Christmas crisis for Canada’s iconic reindeer herd

December 3, 2012

Tribes all around the world, such as Russia’s Nenets, depend on reindeer for their survival. © Steve Morgan

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A reindeer herd which was once the largest in the world has shrunk to a fraction of its former size, official surveys have revealed.

Canada’s George River Herd once numbered 8-900,000, but a recent government survey found only 27,600 animals survive.

The herd’s unprecedented and dramatic decline has left local Indigenous people fearful for its survival.

A ‘tsunami of factors’ has been blamed for the decline, which government ministers have called ‘significant and frightening.’

The reindeer, known as caribou in North America, is central to the lives and culture of many Indigenous peoples in the sub-Arctic. The 63% population drop just in the last two years has left many of them shocked.

Speaking to Survival, George Rich, an elder from northeast Canada’s Innu people, said, ‘one of the major factors is continued mining and mineral exploration.

‘For example, Quest Minerals has recently announced that it wants to build a road through the heart of the calving grounds, as well as flying helicopters and planes back and forth from exploration sites.’

Canada’s promotion of industrial projects on its land has destroyed large tracts of the reindeer’s grazing grounds, heavily disrupting migratory routes.

A migrating caribou herd, who are making their journey in declining numbers. © Subhankar Banerjee/Survival

The herd’s decline has led some biologists to blame Indigenous hunting practices. However the Innu, who have co-existed with the caribou for thousands of years, have been quick to defend themselves.

Rich said, ‘the government always blames the Aboriginal people, but we are deeply connected to the caribou and have lived with them for generations.’

Many Innu are calling for greater control over their territories and resources, and to be treated as equals in decisions that affect their lands and the animals that live there.

Stephen Corry, Survival’s Director said today, ‘It’s easy to blame Indigenous peoples for over-hunting because they’ve usually no voice to defend themselves from these accusations. Yet it’s been proven in countless studies that they are the world’s best conservationists. When will governments and scientists realize this? We need to start listening to what Indigenous peoples have to say about matters on their own land: they know best.’