Reindeer pawing fluffy snow To get at tasty plants below
Jeff Flokin of the International Fund for Wildlife is concerned about the severe, worldwide decline in reindeer (caribou) herds, a 60% decline from their historic highs. He focuses on the 84% decline in the Peary and Dolphin-Union herds on Victoria Island in Nunavut, Canada to explain the cause of the decline:
“It’s climate change. The temperature, the weather and the landscape are all changing in the Arctic. So, in particular with this species—they’re a browsing species—they need to have access to the different plants and native shrubs that grow in the Tundra where they are in the winter.
“Usually, in past times, there’s kind of a light, fluffy snow that falls in that region, but now, because of the temperature change, they tend to have heavy, icy rain. It’s freezing over these plants so the reindeer can’t access them for food.
“What’s happening is they’re starving or spending too much energy trying to find food. As a result–starvation, malnutrition, low-reproductive rates. And that’s causing these die-offs.”
The situation is even more acute in the George River herd further east in Labrador, the northerly region of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The reindeer population of 900,000 has dwindled to fewer than 28,000.
George Rich is an elder of the Innu tribe of 850 indigenous people 150 miles north of Goosebay, Labrador. He said that traditionally, caribou bear calves in June, a month when they rely on cold temperatures to keep away the Black Flies that plague them. But climate change has created earlier thaws and earlier springs—and Black Fly infestations in June.
Rich adds that because of ground surfaces being exposed by the warming climate, a giant nickel find was discovered in 1993. Helicopters employed to facilitate subsequent mineral exploration are also creating problems for the reindeer herds—they’re terrified of the copter noise and are being driven away from their normal migration path, the path that normally falls within Innu community.
“What’s happening right now,” says Rich, “one of the mineral exploration companies is trying to build a road right in the heart of our territory. Right in the heart of calving grounds.”
So closely are all aspects of Innu life linked to the caribou that the disappearance of the herds may mean the disappearance of the Innu, whose legends teach that the animals are human.
Rich says his tribe has an ancient caribou ritual similar to the practice of Communion in churches: After a successful hunt, “All the hunters will gather the caribou hind legs, clean the meat then pound the caribou bones to what we call the mukushan, a feast for all the people to attend.” He compares “the kind of sacred thing we do with the caribou” to a Catholic priest giving holy bread to the people.
The health of the Innu is affected by the dwindling herds. The indigenous people no longer follow the herds for weeks, getting “a lot of exercise. We used to store maybe one or two caribou in the freezer.”
So what are they eating instead?
‘We are forced to eat the store-bought food. We live in a very isolated community. The only access to (Labrador) is by plane and by coastal freighter in the summertime.
“And when most of the frozen food comes in, it’s not a very good situation at all. And then that’s created a lot of problems in diet and eating junk food, and that’s created . . . a diabetes epidemic. Thirty percent of people in my communities have diabetes. A lot more with kidney failures.”
And what does Rich see as the impact on the Innu if the herds do disappear?
“Without the caribou, I don’t think that the Innu will be able to survive as the Innu themselves because the caribou is our identify. It’s our culture, it’s our way of life, it’s also a part of the big spiritual awareness of what’s going on in the animal world.
“And without the caribou, we don’t think the Innu will be able to survive.”
My Take on the plight of the Innui: It’s the same situation during which the US government encouraged the slaughter of the buffalo, the anchor of Plains Indians’ culture and religion. As planned, the Plains Indians nearly disappeared with the buffalo, too.
Source: Transcript of PRI’s Living on Earth, December 7, 2012