Reindeer blamed for Anthrax outbreak

You may have missed the story lately that 2 people have died and many more have fallen ill with anthrax, a disease which had “died out”. The outbreak occurred in the Yamal Peninsula in Northern Russia.

The disease, known locally as “Siberian Plague”, used to be highly prevalent in the area and led to a widespread immunisation campaign. The campaign focused on the people that lived there and reindeer, as most indigenous people keep reindeer in that area.  The campaign worked very well and led to reindeer populations increasing rapidly, so rapidly that it strained the environment. This area is usually covered in permafrost and so has very little vegetation for reindeer at the best of times.

Areas with vegetation have thicker permafrost as the plants provide shade which reduces melting. Reindeer have grazed the landscape to near barren levels and the lack of groundcover along with global warming has thawed out corpses of animals and humans which were buried in the ice, releasing anthrax spores that were previously buried. It all sounds pretty grim but Russia did very well and sent in soldiers who were trained in biological warfare to evacuate those at risk. They have also restarted vaccinating the people and animals and have proposed a very controversial reindeer cull.

Culling reindeer is much like culling deer. They both devastate the landscape but culling or removing the animals in any way is always frowned upon, regardless of the damage (a classic Bambi Effect scenario). There are around 750,000 reindeer in the affected area, an area which can only support 386,000 according to Russian scientists. The scientists propose culling at least 200,000 animals, not as many as would be ideal but still enough to have an impact on the degradation of the landscape. The authorities also plan on buying the dead reindeers from the locals, exporting the meat and then selling it to reimburse the herders. This is already done but currently they sell about 300 tonnes, with the cull the number would be around 800 tonnes. They haven’t yet explained how they are going to ensure the culled reindeer are not infected, presumably they would have an exclusion zone around the current outbreak.

Scientists warn that the Arctic circle is home to many diseases and has things such as smallpox and bubonic plague buried in the soil, “This is pandoras box” as one researcher put it. Whilst many are predicting an apocalypse, where humanity is wiped out as diseases rise from the ice, we do need to remember that many countries do actually have these diseases already. The diseases are returning to small pockets in the Arctic but have been present in many parts of the world for a very long time and were never actually gone.

Despite contributing to reawakening disease and degrading the environment, people are still objecting to the reindeer cull as many would be out of work and some simply like reindeer. Humans have driven the reindeer to an all-time high and removed the natural predators meaning that, like deer, in some cases they need to be removed. Culling is not very nice to say the least, but it seems strange for locals to object when it is them and their reindeer population which are at risk if the disease is not stopped. Vaccinating is effective but it will only take one human or animal to spread the disease and doesn’t help and already stressed environment.

Regardless though, overgrazing the environment will lead to a reindeer population crash anyway as eventually there won’t be enough food for the 750,000 animals. If the cull is blocked then there needs to be some sort of reindeer management plan put in place. If nothing else it is a warning that as things heat up more diseases will spread. Russia were surprisingly quick at stopping this but had it been a smaller, poorer country then the disease may have spread rapidly and been much harder to eradicate.

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Scott Thomson
Recent ecology and conservation graduate. My blog is here https://wildchatblog.wordpress.com/
Scott Thomson

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