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How poaching is 'killing off' the world's largest reindeer herd on Taimyr Peninsula

By 0 and 0 and 0
07 February 2017


Calls for far tighter controls on reindeer hunting - and poaching - are growing. Picture: Alexander Krivoshapkin


A small motorboat stalks a herd of reindeer as they cross the Khatanga River in the far north of Siberia. In a barbaric act, poachers use axes and cleavers to cut the antlers from the helpless animals as they swim in the cold Arctic waters. 

Often, the frontal bone of the animal is yanked off too, and the highly productive male creatures die in or close to the river. Evidence of this cruelty litters the river here in the north of Krasnoyarsk region.

Deeply disturbing pictures here show how the crossing of the Khatanga and its tributaries is used by poachers to shoot reindeer. Raids by the employees of the Taimyr Nature Reserve in summer reveal the corpses of the deer dumped along the river. 

Many were shot in the head from boats while they were crossing the rivers, on a seasonal migration from Evenkia to the Taimyr peninsula. 

Another tactic used by poachers on snowmobiles is to chase the reindeer some 10 kilometres towards the river. Pregnant females carrying 3 or 4 kilogram embryos often suffer miscarriages. Veterinarians have highlighted 'mass abortion'.

Reindeer hunt in Khatanga

Reindeer hunt in Khatanga


In Khatanga settlement tons of antlers are produced annually and sold to China and South Korea under fake documents obtained in Dudinka. Picture: Sergey Burlaku, The Siberian Times

Those that avoid this fate often give birth prematurely - immediately after crossing the Khatanga River. For the past dozen years, wildlife rangers have witnessed the mass mortality of newborn calves in this northern zone.

Expert Dr Leonid Kolpashchikov, head of the scientific department of Taimyr Nature Reserve, warned: 'The small number of rangers is not able to control the hunting of wild reindeer, which is carried out with violations to the timing, amount and methods. Poaching is 'out of control' from the Yamal peninsula to Yakutia, he said.

He links this process to a catastrophic fall in the reindeer population in Taimyr from 1 million in 2000 - the largest wild herd in the world, accounting for 24 per cent of all wild animals - to a projected possible low of 150,000 in 2020.

'Now we estimate the population as 400,000 to 500,000,' he said. Other experts put the current population slightly higher at 600,000, but no-one denies the stark decline, which is often blamed mainly on climate change.

Yet is the activity of poachers a critical factor too? 




'If the situation continues, then by 2020, according to estimates, the population size may be reduced to 150,000 to 200,000.' Pictures: Taimyr Reserves, Alexander Krivoshapkin

'In 2000, the population of wild reindeer was up to 1 million. During this time, it fell by half,' he said. 'If the situation continues, then by 2020, according to estimates, the population size may be reduced to 150,000 to 200,000. At the same time the fate of the reindeer is deplorable.'

To Dr Kolpashchikov the human cause behind the slump in reindeer numbers is clear. 

'We have an official hunting quota of 40,000 reindeer, but in fact they kill 120,000 a year,' he said in a recent interview. 'Plus in Khatanga [settlement] tons of antlers are produced annually. 

'And under the guise of the antlers taken from domestic reindeer, they sell the antlers of wild (animals). They shoot the deer, slice out their tongues, and cut antlers. They do not even take the meat.' 

Antlers are seen in some Asian countries including China as a restorative remedy to strengthen the bones and tendons- and to increase human sexual performance.

Medications from antlers  can be used to rapid recovery from illness, injury or surgery, accelerate wound healing, merge bones, strengthen the immune system, and reduce the risk of cancer. It is also rejuvenating remedy while reindeer tongue is served as a  delicacy. 


Reindeer hunt

Reindeer hunt

Deeply disturbing pictures here show how the crossing of the Khatanga and its tributaries is used by poachers to shoot reindeer. Picture: Vladimir Adayev

Much of this poaching occurs in spring, when hunting is technically banned, said Kolpashchikov.

In Dudinka, a port on the Yenisei river and the administrative centre of the Taimyrsky Dolgano-Nenetsky district of Krasnoyarsk region, poachers obtain 'fake certificates' that the antlers were obtained from domestic reindeer herds, he said. 

Then the antlers are exported to China and South Korea. This ruse is widely known, including the Department of Wildlife Protection, he said.

According to the department of veterinary medicine in Taimyr, from February to August 2015, some 61 tons of supposedly domestic reindeer antlers. In 2016, only in the areas of Khatanga and Khet in east Taimyr some 20 tons of antlers were produced. 

Yet the area has no large stocks of domestic reindeer, suggesting many of these antlers were illegally taken from wild reindeer in the spring season, when hunting is forbidden.

Professor Andrey Petrov, a researcher from the University of Northern Iowa, has highlighted the disturbing decline in reindeer numbers on Taimyr. He points to climate change as a key factor, but acknowledges the Russian concern that human involvement is also an issue. 



'Reindeer police' makes motorboat raids to protect not slaughter the reindeer as they cross the Olenek River. Pictures: Alexander Krivoshapkin

'There is a substantial decline - and we are also seeing this with other wild reindeer declining rapidly in other parts of the world,' he said. 'We know in the last two decades that we have had an increase in temperatures of about 1.5C overall. And that definitely impacts migration patterns.' 

He added: 'A big, big number of reindeer are being killed every year for subsistence, and some of my Russian colleagues will tell you that this is the primary cause of decline, along with climatic changes.' 

And certainly an official figure that claims only 195 deer are illegally hunted a year across the country defies belief. 

Novaya Gazeta newspaper highlighted how Tsentrohotkontrol which monitors numbers of game animals has put the total number of wild reindeer at 898,480. If so, it is less than were on the Taimyr peninsula just 17 years ago. 

But the head of this organisation's monitoring department admits the figures are questionable due to falsifications. 'No one known what's going on with the accounts,' said Pavel Pavlov. 'It is not known how many reindeer and other animals we have.'

Reindeer hunt

Reindeer hunt

Reindeer hunt

Raids by the employees of the Taimyr Nature Reserve in summer reveal the corpses of the deer dumped along the river. Pictures: Novaya Gazeta

There is an interesting contrast between what happens with reindeer in Khatanga and further east with the Leno-Olenek population in Yakutia, officially called the Sakha Republic. 

Here the balance of the population remains constant at around 90,000 to 95,000, it is claimed. 

But here the deputy head of the Mirny hunting department Yegor Syromyatnikov and his staff make motorboat raids to protect not slaughter the reindeer as they cross the Olenek River during the autumn migration in August-September, as our pictures of the 'reindeer police' show.

Yet in stark contrast to this another population, Yano-Indigir, once the largest it Yakutia with up to 130,000 animals, is now on the brink of total destruction. There are only some 2,000 reindeer left. 

Dr Ivan Mizin, coordinator for biodiversity in the Barents branch of the World Wildlife Fund, has also sounded the alarm. According to him, a few decades ago, there were 2 to 2.2 million wild reindeer in Russia, and there were even more in earlier periods of history. Now two subspecies of reindeer are listed in the Red Book of Russia. 

Crossing river

Crossing river

Crossing river

A few decades ago, there were 2 to 2.2 million wild reindeer in Russia, and there were even more in earlier periods of history. Pictures: Alexander Krivoshapkin

Mizin has joined to colleagues from the Taimyr Nature Reserve in saying: 'The Taimyr population is exposed to unprecedented destruction, from our point of view. The number of people with guns and snowmobiles has increased significantly. The last few years there was a practice of producing the antlers of wild deer.'

Climate change can impact on reindeer numbers in several ways, say scientists. A warming climate influences the migration of reindeer. For example, during the annual survey in the Taimyr reserves this summer, a long delay was noticed in the autumn migration in the tundra zone of Taimyr. 

High temperatures, a shallow snow cover and lack of strong winds influenced the delay of the migration for more than a month. Heavy snow followed by warming and sudden cooling can also freeze the ground, preventing foraging. 

The rising wolf population can be a factor, too. 

The development of the oil and gas sector may also threaten the existence of reindeer. Pipelines, roads, power lines, rapidly built in the tundra prevent seasonal migrations of animals and can lead to the complete disappearance of the species in some regions, it is claimed. The Yamal peninsula - with vast natural gas supplies - is a case in point.

In Taimyr, there is a major change in migration patterns in the past half century or so.



The total number of wild reindeer ia put at 898,480, but there is no guarantee this number is real.  Pictures: Vitaly Gorshkov

In August and September, the majority of deer grazing in the tundra of western Taimyr crossed the Pyasina River and went to the Putorana plateau. By October, 80% of the population had left the Taimyr lowland. 

Now the mass migration starts only in November. 

Calls for far tighter controls on reindeer hunting - and poaching - are growing. Mizin said: 'A first measure should be to reduce of the hunting period. Hunting should be carried out not from autumn to spring, but only in the winter months.' 

Leonid Kolpashchikov stressed: 'To save the Taimyr population, it is now necessary to organise strict state control over hunting.' This should include an effective ban on spring hunting, and the producing of reindeer antlers. 

At a meeting in Petrozavodsk in November 2016, scientists and game wardens from across Russia under the auspices of the WWF argued for a total ban on hunting, but first to demand more restrictive regimes. 

Comments (11)

People who engage in things they know deep in their hearts are wrong continue to do so because they think, well it's only me and there's a million (in this case) reindeer, not realizing that there are a million more people just like them thinking exactly the same thoughts. Perhaps they don't understand simple mathematics. One reindeer times one million hunters equals one million dead reindeer. Act locally and think globally. There is only so much and then it's gone - forever.
Erik Bosma, Mission, BC, Canada
22/03/2021 01:50
Shame on us :(
Javda, Spain
03/03/2018 04:45
姚剑申, 巨鹿/中国
10/02/2018 08:15
We must banish hunting all over the Earth, immediately and forever.

And if defenseless animals hunted men?
Renato Pascariello, Rome, Italy
26/12/2017 02:12
Russia should not allow these chinese killing everything what moves .......such stupid people!
Matthew, Malta
12/10/2017 20:50
People must understand that are the most invazive and distructive species living on earth until we will not change completely our mentality we will just continue to increase our number and problems because each of the individuals will try from birth until the end to have everything possible...
Not important, Not important
19/04/2017 03:55
Would be a good idea to hunt down the hunters and to not kill them, but just to wound them and than leave them behind to die a horroble dead. Chop of a limb or just a hand, and let them feel the pain they are putting these defenseless animals trough.
I would volunteer do be part of that hunting party.
Paul Peters, Gennep Netherlands
18/04/2017 20:29
Every precaution must be taken to ensure the larger herds survival, even to fielding additional armed authorities with GPS, extra long range ammo to ward off poachers, and the sheer stamina for the cold outdoors to live in proximity to the migration paths and the crucial water crossings. Else these magnificently horned reindeer will go the way of the American buffalo in a very short time.
Tom Donaldson, Los Angeles, Caifornia
23/02/2017 11:53
Soo very sad that the whole nature is stripping of totally !!!!!
Johan, The Netherlands
13/02/2017 05:11
I agree that tougher laws are necessary. We also have to address the demand side of this horrific situation. This is not some small, isolated, ancient medicinal custom (using the antlers). The sheer volume and extent of this brutality indicates to me the same attitude exists on the demand side. Also, the reindeer need to be able to migrate throughout the area without being impeded. Thank you to everyone involved in addressing all aspects of protecting the reindeer as well as their habitat.
Pamela Tetarenko, League City, USA
12/02/2017 04:12
There should be death sentence for poachers and life prison for torture of animals
Tougher laws are necessary.
t, Canada
08/02/2017 22:40

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