After a severe outbreak of anthrax among the world’s largest reindeer population in northern Siberia in the summer of 2016, the total number of animals was significantly reduced. In order to prevent new outbreaks in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, the herds are vaccinated against the anthrax bacterium every year. Up to 550,000 reindeer are expected to be vaccinated this year.
The anthrax pathogen is believed to have come from a reindeer that got infected more than 70 years ago and whose carcass was frozen in the permafrost soil. At least until a heat wave struck Siberia in 2016. With the thawing permafrost, the carcass became exposed and spores of the pathogen entered waterways, the soil and thus made its way into the food chain. Throughout the region, there are places where reindeer herders have buried dead animals in the past, so experts expect that anthrax bacteria or other pathogens will continue to be released in the future.
At that time, the reindeer herders and their children were quickly evacuated from the exposed areas, and the Russian Ministry of Defense set up a special emergency task force to decontaminate the infected areas using 30 tons of biologically active substances.
Anthrax infections are fatal if not treated with antibiotics. A 12-year-old boy died in the 2016 outbreak and 115 people had to be treated in hospital. More than 2,300 infected reindeer died, which the military burned in order to stop the spread.
As part of the regional vaccination programme, which was subsequently introduced, the reindeer herds with a total of up to 550,000 animals are to be vaccinated as a precautionary measure. The vets began their work already in winter and the remaining animals will be vaccinated until the end of September. There are currently 19 vaccination teams working in the tundra.
Habitat loss due to oil and gas exploitation
Climate change-related thawing of permafrost is not the only factor contributing to the emergence of diseases. Since the oil and gas industry has been expanding in the Yamal region, the indigenous population – the Yamal Nenets – with their large herds of reindeer has been forced back into constantly shrinking areas.
The traditional way of life of the Yamal-Nenets, which is based on reindeer herding, hunting and fishing, is severely affected by the consequences of oil and gas extraction, as the industry destroys (e.g. by pollution) or seperates pastures on a large scale. Therefore, they can keep their large herds only in small, more intact areas, which are consequently often overgrazed. And the closer the animals live together, the faster diseases spread within the population. At the same time, the vegetation of the tundra is depleted by heavy grazing and the landscape turns into a desert, according to scientists.
Following the 2016 outbreak, regional authorities therefore ordered to reduce the number of reindeer, which at that time was more than 700,000 animals, to an ecologically sustainable level.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal