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Deer Hunters

Russia's Taimyr region, stretching far into the arctic ocean, high above the arctic circle, is home to almost two thirds of the world's wild reindeer population. The local indigenous groups - Nenets, Dolgans and Nganasans - are famous for their reindeer husbandry and their reliance on the hardy animal for food, furs and transport. During Soviet times, the animals were hunted in an organised fashion by a state-owned complex that stretched for 400 kilometres along the Pyasina River. Local reindeer herds cross the river in the course of their migration when hunters apprehend them. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the state-sponsored hunt was shelved and the industry went into steep decline. In recent years, however, the industry - and the cultural life of indigenous hunters which had almost been wiped out through collectivisation and urbanisation - is making a comeback. The new industry is mixing traditional approaches with technological advances that make life - and hunting - in these remote parts more feasible and profitable. While many of the former reindeer 'farms' still lie abandoned in the vast sweeping tundra, new settlements are popping up where small teams of hunters gather for the hunting season to catch the reindeer along migratory routes.

Long marginalised and increasingly removed from their traditional lives during the Soviet era, local indigenous people are being integrated into this new industry. With jobs available in transport, leather processing, traditional footwear and clothes manufacture and other activities related to the reindeer hunt in addition to the hunting itself, new opportunities have opened up for people living in these remote parts of Russia. The effects of high rates of unemployment and associated social ills like alcoholism and family breakups are now being ameliorated by these new opportunities in the reindeer industry.

A hunter's work is by no means a regular job and has few creature comforts to recommend it to prospective applicants.

Living in cramped quarters in teams of 5 or 6, the hunters spend their 2 to 3 week stints of hunting in complete isolation. A few of the men head out on hunting trips in small teams while the rest stay in the cabin, collecting water, keeping fires going and generally looking after the base. The animals that are brought back are butchered straight away to ensure maximum freshness for the meat which has to be transported hundreds of kilometres aboard special off-road trucks to the nearest population centre.

Most parts of the animal are used - from the meat and organs to the antlers and skins. The antlers are exported for use in traditional medicine, mainly to Asia, where horn powder is also used as feed in pearl farms. Reindeer meat, a popular type of venison due to its leanness, only constitutes around 40% of the industry's income. The Taimyr region could be a global leader in reindeer meat production but logistics and the difficulties of marketing pose considerable challenges. Of the 5,000 tonnes of reindeer meat consumed each year, only 10% come from Russia even though it has almost two thirds of the global reindeer population.

Scientist recommend an annual cull of around 100,000 to keep the population steady around 850,000. While the hunting industry is growing and increasing amounts of meat are getting to market, illegal poaching of the animals is known to happen on a large scale, though it is hard to quantify due to the vast distances and treacherous terrain. According to some estimates as many animals are poached each year as end up on the legal market.

Another factor adversely affecting the reindeer hunts has been the expansion of industrial activity in this remote part of arctic Russia. The closest urban centre, Norilsk, sits at the centre of a huge metallurgical complex dominated by Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel producer. Industrial effluent from the smelters and mines and airborne heavy metals have caused widespread environmental damage which is also affecting the reindeer. Climate change has started to alter the migration routes of the animals, making foreword planning for the hunting season increasingly difficult.

Elena Chernyshova met a group of Taimyr hunters and documented their lives in this harsh and inhospitable environment.
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