Norway’s Lapps, struggling to maintain their ancient Arctic traditions of fishing and reindeer herding, have an unexpected problem--a reindeer population boom.
“We have too many reindeer,” said Kjell Saether, mayor of Karasjok, a town set among amid stunted pine and birch trees where temperatures can plunge to 60 degrees below zero in the permanent winter darkness.
The Norwegian Lapps, the biggest grouping of a semi-nomadic people who also live in Finland, the Soviet Union and Sweden, have around 200,000 reindeer. The herds are threatening the local ecology by eating too much moss and other vegetation.
“Maybe there have never been so many. The numbers are too high for nature to support,” Saether said. “The authorities say there should be around 160,000.”
The reindeer population explosion, partly due to Lapps building up herds in the hope of higher prices, is the opposite of problems faced by many others in the north of Norway, where fish stocks have plunged and many industries have collapsed.
The Lapps, who speak a language related to Finnish and have lived in the barren Arctic for at least 2,000 years, want to avoid a major kill that might further depress reindeer prices.
One possibility is a tax on having more reindeer than needed to support a family--about 400 to 500 animals.
“Some people herding reindeer have very many reindeer. We’ve been speaking about how to get more equal numbers,” said Per Edvard Klemetsen, administrator of the Lapps’ 39-member Parliament.
Despite reindeer overpopulation, rivalries among Lapps mean that hundreds of reindeer get stolen--sometimes vanishing over the nearby Finnish border in a blizzard in the winter dark.
Saether said there were reports that 250 stolen reindeer had been recently found dead with their ears cut off.
Reindeer ownership is shown by marks on the ears rather than by brands on the body, and it can get confused when herds meet. Slicing off ears is an easy way of concealing ownership.
The Lapps, small, dark-skinned people who prefer to be known as Samis, are also trying to expand markets for reindeer. “We’ve not been clever at marketing,” Saether said.
A reindeer costs between $185 and $230. Reindeer meat is a common dish in Scandinavia, and dried heart is a Lapp specialty. Hides are sold as rugs or blankets, horns are carved into souvenirs such as knife handles.
Japan buys large amounts of reindeer horn and grinds it into powder. In Japan a small amount under the tongue is believed to be an aphrodisiac.
“I’ve never tried it,” said Saether, wearing a traditional embroidered blue, red and gold Sami tunic.
Even though only 5% to 10% of Lapps are directly involved in traditional reindeer herding, often camping out in tents made of hides, the Lapps are trying to expand their other activities, such as tourism, farming and fishing.
In Karasjok, the center of the Lapp culture in Norway, a $6 million center for visitors is due to open this summer, with a hotel and stores for local foods and handicrafts. About 120,000 people visit Karasjok every year.
Most Lapps have forsaken traditional tents for the wooden houses typical of Norwegians in northern Norway while herdsmen have given up sleds for snowmobiles. Most wear jeans and sweaters instead of traditional dress.
The gradual opening of the Soviet border, a boundary that the Lapps never recognized, also means that the Lapps can visit their cousins in the Soviet Union--and perhaps find new markets. Norway’s Lapps produce a surplus of farm goods.
The Lapps also want to study pollution from the Soviet Union, especially two nickel factories--which might be more to blame than the reindeer for stripping vegetation in the fragile Arctic environment.
Saether said the Lapps’ reindeer largely escaped the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986, which sent a cloud of radiation farther south over Scandinavia.
The Lapps say they feel more accepted in Norway after their own Parliament opened last year.
Lapps were not allowed to speak their own language in school until 1950 and did not have the right to own land in northern Norway until 1965. Generations of missionaries tried, sometimes with violence, to convert them to Christianity.
Like many in northern Norway, the Lapps receive subsidies. Klemetsen said these totalled $5.1 million this year. Lapps reckon that they could probably get by without it.
Their hardiness is legendary. One local joke says that the temperature in Karasjok one winter day plunged close to record lows.
A journalist from Oslo telephoned a Sami woman in Karasjok and asked how cold it was.
“It’s 14 degrees below zero,” she replied.
“Only 14? I’d heard it was more than 50 below.”
“Oh well, yes, but that’s outdoors.”