The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), a.k.a. the caribou in North America, inhabits a large stretch of the Northern Hemisphere. Fourteen subspecies are currently recognized, several of which live isolated from the other subspecies. The wild forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) lives in Finland and Russia, and it is the only subspecies inhabiting the European Union. Wild forest reindeer were once an important game animal in Finland. However, intensive hunting led to their extinction, first in Sweden, and later, at the turn of the 19thand 20thcenturies, also in Finland. During the 1950s, the subspecies made a comeback, when a new population formed naturally in northeastern Finland, made up of individuals that migrated over the border from Russia.
The global reindeer/caribou population is in decline and the species is considered Vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, each subspecies also has its own population status, and the wild forest reindeer was classified as Near Threatened in the 2010 Red List of Finnish species. The subspecies is under pressure from human actions such as traffic, habitat change, and snowmobiling. Large carnivores also exert a great deal of predation pressure in certain areas. Finland has conservation obligations, as it is the only country in Europe where the subspecies lives.
2016 saw the beginning of an ambitious EU LIFE project for reintroducing and breeding wild forest reindeer to parts of its former habitats in two Finnish national parks (Seitseminen and Lauhanvuori). The project involved building two reintroduction enclosures, after which wild forest reindeer males (stags) and females (does) were housed in the enclosures. Some of the individuals were caught from the wild, while the rest were brought in from various zoos. More individuals will be brought in over the course of the reintroduction scheme. This will enable keeping the genetic diversity of the breeding and reintroduced populations at high enough levels. The reindeer will be fed lichen and reindeer fodder, to supplement what the individuals are able to forage from nature. The first calves were born in the enclosures last spring (2018). Currently the reindeer still live in the enclosures, but the project goal is to release the first individuals during 2019. They will still be given supplemental food e.g. in the case of a harsh winter.
Widescale mammal reintroduction projects often encounter surprising situations. The birth of five wild forest reindeer calves into the reintroduction enclosures during the spring/summer of 2018 was one such event. Not because the calves were born, but because each of them is most likely a male (their gender has not been 100% determined yet). More males than females are born in reindeer/caribou populations, because they form small groups with one stag and several does. However, chance dealt an unexpected hand in the small reintroduction populations, resulting in several males and no females. Three additional does were brought into the enclosures in October 2018 to deal with this surprise.
The project is also committed to restoring several forest and peatland areas suitable for wild forest reindeer. Another task is to ensure that wild forest reindeer and the semidomesticated form of mountain reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) do not meet in the wild. Both are subspecies of the reindeer/caribou. Semidoemsticated reindeer live in North Finland, where they are cared for by the reindeer herding industry. Reindeer/caribou subspecies can reproduce with each other, which is why the genome of the wild forest reindeer must be kept clean. Otherwise we risk mixing the genomes of the two subspecies.
During the fall rutting season, wild forest reindeer form small herds with one mature stag and several does and their different-aged calves. After the rut, these herds migrate towards their wintering grounds, where several herds congregate.
More information is available on the project website. The life of wild forest reindeer can be followed via a camera set up by WWF Finland (live footage especially during summer). Best recordings from last summer are available on the YouTube site of WWF Finland (text in Finnish, but videos have no sound).