Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer may be famous for guiding Santa Claus through the night sky, but reindeer do more than just pull toy-laden sleighs—reindeer are an important food source and serve many ecological functions, yet are also in need of stronger conservation strategies, according to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
Reindeer, also known as Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in North America, are members of the deer family and are the only deer species of which both males and females possess antlers. One of the most amazing things about wild reindeer is the sheer scale of their seasonal migrations—individuals may migrate over 3,000 km in a year in search of sheltered climates and food. Reindeer diets vary between seasons, in summer they will eat plants and grasses and in winter they eat lichen and mushrooms. Reindeer have large, rounded hooves that are ideal for walking on snow or rocky surfaces and which are also well designed for digging and swimming.
“For thousands of years people have depended on wild reindeer for food and clothing, and they have become the most widely domesticated deer, says Dr William J. McShea, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Deer Specialist Group. “Reindeer have developed a cultural identity and spiritual bond which persists today, especially around Christmas time as the reindeer has taken on a protagonist role with traditions all over the world.”
In North America, the number of places where reindeer are found has been greatly reduced – for example, in Canada reindeer are no longer present in the Maritimes. Declines of 40% in British Columbia, 50% in Ontario and 60% in Alberta have also been reported. These declines have been caused by changes in habitat following commercial forestry operations and increased human presence that have also left Reindeer populations small and separated.
In Europe, wild reindeer are found in the mountains and forests of Norway, Finland, and Russia. Poaching is a major threat to reindeer in the Russian Federation, especially as domestic reindeer breeding has declined in many areas. Hunting of reindeer is strictly controlled in eastern Russia and Norway, yet poaching still continues in most of Russia. Reindeer may also be threatened by habitat loss in Finland and increased disturbance in some Norwegian areas due to winter sports.
“The implementation of conservation strategies for reindeer is behind research recommendations,” says Dr Susana Gonzalez, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Deer Specialist Group. “Some countries have not yet taken a stance on their protection and this must be addressed.”
Today, the conservation needs of reindeer in Canada are recognized by the Canadian government. In Europe, reindeer are protected under the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. Although listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, reindeer populations still need to be monitored and protected to prevent any future declines.