This past August, locals from Khatanga, Russia witnessed a herd of Taimyr reindeer migrate through their village weeks earlier than usual. Up to 200 young calves, not strong enough to cross the kilometer-wide Khatanga River, perished or were abandoned by the herd.
Each spring and fall, Taimyr reindeer migrate from their calving and summer ranges in the Taimyr Peninsula to their winter ranges in the Taiga, or boreal forest, trekking great distances and crossing many obstacles. As if this isn’t difficult enough, climate change has heavily influenced the timing of their migration and young calves are often still too small to make the journey.
The devastation of their recent migration through Khatanga, is on top of the September 2019 discovery, that the Yenisei reindeer population of the Taimyr Peninsula had completely disappeared. A study by Russian researchers also revealed that another reindeer herd known as the Tarey group, had numbered 44,000 in 2017, but only amounted to a few thousand by 2019.
Climate change and poaching
Climate change and poaching was the cause of the sudden decline in 2019 and this year’s early migration is also a result of climate change – a very real threat to reindeer populations and other Arctic wildlife.
The migratory path for the Taimyr reindeer typically does pass through the village of Khatanga. However, migrating in August is unprecedented as the reindeer usually return north two weeks or sometimes even a month later. This is not the first time young calves have fallen victim to the climate crisis during migration. Last year the staff at the Taimyr Nature Reserve had to help young reindeer cross a river, that opened too early and had washed out banks.
Over the past ten years the Taimyr reindeer population has almost halved.
“We have to admit that the changing climate will bring more and more phenomena that have not been encountered in the Arctic before. After all, it’s not a general increase in the average temperature, but an increase in the number of anomalous phenomena - early frosts or opening rivers, heat waves and, as a result, fires and so on,” explains Alexei Kokorin, director of the WWF-Russia Climate and Energy program.
“All this will definitely affect the state of ecosystems and the question of the extent to which nature will be able to adapt to new conditions remains open.”
“This is truly an extraordinary event,” notes WWF-Russia expert Sergey Verkhovets.
"It is difficult to name a specific reason yet. For example, there is a version that animals go south to escape mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects, which are especially numerous this year. But in general, we see that such anomalies are caused by climate change. And this is not a hypothetical, but, along with poaching, a very real threat to the Taimyr population of wild reindeer and the Arctic ecosystems in general."