Throughout time, reindeer have been used for economic purposes by various circumpolar peoples, including the Chukchi, Evenks, Khants, Nenets and Sami. Long heralded for their dependable and docile natures and their dexterity in a range of tasks, reindeer were even widely used during World War II by the Soviet forces to help transport injured soldiers.
For centuries, too, reindeer have been associated with Christmas and winter festivities, particularly in Scandinavia and across Eastern Europe. The mythology of Pagans is filled with reindeer; and during the Middle Ages (when Pagans converted to Christianity), their ancient customs became a part of Christmas celebrations. Against this backdrop of history, Santa’s famous eight—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen—are a relatively modern troupe, having first appeared in literature in 1823.
For us, reindeer have come to symbolize resourcefulness and tradition, while also representing safe journeying and endurance through travels. The idea that reindeer brought people safely home through harsh, winter landscapes is likely to have inspired the popular story of Santa Claus. Domesticated since the Bronze Age, the reindeer has proved itself as an invaluable asset time and again.
Now, however, reindeer—also known as caribou—around the world are threatened. Luckily, though, one, special herd is rebounding, due to an exceptional and unique recovery effort led by Indigenous conservationists. The hope is that their model will be copied elsewhere.
And, speaking of all things Christmas, I have another story for you. This one is about trees; and once again, Indigenous people play a big part.
One tree was always two
Artocarpus odoratissimus, a flowering plant closely related to jackfruit, was first described by a Spanish botanist more than 200 years ago. Widely cultivated in home gardens in Borneo and the Philippines, it is common in the rain forests of Borneo.
The Iban people, who are indigenous to Borneo, know the tree to have two different varieties, which they call lumok and pingan, distinguished by their fruit shape and size. The Dusun people from Indonesia also consider the plant to be two distinct species. Despite this knowledge, Western botanists have long considered the tree to be a single species. Now, however, a new genetic analysis, published June 6, 2022, in the journal Current Biology, confirms that the Iban and Dusun peoples were right all along—it is two different trees.
It’s understandable why Artocarpus odoratissimus was initially thought to be a single tree. Distinguishing between species has always been challenging for scientists. Just recently, in fact, one study showed that a lot of the evolutionary family trees that we have come to accept may be wrong because, sometimes, organisms that look similar aren’t alike at all. Charles Darwin’s theory was a useful tool, but genetic testing and analysis when applied to distinguishing species—which has only been around since the mid-1950s—is far better.
What’s striking is that the Iban have known for a long time about the two distinct trees despite not having the means to do any genetic testing. Traditionally a warrior tribe, the Iban also have an integrated farming system for planting forests, gardens and rice. It now appears that they also have a very good understanding of the local biodiversity.
For the June 2022 study that was just conducted, a team of researchers—which included botanists at the Florida International University, Malaysian scientists and Iban field botanists—took DNA samples from trees in Malaysian Borneo and from historical herbarium specimens. They employed phylogenetic analyses and DNA microsatellites to show that while lumok and pingan are closely related, they are genetically distinct.
The researchers say that this finding is more than just a curiosity; it’s a sign that Indigenous knowledge should be taken much more seriously and on an equal footing with Western research. They ask that the trees be redefined and renamed to reflect this news, and they reiterate that it’s time to incorporate Indigenous names into taxonomic research.
Time is of the essence, they state, because just as biodiversity is suffering due to climate change, Indigenous knowledge—itself protected under Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity—is threatened by societal change.
One reindeer herd multiplying
According to Canadian Geographic, a publication of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, today—after more than a million years on Earth—caribou are under threat of global extinction. Climate change, habitat destruction and overharvesting are at fault. And despite recovery efforts from federal and provincial governments, the animal’s populations across Canada continue to decline.
But in central British Columbia, there is one herd of mountain caribou, the Klinse-Za, whose numbers are going in the opposite direction, thanks to a collaborative recovery effort led by West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nations.
In partnership with many governments and organizations, an Indigenous-led conservation initiative paired short-term recovery actions, such as predator reduction and caribou guardians at maternal pens, with ongoing work to secure landscape-level protections in order to create a self-sustaining caribou herd. Their efforts paid off. A recent study published in the science journal Ecological Applications shows Klinse-Za caribou numbers have nearly tripled in less than a decade.
In recent decades across Canada, caribou declines have exceeded 40 percent in some areas, and many populations have already been lost. Previously, the Klinse-Za population was declining rapidly. A West Moberly Elder once described the herd as a “sea of caribou”; but by 2013, it had declined to only 38 animals. Today, the herd count is more than 110, and numbers continue to rise.
According to the researchers, one Saulteau First Nations member said that Indigenous communities have truly come together for the good of the caribou. Each year, community members pick numerous bags of lichen to feed to mother caribou in the pens, while other members live at the tops of mountains with the animals.
The work also represents an innovative, community-led paradigm shift for conservation in Canada. While Indigenous peoples have been actively stewarding landscapes for a long time, the approach used for the caribou is new regarding the high level of collaboration among Western scientists and Indigenous peoples. That strength of effort has put an endangered species on the path to recovery.
One, better path
Though the Indigenous/Canadian partnership has yielded great success, the scientists say more time and work will be needed to fully recover the Klinse-Za. But it looks to me like they’re off to a good start.
And isn’t that what the end of the year always means? Magical and thankful thoughts of and for nature, trees and reindeer; and looking forward to a new year that takes us down a better and wiser path.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,