting such a heavy toll on reindeer and the herders whose lives depend on the animals.

Please sign up to Survival’s e-news to find out more about what you can do to help the world’s northern tribes hold on to their existence as reindeer herders.

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