The Eurasian reindeer and the North American caribou are actually varieties of a single species, Rangifer tarandus. The semidomesti-cated reindeer and the more wild caribou exhibit some differences in appearance and behavior. On both continents herds fall into three major groupings selectively adapted to marine, tundra, and forest environments.
Reindeer provided a major part of the Upper Paleolithic diet for tens of millennia. They were first domesticated in Eurasia more than 7,000 years ago. Their thick hair and wide hoofs are well adapted to the cold, snowy environment of the Arctic. They conserve body heat and energy through their consumption habits of eating less and shedding excess weight during the long winters. The reindeer's preference for a low-mineral diet of lichens and snow enhances its water-retention capacity, decreases thirst, and conserves body heat by eliminating the energy expenditure inherent in long treks in search of drinking water.
In prehistoric times, the ancestors of today's indigenous Saami (or Lapp) people of Scandinavia and northwestern Russia hunted wild reindeer, tracking the herds northward as the continental ice shelf retreated. During the 1500s, with the wild herds diminishing and migrant human populations exerting pressure from the south, Saami herders moved into the mountainous tundra and tended their domesticated stocks as pastoral nomads. Reindeer provided for many of their basic subsistence needs. The twentieth century brought a movement toward cash commoditization as government economists using efficiency models attempted to reorganize the reindeer husbandry industry along modern production lines. In Sweden the number of herders is now tightly restricted, and the descendants of Saami who have turned to other means of livelihood are legally barred from returning to their ancestral occupation.
At the time of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union, some 7,000 Saami people in Finland and Scandinavia still made their living by herding a half-million reindeer. This traditional ecology and mode of economic life was already threatened when the windborne release of radioactive elements over northern Europe created a catastrophic situation in the hardest hit areas of central Sweden and Norway, contaminating berries, fish, animals, and milk. Lichens, the rootless organisms that are the main fodder of grazing reindeer, are entirely fed by airborne nutrients and therefore especially absorbent of radiation. Reindeer herds were relocated to safer areas and slaughtered at normal levels, but the contaminated meat was not fit for human consumption (Stephens, 1987). Reindeer products remain inedible more than fifteen years later, as the economic and lifestyle pressures on Saami herders continue to mount.
Rangifers were introduced into western Alaska during the 1890s, when Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson, observing starvation among the Inupiat people, organized a U.S. federal government assistance program for the importation of Siberian reindeer and the training of native apprentices by immigrant Saami herdsmen. In fact, the historical evidence suggests that starvation was not particularly rampant in Alaska and that there was no pressing economic need for reindeer herding. But the discovery of gold near Nome at the turn of the century and the ensuing Gold Rush created a market demand for Rangifers to be used as draft animals. An incipient Eskimo aristocracy arose, in which a local woman known as Sinrock Mary became for a time the largest herd owner and the most powerful economic player in Arctic Alaska. From 1915, large seasonal gatherings of people and animals known as reindeer fairs flourished for a few brief years, until the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918. When the Gold Rush subsided and the attendant economic boom collapsed, there was little incentive remaining for native people to continue the commercial enterprise of reindeer herding. However, with efficiency reforms in management on terms somewhat more favorable to the natives, the number of Alaskan reindeer continued to increase to a high of some 640,000 at the beginning of the 1930s. With growth came the problems of overstocking, increasing neglect by herders, carnivore predation, and the loss of domesticated animals through attrition when they went feral, joining wild herds of wandering caribou. A drastic decline in the
Alaskan reindeer population ensued, their numbers falling rapidly to 250,000 by 1940 and to 25,000 by 1950 (Olson, 1969).
Meanwhile, in the modernizing Soviet Union, native reindeer trackers living a subsistence hunting life were organized into cooperative herding brigades by the state. They gradually found their livelihood and culture threatened by government-mandated boarding schools that took their children away from the tundra for most of the yearly cycle, and by the increasing social undesirability of the lonely nomadic life, with its hardships and deprivations. With the Soviet system's collapse in the early 1990s came the economic failure of the reindeer brigades. As large-scale husbandry became less viable for native people, large numbers of reindeer were exterminated in the Transbaikalia region. In the first decade of the post-Soviet era, the movement for native Evenk autonomy and land reform has somewhat improved the prospects for Rangifer survival. At the end of the twentieth century, the falling number of semido-mesticated reindeer in the Russian Federation stood at some 1.5 million, while the rising number of wild reindeer reached 1.3 million (Circumpolar Ph.D. Network in Arctic Environmental Studies).
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