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Huge cull of 250,000 reindeer by Christmas in Yamalo-Nenets after anthrax outbreak 

By Olga Gertcyk
19 September 2016

Currently there are 730,000 animals but numbers are 'unsustainable', risking disease spreading and chronic overgrazing.

Equally there are fears the cull could destroy age-old reindeer nomadic herding in Yamal. Picture: YSIA

Officials are demanding a huge reduction in reindeer numbers on the Yamal Peninsula and the rest of Yamalo-Nenets region.

One proposed scheme would see nomadic herders who give up their reindeer for the cull to be rewarded not in cash but with affordable mortgages to buy apartments.

Equally there are fears the cull could destroy age-old reindeer nomadic herding in Yamal - a name which means 'the end of the earth'. Governor Dmitry Kobylkin has demanded a viable plan by the end of September to reduce the number of reindeer by a quarter of a million. 

Traditionally the slaughtering season is November and December, and while details are not yet agreed, the number of reindeer to be culled is expected to be massively increased. 


Yamal reindeer

'In Soviet times the livestock in Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region was kept at the number of 300,000-to-400,000 heads. Now there are 700,000 already.' Pictures: The Siberian Times, Georgy Shpikalov

The usual method of slaughter is an electric shock to the forehead immobilising the animal from the high voltage charge. It is then slung upside down on a hanging line, where its antlers are removed. 

The throat is slit, and blood is drained from the animal, and can be exported, especially to China, where it has traditional medicinal uses. The proposal for a major cull follows two traumatic events to hit reindeer herds in Yamelo-Nenets in recent years. 

Freak warm weather followed by a freeze in winter 2013-14 caused an ice-over of pastures which led to the deaths of some 70,000 reindeer in a famine. This summer, there was an outbreak of deadly anthrax after the hottest Arctic summer on record. 




The throat is slit, and blood is drained from the animal, and can be exported, especially to China, where it has traditional medicinal uses. Pictures: Yamal Reindeer, Vesti.Yamal

The 'zombie' disease frozen seven or more decades ago was awakened in the thawing permafrost, leading to the death of a boy, and 2,349 reindeer, plus at least four dogs. There were three separate outbreaks, but now there are warnings that large herd numbers can lead new cases of infection to rapidly spread. 

'Reindeer livestock numbers in Yamal are too high,' said Nikolai Vlasov, deputy head of Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia's Federal Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance Service. 

'The more dense the animal population is, the worse the disease transfer medium (and) the more often animals get sick. Density of livestock, especially in the tundra areas that are very fragile, should be regulated.'

He called for scientifically-calculated targets based on what can be sustained on pastures. Reindeer limits should not be exceeded. 'The number of animals should not surpass this,' he said. 

'Otherwise, they will kill the pastures and later will destroy the indigenous minorities of the North who will have nothing to live on. It is impossible to breed reindeers without limits.'

Child, 12, died from anthrax, as nine cases confirmed of the deadly disease

Burning corpses

Military operation

This summer, there was an outbreak of deadly anthrax after the hottest Arctic summer on record. Pictures: Vesti.Yamal, YANAO press-service

He said Yamal was 'reaching a dangerous milestone'. 'I base my conclusions on Soviet standards,' he said. 'Back then livestock was kept at the same number, 300,000-to-400,000 heads. Now there are 700,000 already.'

The governor has suggested moving to the system in Finland of fenced pastures. 'Artificial food has its advantages and disadvantages, but in terms of purity of meat, timely vaccination and reindeer health, obviously, there are more advantages,' he said. 

He has also proposed moving huge numbers of reindeer to southern regions of Yamelo-Nenets - an area substantially larger than France in size - to allow the recovery of northern pastures. 

On the overgrazed peninsula - which is also home to Russia's largest supply of natural gas - there is sufficient food for 110,000 reindeer, he said. But there are now 300,000 animals in this part of the region. 

Dmitry Kobylkin

Governor Dmitry Kobylkin has demanded a viable plan by the end of September to reduce the number of reindeer by a quarter of a million. Picture: YANAO press-service

Anthropologist Olga Murashko has expressed concerns about the proposals. 'I am very worried about the fate of the private herders, who still perpetuate the tradition of family and clan based reindeer herding,' she said. 'Most of them have small herds of about a hundred deer.'

A speeding up of gas licensing also troubles her. 'The coincidence of this news on plans - to urgently reduce the reindeer population in Yamal by over one third with the rapid issuing of licenses for gas extraction in the same region - causes the greatest concern over the fate of the reindeer herders,' she said. 

They nomadic groups sustained their way of life through the Soviet era but now it was under threat, she said. 'A huge number of nomads on the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas will lose their means of existence and opportunities to maintain their traditional way of life.

'Additionally, it is clear that within the short time frame given, the indigenous reindeer herders cannot be properly consulted on the administration's plans to annihilate a large number of reindeer.'

Comments (5)

The right thing to do would be to give the reindeer some kind of medicine or vaccine. If you go to church and read the bible then you know god would not want you to do that.
Richard Pannell , Rienzi, Mississippi
21/09/2017 23:15
Aa a friend of the Nenet people which I got to know personally in Narayan Mar for the first time in 1991, I hereby express my concern for what could happen to the many families loosing their herds. For many, the herd is all they know and all they have. It is important that the authorities listen to what professor Bruce Forb s is saying. If not, I am afraid we will see a disaster among Nenet families in near future.
Terje Konradsen, Tromsø, Norway
24/09/2016 13:51
I agree with Bruce Forbes' comments. Not saying that there is no overgrazing problem, but the main point is that herders' knowledge and voices need to be considered much more in any of this decision making. More background can be found here:
Florian Stammler, Research Professor, northern anthropology, Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland
Florian Stammler, Rovaniemi, Finland
24/09/2016 01:56
I am a geographer and ecologist with 25 years of experience of studying Yamal tundra pastures and more than two decades of experience with reindeer pastures in Finnish Lapland. 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. The ‘overgrazing’ narrative in Finland is almost as old as the one in Yamal. In Sweden and Norway, semi-domesticated reindeer belonging to the Sami still follow reasonably long-distance migration patterns. Animals move between winter lichen grounds and summer graminoid/herb pastures separated by many tens (Norway), if not hundreds of kilometres (Sweden). Finland fenced reindeer into much smaller territories and by the early 1970s lichens vanished over most of the northern forest and tundra zones as they were trampled in summer by reindeer traversing dry lichen grounds to reach shrub- and graminoid-rich wetlands. Sami herders were accused of denuding the fjells and cast as failed stewards of the land at best, greedy ecocriminals at worst. This argument has waxed and waned over last 3-4 decades but has once again reached a fever pitch in the Finnish media. In recent weeks critics from Lapland to Helsinki have denounced the Finnish system of reindeer management as ‘evil factory farming’. They suggest that meat quality has declined and demand major reductions in the reindeer population so that lichen grounds can ‘recover’. This situation is extremely frustrating to the Sami in Finland’s far north because they already feel that every aspect of their herd is managed from above and they long ago lost most of their ability to treat their animals and pastures with respect in the traditional way. Many dislike the supplementary feeding system that has spread since the 1980s to compensate for the loss of winter lichen forage. They also disapprove of the shift since Finland joined the EU in 1995 from traditional outdoor slaughtering of animals in winter to shipping animals on trucks to one of the 13 EU-certified slaughterhouses. They know well that this stresses animals reduces meat quality.

On Yamal Peninsula, the tundra territories of Yarsalinski and Panaevsk are characterized by spring, summer and autumn pastures. Yes, most of the lichen cover also disappeared decades ago. This is called ‘overgrazing’ but, as in Finland, the tundra lichens are missing more from trampling during the snow-free season than actual consumption. The winter lichen grounds of Yarsalinski and Panaevsk in the forest-tundra zone south of the Ob River delta remain rich and productive.

Yes, the Yamal tundra has become crowded at certain places and times as both private and collective herds have grown substantially in the post-Soviet era. During this same period, some northern brigades of Yarsalinski have had to adapt to the spreading infrastructure associated with natural gas exploration and extraction. The fact that they have managed to coexist peacefully for over 25 years now is a testament to the great efforts made by herders, reindeer administrators and Gazprom alike. Rhetoric about mutual coexistence is cheap, but in practice it takes real work from all sides to achieve and to maintain. It will be even more difficult in the near future as Yamal gas production ramps up rapidly. Still, 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.
It is claimed that reindeer caused Yamal sandy areas to erode, but in many parts of Yamal the surficial sand deposits from late Pleistocene and early Holocene occur naturally and wind erosion is common. This is the case even if reindeer don’t use the sites for actual grazing, since they have little vegetation cover, but only occasionally occupy them during hot weather for insect relief. We have the same situation with ancient sand deposits in northern Finnish Lapland.

Culling 250,00 reindeer for the sake of increasing lichen cover on spring, summer and autumn pastures is not sound reasoning. The few thousand remaining reindeer will continue to use moderately raised terrain for insect relief during the snow-free season and lichens will not ‘recover’. Anyway, they are not preferred forage during the snow-free season so what is the point? The fact is that reindeer eat mainly green vegetation (willow shrubs, graminoids and herbs) during spring, summer and autumn. My colleagues and I have published findings from ground-level (dendroclimatology) and satellite-based (vegetation index) data. We have shown that the tundra zone of Yamal is becoming more productive as reindeer numbers have increased since the 1970s, not less productive. So, how does one define ‘overgrazing’?

Let’s put aside emotional arguments about ‘degraded lichen cover’ and ‘expanding sand erosion’ and put state-of-the-art science to work for the benefit of Yamal. The issue may be anthrax, vegetation damages, or expanding gas development, climate change or some combination of all of these. The point is, let’s avoid short-term decisions based on questionable data that will affect tundra nomads for decades to come, perhaps permanently. Let’s have a meaningful dialogue that is inclusive of scientific, administrative and Nenets herders’ perspectives. Please, let’s not rush to vacate the globally esteemed Yamal tundra and its vibrant, centuries old social-ecological system. Fencing in reindeer herds based on Finland’s model of reindeer management would be a serious mistake. It is under heavy attack here in Finland and if implemented on Yamal would surely be blamed for the demise of Nenets tundra nomadism.
Prof. Bruce Forbes, Rovaneimi, Finland
23/09/2016 05:07
That will constituye a life-changing move for the nomadic people involved, even if they want to do it. Will fail if not implemented in a long-term used to acquire the proper skills to integrate for those that choose to change their way of life. Doing it in just a few months looks like a recipe for disaster.

Plus, if the oil and gas business goes on the rise, why do not guide them to compete on that field? Again, no rush to make life-changing procedures. Or maybe this constitutes just another plot to rip-off the native people from their natural resources and give them to a few privileged!
Andres Suarez, Cancun, Mexico
21/09/2016 07:44

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