SURVEYS of the world’s largest reindeer herd have revealed an alarming decline that has left a question mark over the future survival of a Christmas icon.
The George River caribou herd, which roams the tundras of Quebec and Labrador, in Canada, has suffered a drop so severe that only 50,000 are estimated to remain, from a total of at least 385,000 a decade ago.
Regional governments have imposed tighter sanctions on the new hunting season, which opened this week, attempting to slow the decline, while endeavouring to grant the indigenous people what they see as their constitutional right to take caribou for subsistence.
Government biologists say the precise reasons remain a mystery, but acknowledge dwindling access to food as a cause, and speculate that predation, disease, parasites and the effects of climate change may all play into the equation.
“Ongoing research and monitoring efforts since the 2010 census suggest that a further population decline is occurring within the George River caribou herd, despite major restrictions on harvesting that were implemented last autumn,” said Terry French, minister of environment and conservation for Newfoundland and Labrador.
But tribes such as the Innu, which share a cultural bond with the animals and use its hide and meat for food, shelter and clothing, claim that industrial encroachment is a major contributing factor to the deterioration – and that government has failed to regulate it properly.
“The mass of industrial development projects on the Quebec-Labrador peninsula has had an effect on the species, with the damming and flooding of large tracts of land that are calving grounds, mining activity that disturbs their migratory route, and construction,” said Armand Mackenzie, a spokesman for the Innu tribe.
“We believe the cumulative effect of all this development has brought a level of pressure on the herd that we believe is being underestimated.”
The 2011-12 hunting season will last three months instead of the usual eight, and hunters will be allowed just one animal each, with commercial harvesting banned altogether.
Mr Mackenzie complained: “People in the cities can go to the grocery store to buy their food, but our grocery store is our homeland.”
Jonathan Mazower, head of media and advocacy at Survival International, a London-based organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous people, said: “Mystery surrounds this dramatic decline, but what is unquestionable is the effect this trend is having on the lives of indigenous peoples in Quebec and Labrador.
“It is unacceptable for big industrial projects to continue encroaching on their territory without them being actively consulted. These staggering statistics should make people sit up.”
The dwindling size of the George River herd is consistent with trends also being observed in other caribou herds across North America. Next year’s hunting season is expected to be even more drastically curtailed to prevent a further slide in numbers.