The Great Reindeer Trek - A Thousand Miles across Siberia

By Alexander, Bryan | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Great Reindeer Trek - A Thousand Miles across Siberia


Alexander, Bryan, The World and I


Three reindeer-herding cultures, the Khanty, Mansi, and Forest Nenets, can be found in Khanty-Mansiysk, a vast area of northwestern Siberia. The region (traditionally known as Yugra) is about the size of France and encompasses some 206,000 square miles. Today it is home to about 18,000 native Siberians.

For centuries, reindeer have been the primary source of food, clothing, transport, and shelter for the people of northern Siberia. They are well suited to life in Yugra, where winter temperatures can plummet to -50_C (-58_F). The animals' exceptionally warm winter coat has a fine underfur combined with long, hollow guard hairs. Thousands of tiny air cells contained within the hairs act as an insulating layer.

In the late 1960s, problems arose for Khanty-Mansiysk's reindeer herders. Vast deposits of oil and natural gas were discovered in the region. The Soviet government launched an almost unregulated oil rush, practicing a "quick and dirty" style of development. Drilling derricks, pipelines, and roads soon carved up the region. Oil spills polluted lakes and rivers. The state monopoly displayed little regard for either the native people or environmental concerns.

As a result, reindeer herding became increasingly difficult. Viewed as nonproductive and worthless, some Yugrans were forcibly relocated. Others felt compelled to retreat into the northern marshland. The number of reindeer in the region declined rapidly, from over 54,000 in 1980 to under 12,000 at the beginning of 2000.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's ensuing economic problems made things worse. In rural areas, unemployment among native people was practically 100 percent. Many families were forced to return to their traditional existence, based on reindeer breeding combined with fishing, hunting, and trapping, but they faced a new problem. Though the average family needs at least fifty reindeer to survive in the taiga, there were no longer enough to support the families in need.

Save Yugra, the local native peoples association, was asked to help. Tatiana Gogoleva, the organization's president, contacted Dmitrij Khorolya, a Nenets and president of the Union of Reindeer Herders of Russia. Together they organized a remarkable reindeer drive. A herd of around 1,000 animals would be gathered in the north of the Yamal Peninsula and then driven south to Khanty-Mansiysk. The journey would extend almost 1,000 miles.

Most of the reindeer came from the northwestern part of the Yamal. Their trek began in late August 1999. The animals were driven 500 miles down the peninsula to the Nenets community of Yar-Sale, a journey that involved crossing ten major rivers. …

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