Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus). / ©: Peter EWINS / WWF-Canada

Reindeer and caribou

Arctic caribou and wild reindeer are a truly circumpolar animal, linking regions and people around the globe.
Their far northern range has historically protected them from industrial developments, but that's changing as the world‘s reach for minerals and oil extends further north.
  • scientific name

    Rangifer tarandus

  • weight

    65-210 kg, varying by subspecies

  • length

    1.6 - 2.1 m

  • status

    Least concern

    IUCN

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Why are reindeer and caribou important?

For people

For thousands of years, reindeer and caribou have provided the basis of life for many cultures through meat and fat, skins for clothing, bedding and tents; sinew for sewing and antlers for tools.
  • In Sweden, Finland and Russia, reindeer sustain herding communities that have depended on the animals for income, food and clothing for millenia.
  • In Canada, caribou are an important source of food for northern communities, valued at over $100 million/year.[1]

For ecosystems

  • When reindeer and caribou forage on vegetation in the summer, they change decomposition and nutrients of the tundra soil. Their droppings add nitrogen to the soil and water.
  • Reindeer and caribou are an important prey species for many carnivores in the Arctic, including golden eagles, gray wolves, and polar bears
  • Mosquitoes, blackflies and parasitic insects also rely on reindeer and caribou. Up to 10,000 mosquitoes can feed on a single wild reindeer.[2]

What are the threats to caribou and reindeer?

Climate change

  • As the Arctic warms, vegetation patterns will shift. Reindeer and caribou will need to adapt their range to the availability of forage.
  • Industrial development is increasingly viable further and further north.

Absence of effective land-use planning

  • Wild reindeer and arctic caribou are migratory, and their habitat crosses territorial and national borders. As the climate changes, and migration patterns shift, it will be increasingly important for governments to implement plans that support wildlife and ecosystems.

Over-harvesting

  • Infrequent monitoring of populations means hunting quotas may not be updated quickly enough, increasing pressure on previously healthy populations.
  • Hunting in some areas is unregulated.
  • New roads and the availability of snowmobiles make hunting easier

Domestic reindeer

  • Domestic reindeer in parts of Russia and western Alaska compete with wild reindeer for ranges and will join wild reindeer herds.

Industrial development

  • Most herds now have some form of industrial development or exploration proposed on their annual ranges.

What WWF is doing

  • Working with the Saami to explore ways of reducing the future impact of mining, wind power, forestry, tourism and predation on reindeer herding in Sweden
  • Developing an Arctic-wide conservation plan for wild reindeer and caribou

Sources

  1. Hummel, M. and Ray, J.C. 2008. Caribou and the North: a shared future. Dundurn Press. Toronto, ON. 320 p.
  2. Syroechkovski, E.E. Wild reindeer. Washington, Smithsonian Inst. Libraries Press, 1995. 290 p.

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