The good news for Santa is that reindeer, a species found throughout Arctic regions of the world, seem to be hanging on pretty well despite global warming shrinking their habitat. But the bad news is that some populations appear to be doing worse than others. Among the most threatened may be a small population of fewer than 1,000 animals in northern China, according to a study in the December Journal of Nature Conservation.
Xiuxiang Meng of Renmin University of China in Beijing and colleagues combined a literature review, interviews with reindeer herders and surveys of the animals into a comprehensive tale of the reindeer’s history in China. China’s reindeer aren’t completely wild. In fact, they are a semi-domesticated population herded by the Ewenki, an indigenous group that originated in Siberia. The reindeer arrived in northeast China in 1654 when the Ewenki and their animals migrated into the Mt. Daxing’anling region.
Traditionally, the Ewenki are nomadic, but in 1957 the Chinese government put an end to that lifestyle, settling the Ewenki and about 600 reindeer in the Qiqian region, near the Russian border. But as China’s relationship with Russia deteriorated, the Ewenki were moved again, with about 900 reindeer, a bit south to the Mangui region in 1965.
Since the mid-20th century, the number of reindeer in China has fluctuated, from a high of 1,080 in 1982 to a low of 463 in 1998, and since 2010, there have never been more 840 individuals, the population size in 1970. Some years saw huge losses. For example, 145 reindeer were lost to predation, disease and other causes in 1976. And an attempt at captive breeding in 2003 was a complete failure, with 200 reindeer dying in August and September of that year. The researchers estimate that some 200 to 300 animals die from various causes every year.
The population faces several problems: The reindeer have become heavily inbred within the last several decades, and many calves are born with congenital deformities. Poachers kill reindeer for their antlers, which are used in Chinese medicine and perfumes. As many as a third of calves are killed each year by predators such as bears, wolves and lynx. And human herders, who once would have protected the reindeer and tracked down lost animals, are now few in number. In October 2012, the researchers counted only 33 Ewenki herders, and none under the age of 30. “Young men find it difficult to adjust to the isolation of the forested mountains, and consequently there is a general lack of young men to perform this task,” the researchers note.
Some Ewenki have moved their herds closer to downtown areas, where they can take advantage of links to the tourism industry. But this has placed their reindeer in areas were there is not as much lichen (aka reindeer food) or clean water. These reindeer are probably stressed, the scientists suggest. And they’re losing numbers to cars, ingestion of plastic bags and tourists who buy the animals to eat or keep as pets.
There are a few positive notes in the study: The reindeer have been placed in the second category of the Chinese State Key Protected Wildlife List, which means the animals can’t be captured or killed without permission or punishment. Twenty-nine reindeer from outside the country were brought in to increase the population’s genetic diversity. And there are now efforts to artificially inseminate the animals, which should also help to alleviate the inbreeding problem. With these and other efforts, China’s reindeer may hang on for many Christmases to come.