Santa will soon have to take the bus...Here's a rather sad seasonal tale: The iconic reindeer, known to kids as Santa's source of flying locomotion, is in trouble. In the northern regions where it lives around the globe, populations are declining, with a drop of about 60% just in the past 3 decades, mostly because of climate change and habitat destruction by humans (such as by logging activity in Finland).
Changes in temperatures, which are magnified near the poles of our planet, are particularly problematic: "Earlier spring green-ups now occur before migrating herds arrive north. This deprives mothers and calves of quality feeding. Warmer summers cause more intense insect activity, harassing animals and affecting their feeding. The impact of more freezing rain, in place of snow, has negatively impacted lichens that animals feed on during the colder months."
Above is a map showing where reindeers (and caribou, the North-American name given to the same species) live.
New research by the University of Beijing shows that reindeer population in China is also in trouble. A decline of about 28% since the 1970s is estimated, and the number of individuals left in the country is only about 770.
Reindeer first migrated to China from Siberia about 2,000 years ago along with the Ewenki tribe, according to the researchers. The Ewenki people are reindeer herders, and they have a similar relationship with reindeer as Native Americans had with buffalo. The Ewenki do not fully domesticate the reindeer, but provide the herd with basics like salt, and use the animals for their meat, hides and milk. (source)
In China, the #1 reason for the reindeer population decline appears to be inbreeding, which isn't surprising since the total populat is split into small groups that have very few matin choices, and thus little genetic diversity. Populations are at risk of collapsing if this inbreeding continues.
Poaching is also a big threat, not only in China, but also in Russia, and since - unlike many species - both male and females have antlers, the traps and snares used by poachers end up targeting both sexes, making survival for the species even harder.
Right now reindeers are categorized as "least concern" on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, but researchers are saying that this label might now be outdated (the last IUCN report dates from 2008) and that reindeers should be considered officially "threatened".
See also on MNN: 15 things you didn't know about reindeer