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Caribou & Reindeer

Dateline: April 5, 2001.

A small herd of caribou in Denali Park, Alaska
New Life

Following a 228-day gestation, barren-ground caribou calves are virtually all born within about a 5-day period. Calves only weigh from 8½ - 13 lbs., but on their second day of life can outdistance a person across the tundra.

Click on each photo to enlarge it

      As far back into time as we can see, caribou and wild reindeer have been a crucial element in the northern ecosystem. Although heavily impacted by recent human activity in their sensitive homelands, their massive migrations remain one of the natural world's greatest wonders to this day.

      Despite some differences in size and appearance, caribou and reindeer throughout the world are members of the same species, Rangifer tarandus. Their history goes back to the period before evolution brought humans to the Homo sapiens stage, with fossil remains from 40,000 years ago showing that Neanderthal man in northern Europe was dependent on caribou for survival. By 15,000 years B.P., they were appearing as images on cavern walls, and some of the earliest pieces of Inuit art honoured them.

      It is thought that the first domestication of reindeer was accomplished about 5,000 years ago by the people of the Altai Mountain region of the Russian/Mongolian border, possibly as an aid to hunting wild animals. Since that time, reindeer have served a wide variety of purposes for people in Europe, from supplying milk, food and clothing, to pulling sleds. And although no scientific proof has yet appeared, at least one team is widely reported to be able to fly! (we can't always be serious here

Cultural Significance

      The herding of reindeer remains the chosen lifestyle of many Northern people to this day. The largest herds are in Russia, where there are between 2 and 3 million reindeer, while in Norway, Sweden and Finland, there are approximately another 800,000 in total. In North America, reindeer herding was introduced in 1891, when Sheldon Jackson brought 16 animals from Siberia, in a bid to prevent the periodic starvation of the Aleut and Eskimos along the northern coast. Herding never caught on in a major way, however, and is much less common today, with a total of about 49,000 animals, of which 2/3 are in Alaska.

Caribou are a curious and trusting species, fairly easy to herd and hunt       The primary importance of reindeer herding is generally considered in cultural rather than purely economic terms. The Laponian Area of northern Sweden has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site due to its significance in the Saami people's continuing dependence on this traditional lifestyle. The total production of reindeer meat around the world is about 25,000-30,000 metric tonnes, while the hides are used to produce a wide variety of clothing, in both traditional and modern styles. One of the products for which the demand is growing is powdered reindeer antlers, which are used as aphrodisiacs in Asia.

Threats to Survival

Despite traffic, a small herd of caribou continues using the path that their ancestors have used for thousands of years. 
Denali Park, Alaska       Caribou and reindeer, despite population numbers that may seem huge and healthy, are far from being completely safe as a species. Producing only one calf per year, over-hunting can quickly have a devastating effect, and the subspecies Dawson caribou, which lived only on Graham Island on Canada's west coast, was hunted to extinction about 70 years ago. Caribou and reindeer live in areas that are ecologically extremely sensitive, taking decades to recover from even fairly minor disturbances. The long-term effects of global warming on Arctic animals, caribou in particular, are the focus of a great deal of current research.

A photo of a caribou       To combat oil exploration on Alaska's North Slope, the Vuntut Gwitchin, who live mostly in the village of Old Crow, Yukon, have taken strong political action in their bid to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd which kept their ancestors alive for thousands of years. The Porcupine Caribou Management Board was formed to facilitate the detailed studies needed to properly assess the effects of oil exploration - among the projects which have resulted from this concern is one which involves the fitting of radio collars tracked by satellite, to determine precisely the movements of the caribou herds.

      With the complexities of the northern ecosystems still little understood, the effective care of the land, and of the caribou and reindeer, may ultimately depend on the establishment of a trusting relationship between scientists and the indigenous peoples of the North.

Caribou & Reindeer - Links

A photo of a reindeer in Norway

Caribou Photo Album
Photos from Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

Bathurst Caribou Herd
A research paper by N. L. Thorpe - "Contributions of Inuit Ecological Knowledge to Understanding the Impacts of Climate Change on the Bathurst Caribou Herd in the Kitikmeot Region, Nunavut." In .pdf format.

A photo of a caribou Beverly Caribou Herd
A brief introduction to the 400,000-strong herd in Canada's eastern Arctic, with some great photos.

Boreal Caribou Research Program
Information on the research being conducted on woodland caribou in the province of Alberta by the University of Alberta.

Caribou in Alaska
An excellent introduction, from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Caribou Taxidermy
A beautifully-illustrated trophy catalog from a taxidermist in Alberta.

A photo of a caribou

The Laponian Area
This area in Sweden, a UNESCO World Heritage site, "is the homeland of the Saami, and the landscape has been shaped by their culture and traditional activities, such as reindeer herding."

The Lost Reindeer of Arctic Alaska
An lengthy analysis by Norman A. Chance of various attempts to turn Alaska's native peoples into reindeer herders.

Muskox and Peary Caribou Dying
An excellent article by Ed Struzik examines the causes of the high mortality rates in parts of the Canadian Arctic.

A photo of a caribou Peary Caribou
The populations of Rangifer tarandus pearyi have been decimated by a series of hard winters.

Porcupine Caribou Herd
This 8-minute video, shot by Chris Siddall in Vuntut National Park in the northern Yukon Territory, shows the Porcupine Caribou Herd during their mass migration.

Porcupine Caribou Herd
An exceptional site which demonstrates the effects of global warming on the herd by using a series of graph and table slides.

A photo of a caribou Porcupine Caribou Management Board
A very brief look at the herd, and the dangers posed by oil exploration on their calving grounds.

Porcupine Caribou Herd Satellite Collar Project
This excellent site provides detailed yet accessible information on tracking caribou by satellite.

Project Caribou
A 150-page learning package on the wild caribou of North America, for both students and educators.

Reindeer Research in Finland
From the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute, information on their studies of reindeer herding, productivity, reindeer pastures and related subjects.

A photo of a caribou Reindeer and the Sami
A very good introduction to the Sami people and the importance of reindeer to their culture.

Reindeer of Scandinavia & Northern Russia
A well-illustrated introduction to the reindeer, reindeer husbandry and its importance to Sami culture.

Siberian Reindeer Expedition
An article from the New York Times of October 13, 1901 describes Lieut. E. Bertholf's expedition to bring a herd of 254 reindeer to Alaska.

Tuktu & Nogak Project
A community-driven effort to collect and share Inuit ecological knowledge of caribou and calving areas in the Bathurst Inlet area of the Kitikmeot region, Nunavut.

A photo of a caribou

Woodland Caribou
In 1985, woodland caribou were added to Alberta's endangered wildlife list - fewer than 7,000 remain, sparsely distributed over northern and west-central Alberta.

Yamal Culture
A brief look at the Nenets reindeer herders.

References & Further Reading:

  • George Calef, Caribou and the Barren-lands (Toronto, ON: Firefly, 1995)
  • Peter Matthiessen, Wildlife in America (New York, NY: Penguin, 1995)
  • Farley Mowat, People of the Deer (New York, NY: Bantam, 1989)
  • Robert Paine, Herds of the Tundra : A Portrait of Saami Reindeer Pastoralism (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1994)
  • Peter M. Rinald,o The Great Reindeer Caper: The Missionary and the Miners (DorPete Press, 1997)

    More Arctic Animals & Birds Links

    Photos are ©2001 by Clipart.com, and are used here with permission.