The shared history of humans and wild forest reindeer

The importance of reindeer as game animals may be seen as early as the rock paintings of the late last ice age in Southern Europe. Later rock paintings of reindeer can be found, for instance, on the shores of the White Sea and in Finland. Figures of moose and reindeer are among the most common figures found in Finnish rock art.

In areas known to have the oldest Finnish-language settlements "peura" (reindeer) became an established part of several place names. Finnish place names containing "petra”, "hirvas", or "kontta", also refer to reindeer. The ancient inhabitants of Finland named places as they followed the herds of wild forest reindeer on their yearly cycle and used the animals to provide a significant part of their diet. This way of life would later develop into a new means of livelihood, reindeer husbandry.

The balance between humans and wild forest reindeer was shaken by increasing human populations and increasingly effective hunting methods. Efficient hunting of the wild forest reindeer led to its disappearance from Sweden and parts of Finland. By the 1790s, wild forest reindeer had vanished from the south of Lake Oulujärvi, with the exception of the Suomenselkä district.

By the end of the nineteenth century, years of hunger had led to the near extinction of wild forest reindeer from Finland. A few individuals and herds were sometimes found in the Kuhmo area. The last wild forest reindeer ended up in a pot in the 1920s.

There are several stories about the last people to see and shoot wild forest reindeer in various areas. Even if the stories do not quite clear up where and when the last wild forest reindeer was shot, at least they make it clear that people did not consider it necessary to save them. This attitude is reflected, for example, in the story of Pekka Pokka, the "reindeer skier" who shot the last reindeer herd in Kittilä:

"It was me that killed the last wild forest reindeer here. There was a small herd at Savuaava, maybe twenty of them. That was in February, 1883. Those Sodankylä men wanted them, but they didn't get them. The reindeer came here. I skied after them and shot them all."

Fortunately, the extinction was not final. A wild forest reindeer population survived in Russian Karelia, from which they began to visit Kainuu regularly, beginning in the 1950s. The first wild forest reindeer were found in the modern area of Elimyssalo, on the eastern border of Kuhmo. This was the beginning of a new growth in the wild forest reindeer population of Kainuu.

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Wild forest reindeer

Scientific name: Rangifer tarandus fennicus

Range and numbers:

In Finland, 800 individuals in Kainuu, 2000 individuals in Suomenselkä and about 20 individuals in Seitseminen and Lauhanvuori National Parks (reintroduced populations).

In Russian Karelia up to 2,400. See range map.

Conservation status in Finland (2019): Near Threatened (NT)