For more than 10,000 years people have hunted reindeer in Europe and North America, making it “the species of single greatest importance in the entire anthropological literature on hunting,” says Canadian anthropologist Ernest Burch. Fittingly, an expedition during this International Polar Year, which for the first time includes the study of circumpolar people, is tracking the species and the humans who herd them.

Two social anthropologists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany set out on snowmobiles and reindeer-drawn sleds a year ago to document the effects of climate change and socioeconomic pressures on the ancient tradition of herding and the ecology of the Kola Peninsula, in northwest Russia, just inside the polar circle. Lead researcher Yulian Konstantinov says that these pressures are challenging the long-held image of herders as “custodians of the tundra.”

Worldwide there are some 7.5 million rangifers (called caribou in North America and reindeer in Europe), with 3.5 million North America and roughly 1 million wild in Eurasia. Semi-domesticated reindeer, which exist only in northern Europe, number at nearly 3 million, and lie at the center of herding cultures in Lapland, including the Saami people, who tend the giant herds for their meat, hides, antlers, milk, and transportation.

Because the herders have increasingly abandoned the tradition of following the deer through their sometimes 150-mile long spring and fall migrations, the IPY researchers struck out on their own in an effort to understand why the deer’s migration patterns – routes and times of year – are changing. They found that due to freezes that don’t occur until late January (rather than November as they used to), the deer harvest is moving closer toward spring, which according to Konstantinov, “triggers off a whole chain of deer responses and corresponding human ones.”

Among them, the herds break into many small fragments, zig-zagging between forest and tundra, and they return to winter grounds later for mating. All of this further impacts the changing turndra ecology and the people whose livelihoods are tied to the deer.

The researchers launched their mobile study from Lovozero, a 3,000-person town on the Kola Peninsula, which is home to the herders and about 60 kilometers northwest of the reindeer-corralling base Belaia Golovka. We pick up their travel diary there. (See the NOMAD website for an unabridged version.)

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All diary entries below written by Yulian Konstantinov and Vladislava Vladimirova

Man and climate conspire

April 5, 2007: During the last days before departure for Belaia Golovka Corral Base we have been following the results of the last round ups [think herds of cattle in the western US] of the "Tundra" Cooperative. According to herders, who keep coming to Lovozero and going back to Belaia, the final round ups are being planned till about mid-April.

These late round ups are taking place at a time when female deer are in their final month of pregnancy. The highly stressful corralling procedures at such a time reflect badly on the herd by causing numerous abortions and generally compromising the imminent calving process. This abnormal situation has become an established pattern during the last years, leading many herders to ask what they are in this much changed relationship between humans and Rangifer. The herders ask themselves whether they are engaged in reindeer husbandry or are they simply "round-uppers"?

As this pattern of herding increasingly resembles predator behavior, the herd itself, and especially its reproductive female part, behave as prey in response, trying to avoid human contact as much as possible. We can expect therefore that as soon as corralling activities are over at Belaia, the herd shall try to get away to safe places for calving as swiftly as possible.

This escape movement is further prompted by climate change factors -- the herd has to cross over rivers and lakes while there is still firm ice and before the calves get born. With early thawing, which has become common, we could expect that from mid-to-late April to see a swift movement of the herd between the late winter pastures around Belaia and the calving grounds on the eastern side of the river Iokanga.

In the meantime a constant flow of freshly slaughtered deer comes down from the hills.

April 22, 2007: The herd, guarded by few reindeer herders at Belaia Golovka is showing clear signs of desire to migrate from the forest to the Peninsula’s more open tundra. The herders' task to keep the herd near the corral camp is becoming more difficult. The behavior of the reindeer is following the seasonal rhythm; it is barely a month from the peak of calving and there are clear signs of spring all around. As a result of the growing temperature, accompanied with short drizzles, the snow is disappearing quickly from the southern looking locations, leaving open patches of lichen and dwarf birch.

Where the snow cover still holds it is hard and stable, after innumerable freezing and thawing. Temperatures fall to minus 3-5 during the night and rise to a few degrees plus during the day. The crust (nast) is of large-grained snow, strong enough to bear the weight of a person or a reindeer. The uppermost layer of ice on the lakes melts in patches during the day -- a clear sign that the lakes are going to open during the next two to four weeks, depending on weather conditions. Parts of rivers have already opened.

April 28, 2007: We faced a choice in whether to stay on with the controlled herd fragments at Belaia, or move to connect with the greater mass of reindeer migrating towards the Iokanga. We decided to follow the latter course of action.

Contact with the first fragment of the migrating herd was made on April, 23. About 150 in number, the herd had come from the forest down to where Iokanga flows out of Ketkozero and after a little distance joins the big Kalmozero Lake. The difficult terrain made our movement difficult, posing risks for machines as large snowless parts of swamps had to be crossed. Trying to use snow cover where we could find it, we located the tracks of the bigger herd. By all visible signs the herd seems to be around 1,000 head strong, but this figure is only approximate. Other parts coming behind it could swell numbers considerably.

May 3, 2007: It has to be mentioned at this point that the weather conditions of late winter-early spring have been rather special. March was a month of rising temperatures and early thawing, while April was much colder. In early May it is still one or two degrees above zero during the day, and minus five to ten during the night. Snow cover during the winter was generally thinner. Early spring is thus characterized with an abundance of snowless patches, especially on the southern sides of hills, while lower ground has retained a hard snowy crust.

All of this makes movement of herds fairly easy, while grazing on shrub and lichen immediately below the Keivi Ridge is abundant. This may explain to a considerable degree why the herd is so fragmente

The leaders of Brigades 1 and 8 have spent the second decade [10 days] of the month scouting for groups of deer. The purpose of their journey has been explained to us as a last desperate attempt of Cooperative "Tundra" to collect and drive into the corral, and subsequently to the slaughterhouse in Lovozero, some more reindeer. The annual meat plan of the enterprise has been under-fulfilled: thousands of heads planned for slaughter could not be provided by herders this winter. The mission of the leaders to find a fragment with which to augment the situation has proved fruitless, as we learned later.

Calving season

June 1, 2007: May is one of the most dynamic weather months of the year in the Kola Peninsula. When it begins, winter still dominates, towards its end, temperatures may reach up to +20°C and buds on the branches of the birch trees are growing fast, soon to open.

An equally dynamic rhythm can be observed in the lifecycle of the reindeer herd in May. It begins with the annual migratory movement away from the forest and towards the open tundra. While in the second half of the month the most important event of the reproductive cycle occurs: calving.

The calving of reindeer in the Kola is known to take place in the period between the middle of April and the middle of June, peaking in mid May. The length of the period, however, as well as the dates of the culmination of calving, when at least 80 percent of all females are giving birth in a couple of days, may considerably vary.

What we have seen this year suggests a considerable spread of calving, beginning with births in late April, and it is noticeably difficult to speak of a peak at all: numerous fragments have shown little or no presence of calves till the end of May. Only one very small female fragment that we saw showed anything like a peak state: seven does with six calves were spotted on the northern side of lake Oreshka. The date was 24 May. This fragment was too small, however, for any general conclusions to be drawn.

June 20, 2007: The first three weeks of June the weather was cold with a prevailing northeasterly wind. There were only about two days with some sunshine and temperatures higher than 10°C. The spring development of the flora and fauna was slower than usual. The good side of this was that the blood-sucking insects did not become any real bother until the very end of the month.

Our journey to Brigade 1 of Krasnoshchel'e bore abundant fruit. We learned from the herders that their latest herding practices are a deliberate effort to restore full annual control over their brigade herd - a serious departure from the current state of Kola herding.

Vasilii Kanev, a leader with great authority in the team, said they had begun to resume tight control of their herd since last summer. Their effort constitutes a very significant departure from existing methods and is to be considered a most significant turning point in recent developments.

Fully controlled herding, or herding "by our grandfathers' methods" (dedovskim sposobom, in Vasilii's words) is already showing a migration profile sharply different from that of the very "liberally" treated Lovozero right side herds. The herd of Brigade 1 has yielded, albeit reluctantly, to the suddenly imposed control, a process far from smooth so far, as we saw and herders agreed.

When migration patterns change:
July 31, 2007: There was a strong factor, perhaps the most decisive, hindering the Brigade 1 experiment. The majority of herders wish to retain their summer vacation of two months, and especially avoid spending "empty July" in the tundra. The berries would ripen only in mid-to-late August; fish was pointless to catch as it was difficult to keep even salted in hot weather; there was no meat as the herd was far away. Thus the tradition of summer holidays in line with all other state employees was difficult to depart from. "Going back to our grandfathers ways", as Vas'ka Kanev, the brigade leader's brother, had so much wished for the brigade to achieve, had proved impossible, or at least for this summer.

Apart from these factors, perhaps the problematic fording of the Iokanga in June contributed to demoralization of most herders, convincing them that important skills and habits had been irretrievably lost during the sovkhoz period. "Monkey's labor" ("martishkin trud") was the curt comment of one of the herders after the fording. He found it utterly pointless to try to do something the deer had being doing by themselves for so long.

Aug. 15, 2007: According to plan, the NOMAD team was back to the Ketkozero camp, getting ready for the start of the autumn migration. The first group of deer was not late to come: it passed Ketkozero Lake and continued its way to the forest, using a short spell of insect-free weather and trying to keep to high ground. The abundance of mushrooms was a primary motivating factor for this early movement back to the woods.

As reindeer herders predicted, such early migrating groups of reindeer would quickly get back to the open tundra, once the weather calmed down and a second wave of insects attacked. After the mosquitoes, it is the midge (moshka) that now came on the scene. The tiny insects bite the tender skin around the eyes of the animals, swelling the tissue and impairing vision. An even more dangerous enemy comes in the form of gadflies (ovod), which can make deer stampede for hours until they are fully exhausted. Both of these insect species, the warble and the skin fly, are strongly dependent on weather conditions, being especially sensitive to wind. Most favorable for them is calm and wet weather of the kind that descends before it starts to rain. For humans the bite is very painful as we both were able to register.

Our observations of reindeer behavior in the first half of August confirmed what we had encountered previously: migration in the central part of the Kola Peninsula is very far from a clean and tidy picture of unidirectional movement of an imaginary monolithic herd. In reality, we can observe differential movements of many different groups and often -- of individual animals. Moreover, the migration of many parts of this aggregate herd would follow at times a zigzag course between forest and open tundra, the direction being motivated by seasonal factors, such as the search for mushrooms and avoidance of insects noted above.

Scattered herds:

Aug. 31, 2007: The second half of August saw the gradual return of senior herders to the tundra base camps. The main task was catching sled bucks from migrating herd fragments. Assembling buck teams, provided essential transport in the snowless autumn months.

The weather happened to be unusually warm, often even hot, during the second half of August. Cooler days came only after August 26, when temperatures fell to 8 degrees centigrade during the day. The first frosts turned the tundra white at night and damaged the mushrooms and the blueberry.

The herders said that all seasons were coming in late this year. This was the likely explanation, according to them, of why the reindeer were staying back in summer grounds longer than usual. Apart from zig-zag forays to the forest and back, there was no visible sign of the autumn migration beginning in earnest. In previous years the movement would normally begin toward the middle of the month.

Sept. 15, 2007: By the first days of September most of the herders from the two neighboring brigades 1 and 8, as well as from brigade 2, had already gathered at the Porosozero Base Camp. Their main herding task in this season was to round up the deer from what we called the "mushroom migration" and drive them into the lower enclosure.

The most important objective of the September corralling remained catching sled bucks. Transport in the difficult months of September, October, and well into November, when the rains come and the swamps present a formidable obstacle, relies very much on reindeer. Buck transport is the only solution for numerous daily tasks, from going to other camps, to tethering bucks twice a day, to fishing, carrying wood, and numerous other smaller chores which abound in the daily routine of a herder.

There was also the pressing need for fresh meat. Over twenty hungry herders had gathered in the two huts of the base and a uniform diet of macaroni and tinned meat was bringing spirits down with each passing day.

Sept. 30, 2007: When all scouting parties met in camp, the unanimous conclusion was that there were simply too few deer migrating towards Porosozero and thus the prospects for a successful round up were dim.

In the meantime the problem of catching sled bulls remains, but the passing fragments were too elusive and, moreover, they would soon disappear. The only possible strategy was to wait ‘till the migration finally took place in earnest, which meant waiting for another month. Some herders attributed the scarcity of pre-rut fragments to the delay in the seasonal development this year. The fact of the matter was that the summer did not begin till after mid-July, so everything seemed like it happened a month later than usual.

The herders were unhappy with the situation as the so urgently needed reindeer transport could not be obtained, and also meat for the pot had been lacking for far too long. To carry on herding on foot and without meat was seen as unbearable and demeaning, so tempers were running rather short. Only the presence of the Head of the Herding Department, as well as that of the two brigade leaders, of Brigades 1 and 8, could keep things in some order.

Migration detours:

Oct. 15, 2007: Toward the end of September it began to look hopeless to wait any further for the herders to catch sled bucks.

The rut was already beginning some 20 km to the north of the Porosozero camp. We set off on foot in the direction of the upper reaches of River Tichka, where we expected to find fragments of "our" herd. There, during the summer, a group of geologists had camped and we expected to see traces of their intrusion, as well as search further off for signs of the herd.

What we saw far surpassed anything we had expected in the way of geologists' presence in a reindeer grazing area. The two low hills bore the deep scars of generations of digging and drilling, going back, recalling herders' stories, to the late 1950s. The Big Potchemvarek hill had been dug from end to end by parallel trenches. Metal tubes where the drills had gone into the rock had been left gaping open everywhere, as well as hundreds of meters of rusting pipes, drilling tubes, and all sorts of scrap. Not surprisingly, not a single reindeer trail could be seen anywhere near the hills.

This negative impact on centuries old migration routes made us think, not without serious apprehension, about new explorations opening up. There has been recently the case of a Canadian company -- "BERRIK-Gold". They would begin to operate in the westernmost end of the winter pastures very soon. As we learned from the herders, the Cooperative got some minimal compensation for this intrusion on their land, but how would mining there reflect on the deer? No one asked them.

Vasia confirmed that the overall herd had gone into rutting and he advised us not to try and reach "our" part of it -- the animals would be too far away and difficult to locate. "You better sit it out and wait for the fragments to pass through here", he said. "There shall be a wave of them after the hirvasa release their harems". They themselves were going to do just that and sit it out at their Iokanga camp till freeze up. When that happened they would try and corral their herd at Mount Devin Corral.

By the way the tundra partridges were changing their summer plumage to white winter attire we could see that the snow was not far away. Indeed, the first snow fell during the night of 10 October. On 11 October we woke up feeling a strange silence. The habitual rush of the wind and the crashing of waves were absent. The wind had died down for once and the lake was frozen and strangely silent.

A few days afterwards strong southerly gales began blowing once again and temperatures quickly rose to 5 degrees above zero. Snow and ice disappeared and the partridges became strikingly visible in their white feathers. In the face of serious dangers from the air, they decided to abandon all fear of us and would crouch under a bush a few meters away from our tent as we went about household tasks.

By 7 October all waterfowl had left for the south: geese, ducks, and finally a big flock of swans. A gyrfalcon terrorizing the partridges left soon after this exodus, but a pair of whitetail eagles remained, as well as hawks. Thus, the partridges had enough reasons to fear attacks from the air.

Of the other predators, the bear was more visibly active. On coming back from Porosozero we could see clearly fresh prints on the western shore of the lake. Closer to our base camp at Ketkozero we came twice across rather impressive fresh mounds of excrement. Judging by them the bear had been harvesting the voronika -- a black tasty berry which is so abundant on open dry spaces that it is difficult not to walk on it most of the time. As no hairs could be seen in the feces we concluded that the deer must be still far away in the open tundra.

On thin ice

Oct. 31, 2007: Regarding the trek of the after-rut movement, the herders' opinion was that the deer would not dare cross water at this time being apprehensive of thin clear ice that they might not be able to notice. Only when the ice on the lakes became covered by snow they would go over it.

The most important bit of news was that the sled-buck campaign at Porosozero had finally born some fruit, but in a rather miserable way. All in all, only four draft teams of reindeer had been caught. This was then the result of an effort that had begun at the end of August and had lasted for just under two months. Herders said there were too few people for a successful round up, that there were fewer deer each year, and also, according to critical opinion from nearby competing herders, there were plenty of deer "but they (the Lovozero herders at Porosozero) were not able to catch them."

Whatever the truth, the results were very unsatisfactory.

Nov. 10, 2007: The beginning of November in the tundra was marked by sharp change of weather. In the first days of the month it looked like winter had finally come. Temperatures finally fell below zero and snow covered the hills and swamps.

After a few such days however, the weather became unstable again. The wind turned from the south and day temperature often rose to zero. Such uncertain conditions did not stimulate fast migration of the reindeer fragments to the forest zone.

Despite the reasons that held reindeer back, more and more of them would advance towards the Iokanga line and this movement intensified with each passing day. As it was in September, the idea was to catch sled-bucks, first and foremost, but also to mark calves or other unmarked animals, slaughter for the pot at the camp, as well as slaughter own private deer for sale.

It was noted - and remained a pattern - that females with young calves formed the greater part of the group. This fact was met with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the herders were glad that there were so many calves: about seven for ten does was said to be the average. On the other, however, they were disappointed to see so very few adult males appearing, with an extreme scarcity of sled bucks

Nov. 15, 2007: Towards mid-November weather conditions became more stable and typical for the winter in the central part of the Kola Peninsula. Temperatures fell often under -10°, the lowest night temperatures registered being -17°. Moderate winds from the north and the north-east became the norm. The snow cover reached up to 30 cm in thickness.

Muddy swamp stew

Despite this more decisive change of weather, lakes, rivers, and swamps had not frozen hard enough yet to permit unrestricted movement of people and animals. "Snow, no matter how little it was, covered the ground before it could freeze. So, swamps became kind of stewed: the snow closed them off from above. The deer have to walk very carefully there, they are afraid they could get stuck into the mud,” explained the herder. On the positive side, the thinness of the snow cover allowed easy feeding on the grass and brush below.

Dec. 1, 2007: Early morning on Nov. 15, the driving into the corral began. A fragment of about 150 head managed to break off from the main group and stampede away in the direction of Liavozero Lake, closer to the forest. The remaining part the corral work was carried out on two successive days, processing about 400-450 head on each day. This was the sixth corralling in the tandra since mid-October, with a total number of deer processed getting by now close to around 5,000 head.

The primary goal of all corral work of this stretch (mid-October to end of November) was said, once again, to be sled buck retrieval. But during the last three sessions, when greater numbers had been driven and processed in the tandra, very few bucks had been acquired: less than ten bucks during the last two corralling sessions, when more than a thousand animals had passed through the enclosure.

Reindeer herders did not separate animals for slaughter on this occasion. Only a few calves that had been found too feeble to survive the winter were slaughtered for the pot. This is one of the greatest differences from Soviet time herding practices, when counting/harvesting corralling were traditionally carried out in November and December, with all such activities being over by the New Year Holidays.

Nowadays reindeer herders explain late corralling and harvesting, stretching even to the first half of April during the last five years, with climatic factors: freezing is greatly delayed well into January, which prevents easy transport by ice/snow. At present Herders are unable to drive a herd to the slaughterhouse in Lovozero, because the snow/ice road is still risky: lakes and rivers are open, and even the swamps are still not well frozen.

Instead, a small quantity of eighty calves had been slaughtered by the side of the tandra in October, and transported on two vezdehody to the village. The carcasses went to the meat processing facility of the Cooperative, which produces salami.

Apart from the calves, slaughtering of private deer was allegedly carried out. The carcasses would be sold right at the tandra to visiting traders, or be taken to the village.

As a matter of well-established practice, any visitor from the village has to be well loaded with alcohol. Jokingly, the teams of snow scooters and sleds, on which the traders arrive, are called spirtovozy (alcohol trains). From the point of view of the traders, the herders are being unfair to them. "All evening long (before corralling) they (the herders) yell at me: "Nalivai, nalivai!" ("Pour out (the vodka)!") and on the next day they don't know me and ask for a crazy price" a trader complained to us.

"The Administration of the Cooperative wants us to set apart for slaughter more and more animals, more than the growth of the herd can provide. During the last harvesting seasons, for example, we were forced to send for slaughter to the village a great part of the productive males (hirvasa), and even young male animals. It is getting difficult to get a male old enough to be made into a draft buck," a reindeer herder bitterly commented.

The obvious reason is the greater weight the male animals fetch. The Administration of the Cooperative is attempting somehow to fulfill its meat plan at whatever cost. Late corralling, on the other hand, well into the high pregnancy period of the females, results in an increasing number of abortions.

When we add to this the poaching pressure, as well as the internal poaching practice, we can see that the herd candle is burning fast at both ends.

Story by Victoria Schlesinger. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

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