Rudolf at risk! 250,000 reindeer to be culled in Siberia officials’ plan to fight anthrax

© Vitaliy Ankov
Officials in the remote Russian region of Yamalo-Nenets call for 250,000 reindeer to be culled in the face of the growing anthrax threat. Others fear that this could destroy the region’s age-old nomadic reindeer herding.

The strategy proposed by the officials includes compensating the nomads, not in cash, but in mortgages to buy apartments.

Reindeer in the region have traditionally been slaughtered in November and December, but this year the number is set to increase dramatically, regional Governor Dmitry Kobylkin told The Siberian Times media outlet.

Reindeer are usually killed using electric shock to the forehead. They are then slung upside down, and after the antlers are removed, the throat is slit and blood is drained from the body. The reindeer are exported – mostly to China where they are used for medical purposes.

Reindeer have experienced grim times over the past couple of years: first there was a major freeze in the winter of 2013-2014 that led to the deaths of about 70,000 reindeer.

This summer, the region saw an outbreak of anthrax after the record hot Arctic summer: the ‘frozen’ disease was awakened in the permafrost for the first time in 75 years, and led to the death of a boy, plus some 2,350 reindeer, as well as four dogs. Almost 100 people were taken to the hospital.

There are now fears, however, that a new outbreak could cause the disease to rapidly spread, as “the reindeer livestock numbers in Yamal are too high,” said Nikolay Vlasov, deputy head of Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia’s Federal Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance Service, as quoted by The Siberian Times. He added that the density of the reindeer livestock could cause an even faster spread of the disease, concluding that the region is reaching “a dangerous milestone.”

“I base my conclusions on Soviet standards. Back then, livestock was kept at the same number: 300,000 to 400,000 heads. Now there are 700,000 already,” he said.

Another step to stave off catastrophe would be to move large numbers of the animals to the southern parts of Yamelo-Nenets – an area substantially larger than France in size – to allow the northern pastures to recover.

Scientists, however, express concern over this measure: anthropologist Olga Murashko said she was “worried about the fate of the private herders, who still perpetuate the tradition of family and clan based reindeer herding.” The majority of them have small herds. At the same time, gas licensing is increasing in the area, causing even more concern over the nomads’ fates, she added.

“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,” she said, as quoted by The Siberian Times.

Time is also against the herders. In a few months, “the indigenous reindeer herders cannot be properly consulted on the administration’s plans to annihilate a large number of reindeer.”

Yamal Region’s name is translated as ‘end of the Earth’ and is located in the north, about 4,200 kilometers (2,609 miles) from Moscow. Winter temperatures there may drop to -50 C.