On Dasher! On Prancer! On...Where’s Vixen? Reindeer Numbers Are Falling Worldwide

A new study finds that China’s caribou population is down 28 percent and at risk of extinction.

(Photo: Per Breiehagen/Getty Images)

Dec 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Santa’s trusty sleigh might need a new method of propulsion.

Reindeer populations are decreasing worldwide, according to a new study published in the Journal for Nature Conservation.

Xiuxiang Meng, a scientist at Renmin University of China and the study’s coauthor, said he’s found a decline in reindeer populations throughout the animal’s range in both arctic and subarctic regions.

“In north Europe (Finland, Sweden, and Norway), Asia (Russia, Mongolia, and China), and North America (Canada and Alaska), reindeer population have been declining for many years,” Meng said in an email. “Reindeer in China is the most southern reindeer population in the world, so it is of great importance for global reindeer conservation and utilization.”

Researchers attribute the reindeer’s troubles in China to poaching, predation, inbreeding, and tourism.

Reindeer, also known as caribou, form two subspecies: tundra reindeer and woodland reindeer. They can be migratory or sedentary, and some are wild, while other populations have been semi-domesticated. Most of China’s reindeer have been bred for centuries by the country’s Evenk people.

China’s reindeer population has fallen 28 percent, from a high of 1,080 reindeer in the early 1970s to 773 today. The Evenk historically have relied on reindeer for milk and transport. More recently, the animals and the herders themselves have become a popular attraction for ecotourists.

That’s one of the reasons Meng thinks the numbers are decreasing: Instead of moving the herds toward moss and lichen-rich areas—the animals’ two main food sources—herders are keeping them close to town centers for easy tourist access.

That’s leading to stressed-out and malnourished reindeer. Scientists also cited inbreeding as a factor in the species’ decline, as herders are limiting their migration range. It’s also estimated that one-third of all reindeer calves are killed each year by predators such as bears, wolves, and lynx.

“The traditional lifestyle of reindeer herding by the indigenous Evenki has been changing, and I am afraid the reindeer in China, and even in the whole Siberian forest area, will vanish in a not too long a time,” Meng said.

What can be done?

Meng said conservationists should petition have the Siberian reindeer population listed as Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, and that a series of preserves for the animal should be formed.