For ten years the merciless elements have been testing the strength of the only large herd of wild reindeer in Kamchatka. Its existence was threatened by the eruption of Kizimen volcano and the fall of ash on established winter pastures. However, the animals survived. Now the surviving population needs human help, which is confirmed by research by scientists at Kronotsky Nature Reserve.
In this specially protected natural area, the next stage of studying the group of rare artiodactyls, listed in the Red Book of Kamchatka Krai, has come to an end. The observers recorded many deer born in 2021. But despite the increase in the number, which experts had noted a year earlier during aerial surveys, the herd is in critical condition. To preserve it, cardinal measures are needed. Now in Kamchatka, a group of several hundred graceful antlered animals has survived only in Kronotsky Nature Reserve.
"It is necessary to create a protected zone of Kronotsky Nature Reserve, which will include the key habitats of wild reindeer, their winter pastures, which are now outside the specially protected natural area. Also, one of the measures to preserve the species can be the creation of a nursery," said the director of Kronotsky State Nature Reserve Pyotr Shpilenok.
The staff of the reserve resumed long-term monitoring of the state of the Kronotsky-Zhupanovsky group – in September and October, a census of wild reindeer was carried out. Combined with aerial observations, ground surveys can provide a comprehensive idea of the number, age and sex structure, and key habitats at different times of the year.
"The main part of the work was carried out in places of typical summer habitats of the animals: in the coastal tundra Kronotskaya, Mokraya, Stolbovaya, Medvezhya, Bolshaya, Rovnaya. We also examined the Volch'ya tundra and the Siny Dol tract. We observed reindeer during the rutting period, when animals unite in mating groups. A total of 139 animals were encountered during the work, of which almost 60% were solitary females and females with young calves. A large number of samples of animal biomaterial were taken to continue genetic research," said Nina Kim, a researcher at Kronotsky State Reserve.
The wild reindeer that live in Kamchatka are the largest in Eurasia. Some experts believed that this is a separate subspecies, others attributed it to the Okhotsk subspecies (Rangifer tarandus phylarchus), whose representatives live in Magadan Oblast and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. As a result of recent DNA studies from artiodactyl biomaterials collected in Kronotsky Nature Reserve (excrement, fragments of antlers, wool), scientists have found that animals differ in various parameters from their relatives from other regions.
Until the 1980s, Kamchatka was inhabited by about 20 thousand wild reindeer. The sharp decline in numbers began as a result of irrational hunting, poaching and infrastructure development. Domestic reindeer husbandry caused the greatest damage to the population – wild animals were forced out of their traditional pastures and illegally shot.
By 2006, the number of deer had decreased to two thousand specimens. They had to be included in the Red Book of Kamchatka as a species with "focal distribution and a tendency to further decrease in numbers." By 2010, only one Kronotsky-Zhupanovsky population of wild reindeer with a total number of about 900 specimens remained on the peninsula. The strict security measures of Kronotsky Reserve helped to save it.
The powerful eruption of Kizimen volcano began on December 9, 2010. It lasted about three years and caused a catastrophic decline in the number of animals.
In 2020, an aerial survey of the specimens from the Kronotsky-Zhupanovsky herd was carried out on key winter pastures. According to scientists, the number of wild reindeer has grown by 20% in three years. Visual observations and subsequent calculations using a long-term scientific method made it possible to estimate the number of deer at 350 specimens – 50 more than in 2017.
Experts assume that the number of the herd is slightly larger, but they gave the figure that they are 100% sure of. The high survival rate of calves born in 2019 was also noted.