World’s largest reindeer herd targeted by poachers for antler velvet

Illegal hunting for meat, fur, and newly grown antlers—along with the warming climate—are depleting wild reindeer on Russia’s Taymyr Peninsula.

By Alec Luhn
Published 13 Aug 2020, 09:39 BST

Wild reindeer cross the Kheta River, on the Taymyr Peninsula. Poachers in boats typically saw off the sensitive antlers while the animals are swimming across rivers on their way north in the spring.

Photograph by Nature Reserves of Taymyr

The scene was carnage. Dozens of reindeer carcasses were sprawled on the sandy shore of the Khatanga River or floating in the current toward the Arctic Ocean, as if the animals had drowned in mid-stream. The story of what actually befell these reindeer on the Taymyr Peninsula, in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region, however, was far more grisly.

In a video filmed by hunters in 2017 and shared on a Russian public interest YouTube channel, two men can be seen bending over the side of an aluminum boat. Soon after, a reindeer with a knobby head frantically swims away from them. Later, one of the men, smoking a cigarette, reaches into the bow and pulls out a saw—and two fuzzy brown antlers. At the time, according to Russian state media, the antlers would have been worth several hundred dollars—the better part of an average monthly wage in Taymyr.

The crowds of reindeer swimming across rivers at the few fordable crossing points during their spring migration, heads barely above water, can do little to avoid poachers ambushing them in boats. The men grab their velvet antlers—“velvet” for the thick, downy skein of blood vessels feeding the new bone as it grows—and cut them off, leaving the animals with an open wound prone to fatal infection.

A Dolgan man in western Yakutia cuts frozen reindeer meat before preparing a meal. Other indigenous people in the region also hunt wild reindeer for food.

Photograph by Max Avdeev

Young, or velvet, reindeer antlers and herbs are displayed for sale in Sichuan, China. Velvet antlers are imported from Russia to meet growing demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of ailments.

Photograph by Gabbro, Alamy

“I pity the animals that suffer this torture,” says Pavel Kochkaryov, director of the Central Siberian Nature Reserve, a protected area in Krasnoyarsk, who previously worked as a game warden in Taymyr and continues to study the reindeer herd there. He compares cutting off a reindeer’s sensitive young antlers to amputating a limb. “No one knows how quickly they will die once they swim to shore,” he says.

The video, first shared by a nature reserve employee and then distributed on social media, also shows dead reindeer on the riverbanks. Antler poachers shot those animals, Kochkaryov says.

Less than two decades ago, a million wild reindeer—the largest population on the planet—ranged across Taymyr, an expanse of sodden tundra larger than Germany. (The peninsula’s name is believed to come from a phrase used by the indigenous Nganasan meaning “land of reindeer tracks.”) On their yearly migration of up to 1,800 miles, the reindeer go south in the autumn and spend the winter in more forested areas in the Evenkiya district and Yakutia region. When calves are born in the spring, the animals move north across the Khatanga river system back into Taymyr, where coastal winds provide relief from mosquitoes and parasitic botflies.

Reindeer herders from Kyusyur, Yakutia, move to another encampment before the annual March vaccination of their reindeer against anthrax and necrobacteriosis.

Photograph by Max Andeev

But since the early 2000s the herd's numbers have plunged to fewer than 400,000, in part because in the autumn and winter, commercial and recreational hunters have been killing large numbers of reindeer for meat and fur—often in excess of the legal limit, according to Kochkaryov. Meanwhile, velvet antler poachers intercepting the animals at their springtime river crossings have further diminished their numbers.

All deer species grow antlers, but reindeer—both male and female—have the biggest racks. Demand for velvet antlers is greatest in China where they’ve been used by traditional healers for two millennia. Today, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine sell antler velvet soups and powders to treat ailments ranging from back pain and anemia to premature ejaculation.

The rapid growth rate of velvet antlers—up to an inch a day, fuelled by a growth hormone called IGF-1—has long led to beliefs in their benefits for human health and vigour. President Vladimir Putin, for example, is reported to have bathed in velvet antler blood. Supplements containing deer velvet are often marketed as improving sex drive, fertility, and strength, making them popular with bodybuilders. Some top-level American athletes have been accused of using deer antler sprays to speed injury recovery. Although those benefits haven’t been proven in humans, studies in mice and rats suggest that velvet antler can increase muscle strength, bone growth, and skin repair.

By 2016, up to 50,000 reindeer were being killed illicitly every year, according to Leonid Kolpaschikov, head scientist at Nature Reserves of Taymyr, a grouping of protected areas around the peninsula.

“If the destruction of reindeer and lack of attention to the problem continues like now, the Taymyr reindeer will end up like the American bison,” Kochkaryov says.

A vital resource

As some of the only large herbivores roaming the Arctic realm, reindeer and caribou (the North American subspecies of the same animal) provide crucial sustenance for predators such as wolves, wolverines, and sometimes bears; in addition, the ungulates help redistribute scarce nutrients through their fecal matter.

They’re also a vital resource for nomadic people across the tundra, who have hunted reindeer for their meat and hides as far back as the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago. To this day, more than 10,000 people in Russia lead herds of semi-domesticated reindeer on their annual migration to the Arctic Ocean.

Photograph by Max Avdeev

Indigenous people in Alaska, Canada, and parts of Russia—including most of the 800 Nganasan on the Taymyr Peninsula—hunt wild reindeer. Living in villages hundreds of miles from the nearest city that are mostly cut off once the ice roads melt in the spring, they rely on fish and venison stored in underground permafrost cellars.

Now this livelihood is in doubt. A 2018 study found that the worldwide population of wild reindeer and caribou fell from 4.7 million to 2.1 million during the previous two decades, at least in part because of climate change. Warming in tundra regions increases parasites and thaws permafrost, making conditions more favourable for deadly outbreaks of anthrax and other diseases. Rivers are now thawing earlier in Taymyr, and more calves are drowning or dying of fatigue as they struggle to swim across them during the spring migration, says Vladimir Krever, the biodiversity program leader with World Wildlife Fund Russia. Higher temperatures can deprive reindeer of essential food: When rain falls on snow, and refreezing occurs, lichens they eat can be covered with impenetrable ice.

The most immediate threat to the Taymyr reindeer, though, is large-scale hunting, both legal and illegal, for their meat and fur and poaching for velvet antlers. In June, when the animals swim up to half a mile across the Khatanga and its tributaries, poachers in boats either shoot them en masse with buckshot or use a handsaw or angle grinder to slice off individual animals’ antlers.

A herder near Yurung-Khaya, Yakutia region, keeps an eye on his reindeer while slicing frozen fish for lunch. Arctic fish and reindeer meat are staple foods for indigenous people throughout the Russian north.

Photograph by Max Andeev

Up to 70 percent of reindeer whose antlers are amputated this way die of blood loss or sepsis, according to the Research Institute of Agriculture and Ecology of the Arctic. And, says Alexander Korobkin, head of Krasnoyarsk’s wildlife department, surviving males without their antlers lose their libido and ability to joust with other bucks to win mates, precluding them from the autumn rut.

According to Kolpaschikov, the crowded river crossings had become danger zones by 2016, when some 22 tons of antlers were hacked off the heads of reindeer fording the Khatanga and Kheta Rivers. (It would take about 4,000 reindeer to yield that tonnage.)

A turning point came in 2019. On February 11, wildlife authorities in neighbouring Yakutia confiscated 27 carcasses and almost six tons of frozen velvet antlers from trucks heading on an ice road from the village of Khatanga to Olenyok. The drivers didn't have hunting permits. Days later, the Krasnoyarsk regional government approved a five-year ban on cutting velvet antlers from live wild reindeer.

The crackdown seems to be working, Korobkin says: So far this year, confiscations of illegal antlers total 1.6 tons.

It’s still legal, however, to remove antlers from privately owned, semi-domesticated reindeer—a growing, unregulated industry in the Russian north. New Zealand, a major exporter of velvet antlers from red deer and elk, requires antler cutting to be done by a certified veterinary worker who must apply a local anesthetic, use disinfected instruments, and prevent blood loss with a tourniquet. After the procedure, the animal must be monitored to make sure the wound clots. According to Yeiko Serotetto, a reindeer herder on the Yamal Peninsula, west of Taymyr, Russia has no such regulations.

“Reindeer can't squeal—they suffer silently,” Serotetto says. “Of course, it's extremely painful, but reindeer herders want to be able to put food on the table like everyone else.”

More than 11 tons of antlers were exported legally from Krasnoyarsk to China last autumn, according to the regional veterinary and agricultural regulatory service. Some conservationists say that makes it easier to “greenwash” wild reindeer antlers: The availability of legal animal products provides cover for the illegal sale and export of wild ones, which consumers often believe are more potent. In June, under new Chinese regulations intended to reduce the wildlife trade during the coronavirus pandemic, reindeer were designated as commercial livestock, allowing the trade to continue to grow.

“If you ask traders where they get the [antlers] from,” says Pei Su, founder of ACTAsia, an animal rights group based in the United Kingdom, they say they’re from wild reindeer “because it's a much better price. But if an inspector comes, then they say it's from a farm. This is where the pitfall is.”

‘Easy money’

As Russia tries to stem the wild antler trade, hunting of wild reindeer continues—and not all of it is lawful.

Several herds in the country are now considered endangered and are protected from hunting, but not the Taymyr population. It’s legal for members of indigenous organisations to hunt up to eight wild reindeer a year for subsistence. Recreational hunters and meat and fur companies can obtain individual permits to shoot a certain number of reindeer in designated areas between August 1 and March 15. In 2019, permits were issued allowing for a total of 41,500 reindeer to be hunted in the Taymyr and Evenkiya districts. Although that’s 10,000 fewer than the year before, it’s still too many to be sustainable, conservationists say.

Poverty is entrenched in the places where the Taymyr herd winters, and the “easy money that you can make” from the sale of reindeer products has led some local people to kill more reindeer than their limit, Korobkin says. In April 2017, a raid on poachers' cabins in Evenkiya, filmed by state television, found almost 200 carcasses on the snow and a pile of legs that had been skinned to make fur boots.

“Today the population is still unstable,” Korobkin says of the Tamyr herd. Birthrates are down because poachers target older, bigger bucks, each of which would have mated with several females. “We need to fix the gender and age structure, otherwise this organism of 400,000 head could be destroyed, or decrease, under any external human factor,” he says.

Krasnoyark’s wildlife department increased the number of game wardens in Taymyr and Evenkiya from six in 2017 to 24 in 2019. The number of wardens was also quadrupled in a neighbouring district of the Yakutia region where additional hunting of the Taymyr reindeer occurs. But the wardens have a huge area to monitor, and Kochkaryov estimates that up to 20,000 Taymyr reindeer are killed illegally each year.

To help reduce losses, Korobkin wants to shorten the hunting season by 10 weeks and reduce the quotas for wild reindeer. And he plans next year to conduct an aerial count of the Taymyr herd to bolster the argument for stronger protections. The World Wildlife Fund, meanwhile, has called for the Krasnoyarsk and Yakutia regions to issue a single, non-indigenous hunting quota for the Taymyr population rather than two separate quotas, which, it points out, subjects the herd to “double hunting pressure.”

Russia's ‘new oil and gas province’

Hunting is not the only pressure reindeer face in the region. In February, Putin voiced his support for development of the sprawling Vostok oil project, including drilling fields and pipelines north of Khatanga that will deliver oil to a tanker terminal slated to open at Severnaya Bay in 2024. As the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, the Russian oil company carrying out the project, put it, Taymyr will become the country's “new oil and gas province.”

Studies have shown that resource extraction can decrease reproduction among wild reindeer. And if Rosneft goes ahead without consulting indigenous groups on reindeer-friendly measures such as raised pipelines and road crossings, the project could obstruct the Taymyr herd’s annual migrations, says Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace Russia's energy program. Rosneft spokesperson Timur Valeyev told National Geographic that an environmental impact assessment is being done for the drilling fields north of Khatanga, and after public hearings, “measures will be developed to avoid interference in reindeer activities.” There is a “very high likelihood” that these will include raising pipelines in certain areas so reindeer can pass under them, as was done at the Vankor field on the western edge of Taymyr, Valeyev said.

“Once we see the project, we will be able to see the factors that could restrict migration routes,” says Konstantin Prosekin, director of Nature Reserves of Taymyr.

In May, Rosneft started exploratory drilling at the western edge of Taymyr. That month, more than 4.6 million gallons of diesel from a reservoir belonging to Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel and palladium producer, leaked into a river near Norilsk, causing the biggest oil spill ever in the Arctic. On a July expedition, Kochkaryov found that despite containment efforts, the toxic liquid was flowing north, where he says it will pollute reindeer grazing grounds, with unclear consequences.

On top of this, the Russian Arctic has experienced a summer heat wave even more extreme than the one in 2016 that triggered an outbreak of anthrax, killing 2,300 reindeer in Yamal.

Losses of reindeer in Taymyr and elsewhere are a threat both to the natural systems of the Arctic and to the food security of indigenous people.

“What's in the tundra is what we eat,” says Grigory Dyukarev, of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Taymyr, a group based in Dudinka that works to protect the local culture and environment. “We need to preserve this population for current and future generations. As long as there are reindeer, there will be native people.”

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist with a focus on climate and the Arctic. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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