Reindeer in Siberia

Photographs by Sergey Anisimov, Globallookpress / age fotostock

The reindeer husbandry in Russia is the basis of the cultures of many northern indigenous peoples, who have various traditions and wide experiences of reindeer herding in a diversity of landscapes.

Domesticated reindeer allows them to live in harmony with the extremely severe natural conditions of the Far North. They sew their clothing from reindeer fur using reindeer tendons as thread, live in tepees made of reindeer fur, drink warm reindeer blood and eat raw meat, and sacrifice reindeer to the gods of ancient shamanist religions.

Many herders say: “Our people will live as long as the reindeer are here. If there are no reindeer – there will not be our people”.

Russia has about two thirds of the world’s population of domesticated reindeer. They are herded on a territory of more than three millions of square kilometers on the tundra, forest-tundra, taiga and mountain areas.

Contemporary reindeer herding in Siberia varies greatly from region to region, due to influences of different environments, histories, and ethnic characteristics. For example, Evenki reindeer herding relies on small herds, with an optimal herd size of 20 to 30 deer per family. By comparison, the large-scale tundra reindeer herders who raise the animals primarily for meat have as many as 1,000 deer or more in one herd.

Tundra-type herding is more extensive, with less contact between the herders and livestock. On the other hand, Evenki and Sayan reindeer herding is based on a closer relationship between the reindeer and the herder. As a result, Evenki and Sayan reindeer are tamer than tundra reindeer. Most deer in Evenki herds are used to being saddled and either ridden or burdened with a pack, and the does are used to being milked.

The deer come to depend on specialized technologies requiring intensive and intimate contact between humans and deer, such as smudge pots to protect against midges and other biting insects, provision of salt, and protection from predators; thus, they never stray far from human settlements.

Reindeer are ideally designed for life in hostile, cold environments

Life in the tundra and the taiga is hard, but reindeer have it easy thanks to their evolutionary enhancements. Their noses are specially adapted to warm the air they breathe before it enters their lungs. Their fur traps air, which not only helps provide them with excellent insulation, but also keeps them buoyant in water, which is critical being as how they often travel across massive rivers and lakes while migrating.

Even their hooves are special. In the summer, when the ground is wet, their foot pads are softened, providing them with extra traction. In the winter, though, the pads tighten, revealing the rim of their hooves, which is used to provide traction in the slippery snow and ice.

Reindeer are the only species of deer in which the females grow antlers as well as males. They use them to defend food in small patches of cleared snow.

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