Forever pastoral

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

A herd of reindeer galloping away.-

A herd of reindeer galloping away.-

OUR tent was pitched 15 kilometres south of Kautokeino, within the Arctic Circle in northern Norway. The vast, undulating landscape around our camp was under deep snow, and only a few birch (Betula pubescens) trees provided some colour to the bleak scenery. It was the end of March 2005. K. Sankar, my colleague from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehra Dun, and I were on a study tour to the Arctic Circle. Joseph Fox, a scientist with extensive experience in the Himalayas, was our project counterpart at the University of Troms, Norway. Fox and his students led us across the snowbound landscape from Troms to Kautokeino, briefly touching Sweden and Finland on the way and halting for a night in Skibotn, where the University of Troms had a research station and guest house.

The last lap of our journey, from Kautokeino to the camping site, was completed on snowmobiles. Dressed in extreme cold weather clothing for protection from the biting cold and icy winds, I rode pillion on Mikkel Isak Eiras snowmobile. Mikkel, a 36-year-old Sami, was our guide and guardian in the expedition.

As our snowmobile raced, leaping and jumping over a rough terrain of nallahs and craters created by reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) in their search for food, Mikkel spoke enthusiastically about the tented camp where we were headed. I imagined a well-established camp with waiters, hot food, a fireplace and a hot shower.

After driving for an hour or so, going past several groups of reindeer and flushing numerous snow-white ptarmigans (Lagopus muta) with their conspicuous black tails, Mikkel stopped the snowmobile abruptly on an elevated area in the middle of nowhere and told us that was to be our camp site for the next two days. A veteran of many years of camping experience, he deftly removed several shovels, poles, reindeer skins and the tent cover from the sidecar of his snowmobile. We were handed the shovels with a request to flatten the snow in a small area, and, within a few minutes, Mikkel pitched a large Sami tent over it, called lavvu in the Sami language.

Several reindeer skins were spread on the floor. Dry birch wood was stacked in the centre of the tent, and a fireplace was built. As we settled down, Mikkel hung a large frying pan over the fire on a hook-and-iron-rod contraption that dangled from the top of the tent. He threw in some butter and several large slices of reindeer meat cut from a smoked reindeer thigh that he had brought along in a large white cloth bag. This was followed by the heating of some bread and soup, and soon we settled down to eat our dinner. Outside, the wind howled.

After dinner, when I peeped out of the tent, I saw my first Arctic sunset. It was one of the most glorious sunsets I have ever seen. The western sky and the horizon were laced with various patterns of gold and black, which changed colour and form every minute. As we watched, the colours gradually faded, and a grey darkness descended all around us.

The howling wind, which became progressively colder with the onset of the night, forced us to seek the warmth of the fireplace. While the temperature outside hovered around -20{+0} Celsius, our special sleeping bags, the carpet of reindeer skins, the fireplace and the lavvu itself provided enough warmth for a refreshing sleep. Our programmes for the next two days included reindeer watching, discussions with Mikkel and ice fishing.

Parallels in the tradition of pastoralism in the Indian Himalayas (largely in the form of sheep and goat herding) and that in Norway (reindeer herding by the Sami people) led scientists from the WII and the University of Troms to initiate a three-year collaborative project in 2002, focussing on livestock grazing in the Himalayas.

The project had two major components to understand the impact of livestock grazing on wild ungulates in the Greater and Trans-Himalayan regions and to facilitate the visit of selected faculty from the WII to Norway to understand various issues relating to the Arctic ecology and reindeer herding.

The Sami people live in clans in the Arctic regions of Sweden, Finland and Norway and in the Kola peninsula of Russia. Their total population is between 85,000 and 1,35,000, with Norway accounting for about 40,000 people. The Samis have been practising nomadic reindeer herding since the 17th century, but their lives were in fact closely linked with the wild reindeer several centuries before that. Wild reindeer have become extinct in this part of the Arctic landscape, although nearly 20,000 wild reindeer still survive in 26 populations in southern Norway, isolated by roads, railroads, power lines and sheep farms.

Nearly 200,000 semi-domestic reindeer are managed in Finnmark (Samiland of Norway), and almost all of them winter around Kautokeino-Karasjok, the major towns of Finnmark. Nearly 3,000 Samis herd the deer. In summer they move north, 100 km closer to the ocean and return south in the autumn to avoid the deep coastal snows. This migratory pattern followed the rhythm of wild reindeer migrations in the past. Approximately 100,000 reindeer are still herded in central Norway, but their original migratory routes are now cut off in most places by development.

Even before herding was practised as a primary economic activity, most Samis depended upon wild reindeer, fish and wild berries for their survival. They may have kept some animals as draught animals. The Sami population during this period was extremely low, and its pressure on biodiversity resources at the time was negligible. This changed in the 17th century when Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Soviet Union often claimed Samiland as their own. At least one, and sometimes several, of these governments taxed the Samis. This put enormous pressure on the Samis to breed more reindeer to pay the taxes in the form of meat and hide. This in course of time led to the practice of reindeer herding.

After the Second World War, there was large-scale colonisation of northern Norway by people from southern Norway. At no time in history had the Samis owned land; the idea of land ownership was not part of Sami culture. So, in places where the immigrants established farms, the Samis abandoned some of their summer grazing lands. In places around towns such as Kautokeino and Karasjok, however, they held on. The farms, roads, mines and reservoirs, which came in the wake of colonisation, started blocking the traditional migratory route. Besides, Sami children were forced to leave their families and go to boarding schools to learn Norwegian. This gradually severed their link with the tradition of herding.

Enormous changes happened in the lifestyle of the Samis when subsistence herding gave way to market economy following pressure from the Norwegian government. The government, without consulting the Samis, decided to decrease the number of herders and the reindeer so as to increase the weight of the deer. In the past, when reindeer were herded in the traditional way the herder knew each and every individual in the herd, and animals were selected and killed according to the need. No part of the animal was wasted its blood was converted into dog food; skin was used for making clothes, carpets and shoes; sinews were used as thread; and meat was used as food.

In the past, almost all the needs of the Samis were met with the slaughter of reindeer, but now they only get cash in exchange for the meat sold. In most cases subsidies given by the government took care of the household needs of the herders, and so fewer animals were killed, leading to an increase in herd sizes. This was contrary to the expectation of the government, which wanted fewer but healthy and heavy deer. With the loss of habitat to agriculture, roads, rail tracks, mines and reservoirs, the reindeer herds were restricted to ever smaller spaces.

To add to the problems, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, rained radioactive Cesium-137 on Norway and Sweden. Cesium accumulates in lichens, a favourite reindeer food. Thousands of contaminated reindeer had to be culled. Cesium has a half life period of 30 years, meaning it loses half of its radioactivity through decay every 30 years. Norwegians also attempted to reduce the level of cesium in the reindeer population by providing feed with a cesium binder, normally ferro cyanides of iron, for up to six weeks before slaughtering. Now it appears that the trace occurrence of cesium is no longer a health hazard.

Over the decades, the lifestyle of the Samis has become exceedingly comfortable as a result of venison sales and government subsidies, and this is posing a serious threat to Sami traditions. Mikkel, for example, along with his five brothers, owned about 5,000 reindeer. Together they sold nearly 2,500 one-year-old calves each year. The average weight of these calves when sold was around 23 kg. Each calf fetched 1,500 kroner (that is, Rs.10,383.8) in 2005, and so the annual income of each family was around 6,25,000 kroner (Rs.43,26,586) that year.

In addition to this, each family got an annual subsistence allowance of 1,25,000 kroner (Rs.8,65,317) from the Norwegian government to enable it to maintain its traditional way of life. Therefore, each familys total annual income was nearly 7,50,000 kroner. This prosperity ranged across Samiland. As a result, the nomadic Sami tribes are able to lead a typically affluent Norwegian lifestyle.

Sami families live in well-built permanent houses and possess expensive cars. They occasionally use helicopters to herd the deer, trucks to transport them in places where the migratory routes have been lost to development and large boats to ferry them across water bodies.

Nevertheless, now a strong awareness of the cultural heritage is developing, especially among the young people who are keen to conserve the unique features of ancient Sami ethos. The Sami economy is picking up, also as a result of government provisions aimed at helping reindeer herders and exploiting two new resources, tourism and craft products. If the migratory routes are protected, herding of reindeer may continue for a long time.

The day we returned from Samiland, we saw signs of the winter rapidly coming to an end. Snow began to disappear from the roads, tree canopy and buildings, indicating that spring was not far behind.

As we drove back, I mused about the future of pastoralism in the Indian Himalayas. Pastoralism in the Indian Himalayas practised by communities such as Gujjars, Bakkarwals, Gaddis, Changpas (of Changthang) and Monpas (of Tibet) seems to be heading towards different futures. While the demand for animal products is on the increase, the next generation, in most cases, is unwilling to continue the strenuous lifestyle. Subsidies available in Norway will never be obtainable in India.

Nonetheless, a decline in pastoralism may well prove to be a boon for Himalayan wildlife as problems such as competition between livestock and wild ungulates for food and other resources, disease transmission by livestock, and retaliatory killing of livestock predators like the wolf, snow leopard and brown bear, may gradually come to an end.

However, there is one way in which pastoralism may survive in several parts of the Indian Himalayas, through hired help, a practice already prevalent at some locations. Unfortunately, these herders-for-hire present a worrying conservation problem. Mostly outsiders to the region, they often indulge in illegal activities such as poaching of wild animals while flocking the herds in the far-off mountains. This needs the urgent attention of conservationists and wildlife managers working in the Indian Himalayas.

A Sami may sing like this:

In the past we raced across the Arctic snow in reindeer sledges/ In the present we race across in snowmobiles/ pastoralism in the Indian Himalayas may gradually die out but/ Pastoralism of reindeer in Norway in some form may continue forever.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is associated with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India.

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