Today is World Caribou Day! As this is only the second annual World Caribou Day, we want to share some information about these amazing animals.
Contrary to popular belief, caribou are not found only in Canada – in fact, they are found all throughout northern Europe and Asia, where they are referred to as “reindeer.” Our Edmonton Valley zoo herd is Eurasian tundra reindeer. Despite being the same species as caribou, Eurasian tundra reindeer are much smaller in stature than their Canadian counterparts.
Reindeer and caribou are in a constant state of change. In the spring, for example, their fluffy cream coloured winter fur is shedding, leaving behind a much shorter dark brown summer coat. They look nearly unrecognizable from what they did six months ago! Their antlers are growing too, and being some of the fastest growing tissue in the animal kingdom, can look wildly different from day to day. Not only are they constantly changing physically, they are migratory animals, always on the move and never staying in one place. Yet, despite constantly changing, they have been a steady source of support for the peoples of the Arctic who rely on them.
Reindeer are typically not as wild as Caribou, with anthropologists believing they were first domesticated more than 2,000 years ago. While we say that dogs are man’s best friend, the importance of reindeer to humans throughout history cannot be understated. Being such an important resource in the harsh, cold climate of the world’s north, caribou and reindeer have an important place in its various cultures, such as with the Inuit and First Nations peoples of Canada, and the Saami and Nenets peoples of Northern Europe. They were (and still are) valued for their meat and hides, as well for their strength and longevity as pack animals. Even their milk is used! At a whopping 18% fat, it is a valuable resource when food is scarce. Not a single part of their body would go to waste, with their bones and antlers carved into tools, and their sinew used to stitch clothing.
They are not important just physically to their cultures, but also as figures in their stories. Reindeer make appearances in Finland’s national poetic epic the Kalevala and in the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen. Most famously to modern Canadians, they appear as the trusted companions of Santa Claus, who pull his sleigh across the night sky every year without fail.
More importantly, Caribou are incredibly important to our ecosystem. Unfortunately, caribou populations are declining globally, suffering a 40 percent decline in the last 30 years. While it is not uncommon for their populations to fluctuate in the wild, the cause of such a drastic decline is ultimately mostly due to human interference including habitat loss and rising temperatures due to global warming.
However, we still have time to turn this decline around. An important part in this reversal is in knowing their importance and taking steps to protect them. With all that caribou and reindeer have given to humankind, now is the time to return the favour! For more information on how you can help, check out resources like the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada or the Caribou Conservation Alliance.