MOSCOW – The scene was pure carnage. Dozens of reindeer carcasses were sprawled on the sandy shore of the Khatanga River or floating in the current toward the Arctic Ocean, as if the animals had drowned in mid-stream. The story of what actually befell these reindeer on the Taymyr Peninsula, in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region, however, was far more grisly.
In a video filmed by hunters in 2017 and shared on a Russian public interest YouTube channel, two men can be seen bending over the side of an aluminum boat. Soon after, a reindeer with a knobby head frantically swims away from them. Later, one of the men, smoking a cigarette, reaches into the bow and pulls out a saw—and two fuzzy brown antlers. At the time, according to Russian state media, the antlers would have been worth several hundred dollars—the better part of an average monthly wage in Taymyr.
The crowds of reindeer swimming across rivers at the few fordable crossing points during their spring migration, heads barely above water, can do little to avoid poachers ambushing them in boats. The men grab their velvet antlers—“velvet” for the thick, downy skein of blood vessels feeding the new bone as it grows—and cut them off, leaving the animals with an open wound prone to fatal infection.
“I pity the animals that suffer this torture,” says Pavel Kochkaryov, director of the Central Siberian Nature Reserve, a protected area in Krasnoyarsk, who previously worked as a game warden in Taymyr and continues to study the reindeer herd there. He compares cutting off a reindeer’s sensitive young antlers to amputating a limb. “No one knows how quickly they will die once they swim to shore,” he says.