National Geographic : 2017 Oct
114 national geographic • october 2017 C lad in a camouflage jacket, the mos- quito netting unzipped from his hood, Yuri Khudi squats by the fire inside his large chum. Outside, seven more of the teepee-like tents clus- ter in a semicircle. Swells of Siberian tundra roll north toward the Arctic Ocean; a reindeer herd grazes on a distant crest. It’s mid-July, and the group of Nenets herders that Yuri leads are about halfway through an annual trek that takes them 400 miles north on the Yamal Peninsula to the Arctic coast—in normal years, that is. “It’s been three years since we have made it all the way to our summer pastures by the Kara Sea,” Yuri says as his wife, Katya, pours him a steam- ing mug of tea. “Our reindeer were too weak for the long journey.” In the winter of 2013-14, an unusual warm spell brought rain to southern Yamal; the deep freeze that followed encased most of the winter pastures in thick ice. The rein- deer, used to digging through snow to find lichen, their main winter food, couldn’t dig through the ice. In this herd and others, tens of thousands starved. Now, in the summer of 2016, the survi- vors are still recovering. The canvas entrance of the chum flaps open, and a reindeer, antlers down, bursts inside. It pauses in front of the fire, shakes vigorously, and flops down to chew its cud meditatively. “This young cow lost her mom, so we raised her ourselves inside the chum,” explains Yuri, taking a cautious sip of tea. “She doesn’t like mosquitoes. Hopefully next year she’ll have a calf of her own. We’re down to about 3,000 reindeer now, half of our usual herd.” The Nenets have undertaken this annual mi- gration for centuries, and at 800 miles round- trip, it’s one of the longest in the world. Yuri’s group, called Brigade 4, is a relic of a Soviet col- lective—under Soviet rule the Nenets endured decades of forced collectivization and religious persecution. They survived centuries of Russian rule before that. Through it all, they’ve managed to sustain their language, their animist world- view, and their nomadic traditions. “ The Nenets are one of the most resilient in- digenous groups in the Arctic,” says Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland in Finland, a geogra- pher who has studied them for decades. Today, however, that resilience is being tested in new ways. Climate scientists say the kind of “rain on snow” event that diminished the herds three years ago will become more frequent and in- tense in the Arctic as the climate warms. As I talk to Yuri, the region is suffering another record-hot summer; the thermometer has already hit 94°F. It hasn’t rained for weeks, and it’s hard for reindeer to pull the loaded sleighs across the dry tundra. By Gleb Raygorodetsky Photographs by Evgenia Arbugaeva The Puikos, a Nenets herding family, enjoy a lunch of whitefish soup inside their chum, or tent. In summer the Nenets depend on the fish they catch in lakes and rivers along their trek up and down the Yamal Peninsula. In winter they eat more reindeer meat.