Warm winters distress reindeer herders in Russian Arctic

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In a billowing cloud of white, Russia's Arctic herders drive thousands of panting and wild-eyed reindeer through the knee-deep snow to the first slaughter this year.

But warm winters in recent years have forced herders here in the far northern Kola Peninsula to delay for months the rounding up of their reindeer from the vast tundra - at great economic cost.

"We've had to move the slaughter forwards from December to February because the lakes haven't frozen over," said Vladimir Filippov, an ethnic Komi herder who heads the farm Tundra, the main employer in this remote village.

These reindeer have lost roughly 20 percent of their weight during the extra months spent in the tundra while herders waited for the ice to thicken enough for the forced migration.

"It's not a small but a huge problem for us and a constant worry," said Filippov.

With meat sold at 4.34-6.01 dollars per kilogram (2.2 pounds), it can amount to a loss of up to 167,000 dollars per year. "That's a huge loss," Filippov sighed.

Over the past decade average temperatures have risen by 0.7 degrees C (1.25 degrees F) and satellite images show melting ice cover on the Arctic pole, said Anatoly Semyonov of the regional Murmansk state climate monitoring agency.

Even though 2010 has been relatively icy, herders who have faced more than a decade of mild winters dismiss the general scepticism amongst the Russian public over global warming.

Climate changes has also disrupted the breeding cycle and made it tough for reindeer to feed on lichen beneath the snow as late thaws and freezing rain create an impervious ice coating, veterinarian Vasili Pidgayetsky said.

At Tundra, global warming is forcing innovation.

Last year, the farm entered a proposal to build freeze-storage sites powered by wind turbines near grazing grounds to avoid the need to cross the vast tundra for slaughter in a grant contest run by the World Bank.

"We could kill the reindeer in situ in December and carry the meat back to the village by snowmobile," said Tundra's director Viktor Startsev.

It is a radical idea that is not without opposition amid the indigenous Saami and Komi-Izhems herders clinging fast to age-old way of life on the peninsula.

"Of course, the older generation says this isn't right," admitted Startsev.

-- 'The young don't want this life' --

--------------------

The herding crisis began here with the Soviet experiment: Herders were moved from their pastures to Lovozero in the collectivization of the 1930s and forced resettlements in the 1960s to make way for military and industrial activity.

Valentina Sovkina, an expert with the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, was one of hundreds of Saami children who were torn from their parents and placed in dormitories.

"They were tragic years when families were split, mine too. I saw it fall apart," she said. "I use to live half a year in the tundra... We slept on reindeer pelts but then the authorities insisted each child had to have a bed."

The Soviet changes led many commit suicide and turn to drink, she said.

Today, many have left Lovozero and few young people in the impoverished village of 3,000 want to take up their forefathers' profession.

Rubbing his mittened hands in frigid exhaustion, 42-year-old Grigory Khatanzei said he began herding at 16 and recalled how much tougher the job was without cell phones and snowmobiles - using sleighs and dogs.

Despite satellite television and other improvements at bases in the tundra, "My kids, the young don't do this; they don't want this work probably because it pays so little," he said.

The average herder earns 7,000 rubles (234 dollars) a month and lives in the tundra in shifts between March and November.

With less people to mind the herd, squeezed by industrial growth and powerless before armed poachers, reindeer numbers have dropped drastically.

By the end of World War II - during which reindeer brigades transported Soviet armed forces - the Tundra farm had 43,000 animals. In 2010, some 26,000 reindeer are left.

The reindeer and caribou herds are in steady decline across the Arctic, the first global study of their numbers published in 2009 found.

"The vast degree of global change in the north casts doubt on the species' ability to recover," study author Liv Vors of the University of Alberta, Canada told AFP.

In the last sprint of the day-long, 50-kilometre (30-mile) rampage over the tundra, herders chase alongside, flapping their arms to spur on reindeer.

When one sinks exhausted into the snow, they swoop in and drag it by the antlers onto wood sleds at the back of their snowmobiles.

"We're always worried, not only because of climate change," Filippov said. "I'm afraid that if people don't pay attention to reindeer herding, it may die away."

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