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Climate change behind sharp decline of Nunavut’s caribou herds

BY Sakib Hossain Jan 10, 2024

In the vast expanse of western Nunavut, reports from the Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions paint a bleak picture of ailing caribou in numbers higher than the norm. The Nunavut territorial government confirms concerns about the health and sustainability of the Arctic caribou.

Samples gathered by hunters and sent for testing at the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative found a parasite that causes severe swelling of the muscular and connective tissues, ravaging the very core of the caribou’s physical well-being.

While tests on caribou samples from the Kivalliq region are not yet conclusive, Nunavut Environment Minister Daniel Qavvik urged the community to collaborate in a recent legislative assembly session. 

“We ask hunters to bring in samples when safe to do so and continue reporting any abnormalities in caribou herds,” he implored. “Only through the unified efforts of harvesters, wildlife officers, co-management partners, and biologists can we earnestly monitor the health trajectory of these caribou herds and strive towards sustainable solutions that ensure their long-term well-being and survival.”

The grim reality facing the once-flourishing species barren-ground caribou is staggering. The Committee on Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada reports that, in just over two decades, their numbers plummeted by more than half – from two million in the 1990s to 800,000 in 2015.

The barren-ground caribou, renowned for its resilience in the unforgiving Arctic terrain, now faces various threats. Changing weather patterns have led to shifts in vegetation and foraging areas have left these majestic animals vulnerable to food scarcity. 

Climate change amplifies the challenges for the caribou, including increased predation, proliferation of parasites, and a surge of disease. Parasites, for instance, thrive in altered environmental conditions and inflict debilitating inflammation that cause abnormalities in harvested caribou meat. Meanwhile, forest fires scorch the land they rely on for sustenance and shelter. Industrial development further diminishes their habitat and disrupt migratory patterns.

Recent incidents further highlight the gravity of this situation. Reports surfaced in September from hunters in Kugluktuk and Rankin Inlet of several ailing caribou. Samples were collected by territorial staff.

The significance of these caribou transcends statistics. The fabric of Inuit culture is interwoven with the sustenance these animals provide. The Nunavut government website emphasizes that barren-ground caribou are not merely creatures traversing the landscape but symbolic custodians of traditions and sustenance across the North.

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