Reindeer benefit from an enviable public image. When most people think of the animals they picture a snowy scene with a cute, healthy animal (typically with a red nose) tethered to a shiny sleigh laden with children’s presents. There are even some who believe reindeer are from the world of fantasy; a figment of a Christmas card designer’s imagination inhabiting the same place as unicorns, mermaids, and dragons.
Hardly. Direct ancestors of the reindeer have been around for some 680,000 years and far from being cuddly, reindeer are extremely powerful and robust animals. They have to be to survive the challenges of the alpine tundra landscapes and subarctic forests in which they live, the harsh winter conditions comprising ice, deep snow, high winds and extreme temperatures. Migrations across hundreds of kilometers between seasons to find food, avoid predators and reproduce bring further dangers.
The reindeer’s resilience is derived from its evolutionary adaptations which include a compact body morphology and thick pelt to minimize heat loss; a high population of fiber-digesting bacteria in the gut flora to maximize the nutritional value of poor-quality vegetation; and unusually large deposits of subcutaneous fat laid down in late summer and fall for use when winter limits the food supply. When not migrating or running from danger, reindeer conserve energy by walking at a leisurely pace and lying down for almost half the day.
But such long periods of resting should not be confused with an easy life. While reindeer are very social animals, gathering in herds that can number up to several thousand individuals, populations exhibit large fluctuations. Extreme weather events, lack of food, predators, hunters, road and rail accidents, insect borne diseases, competition between species, and human encroachment on grazing areas all serve to erode their numbers.
Climate change is adding to the burden. Increased warming is changing migration routes and patterns of vegetation, but those aren’t the major threats, rather it’s rain. Traditional winters above the Arctic Circle are very cold but also very dry. Warmer winter temperatures are encouraging lower snowfall and more wet weather. Reindeer are perfectly adapted to snow; they can sniff out vegetation with a highly sensitive nose and dig through the layers with their hooves to reach the food underneath. But when rain falls and then freezes, edible flora is locked beneath an uncrackable ice layer and starvation quickly follows.
A report by New Scientist, a U.K. magazine, described the impact of two major rain events on the Yamal Peninsula in Russia which caused mass starvation of reindeer in November 2006 and 2013. After the 2013 rainfall, over 20 percent of a herd numbering 275,000 animals died. The rain froze into a thick ice sheet for months, preventing the animals reaching vegetation underneath.
“Reindeer are used to sporadic ice cover, and adult males can normally smash through ice around 2 centimeters thick,” Bruce Forbes at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, told New Scientist. “But in 2006 and 2013, the ice was several tens of centimeters thick.”
Despite the suffering, the life and death of reindeer would be little more than an academic curiosity if the animals were wild, but for thousands of years the herds have been a critical source of nutrition, clothing and income for polar indigenous cultures. “Caribou [the North American name for reindeer] are not just what we eat; they are who we are ... without caribou we wouldn’t exist,” explains a spokesperson for the Gwich’in, an Alaskan Indian people.
Dependence on reindeer has led indigenous peoples to semi-domesticate what were formerly wild, nomadic animals. According to reindeerherding.org, reindeer farming is a traditional way of life in Eurasia, carried out by more than 20 different ethnic indigenous Arctic peoples in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Mongolia and China, involving close to 100,000 herders, 2.5 million semi- domesticated reindeer, and covering some four million km2 of land. The organization says that reindeer herding in some parts of Russia dates back over two millennia.
In Lapland, northern Finland, while the sector has deep historical roots it’s now run like a modern industry by the indigenous people, the Sami. For starters, the reindeer are no longer free to wander where they wish; as far back as 1898 Finland divided the area in which reindeer herding is permitted into paliskunta, a defined herding area. Today there are 54 such regions and each herd must keep to its own area to avoid overgrazing. Nonetheless, each paliskunta covers vast tracts of remote, harsh terrain. So remote that Salla, a settlement well north of the Arctic Circle and in the center of one of the regions, bills itself as “the town in the middle of nowhere”.
Reindeer meat is a popular delicacy in Scandinavia and demand is steady. According to U.K. based publication The Economist, 71,580 reindeer were slaughtered in 2014 with the meat from each being worth $1100 to $1700. That makes protection of the valuable animals critical. The Russian rain events, for example, caused long-lasting socio-economic impacts for the local reindeer herders.
Decimation of a herd due to disease or starvation is only one concern for the owners. Although reindeer prefer to stick together, stragglers often become separated. That makes them easy pickings for predators, particularly wolverines, which since 1995 have been protected by Finnish hunting regulations. According to The Economist, a family of wolverines can get through 90 reindeer a year.
Because the forests are vast and remote, if an isolated animal is attacked by predators, starves or falls ill and dies in the in the dark frozen trees, it is often never found. And even if it is located the carcass is typically mutilated by scavengers. In as little as a day, the scavengers can do so much damage that not only can the cause of death be impossible to determine but even proof of ownership can be erased. Unidentifiable dead animals are not only distressing but also, in Lapland in particular, costly, because if the herder is unable to prove the reindeer was killed by a predator, they miss out on a compensatory payment from the Finnish government. (4,126 such payments were made in 2014.)
One such unfortunate beast led to the 2012 foundation of Anicare, a company whose mission is to help reindeer herders look after their animals. The company’s CEO, Aki Marttila, chanced upon the dead reindeer in the forest and it set him thinking. “I own reindeer myself,” he says. “And I wondered if there might be a device for tracking the animals from which all herders could benefit.”
It’s not a completely original idea; some reindeer have been equipped with satellite tracking devices for over a decade. But they’re expensive, costing hundreds of dollars, heavy (mainly because of the large batteries which still only last about year) and bulky.
The heft of the tracking devices dictated that they are attached via a collar. This is far from ideal, partly for practical reasons — young reindeer grow quickly so the collar quickly becomes uncomfortable and collars worn by adults can snag on tree branches — and partly for aesthetic reasons. “Bright colored and wide collars on reindeer don’t give a very good experience for tourists,” says Marttila. The tourism industry provides supplementary income for herders so it’s important to cater to their tastes. “They hope to see wild animals, not reindeer in ‘dog collars’.”
Instead, Marttila decided to base his company’s product on NB-IoT, an LPWAN technology that leverages existing cellular infrastructure. As a pioneer of cellular technology, Scandinavia is blessed with extensive coverage of the LTE networks needed to support the NB-IoT technology, even in the sparsely populated regions frequented by the reindeer. And Scandinavia’s telecoms firms are among the first in the world to offer commercial NB-IoT support.
The narrowband tech lends itself to long range (tens of kilometers) while throughput is limited to tens of kilobits per second. That matches the requirement of the reindeer application where the animals roam over long distances and the volume of data is small, amounting to hourly updates of location, movement and body temperature.
Dubbed the Healtag, the Anicare
product integrates Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF9160
NB-IoT modem, GPS, an accelerometer and a temperature sensor into a device small and light enough to attach to a reindeer’s ear like a traditional livestock tag. The Healtag’s low power consumption offers a battery life of up to five years.
“The component integration and small size of Nordic’s solution—the module is the smallest NB-IoT solution on the market with GPS — meant we could fit the product into a package measuring just over 3 by 2 by 2 centimeters and weighing only 25 grams,” says Marttila. “And because the Nordic product is certified for global cellular networks, we didn’t have to worry about gaining any regulatory approvals.”
As the reindeer moves across the tundra, its location is monitored and transmitted by the NB-IoT device to the Cloud. Herders can use a browser dashboard to check each animal’s unique position, as well as where and how far it’s traveled since the last update. An app supports a smartphone version of the dashboard. Over time, positional data can help build up grazing patterns to help herders better manage the reindeer.
Key to the product’s success is an alert function that triggers a notification if a problem is detected with a particular animal. The accelerometer and temperature sensor monitor movement and body heat, and the alert is sent immediately (rather than waiting for the next periodic transmission) if the algorithm calculates something is amiss. For example, if the animal is lethargic and its temperature rises, it could be an indication it has an infection. Or if the reindeer is lying down and its temperature drops it could be that it is injured or dead. “A rapid alert enables the herder to reach the reindeer as soon as possible and hopefully take it to a vet or at least end the animal’s suffering. And in the worst case it can ease the identification of the cause of death,” says Marttila. “If it’s due to predation, the herder can initiate a claim, but if it’s due to, for instance, starvation or disease, the herder can take measures to protect the remainder of the herd.”
Healtag is still under development and an updated version of the device is due for release soon. The tech has been tested across Lapland for over 12 months and the units fixed to reindeer last summer are still working well. More herds will be added in other geographical areas around Finland to continue to test, among other things, that cellular coverage is adequate to cover the reindeers’ wandering range. Marttila expects the technology to be commercially available by year end when the solution will be available to herders for the cost of a software license fee.
“While the product is designed for reindeer, we consider it to be a demonstration of how cellular IoT can be used for animal farming in general,” explains Martilla. “Versions for sheep and cows are next on our list.” Marttila’s ambition extends beyond domesticated animals; he also suggests a version for the very wolverines that attack the reindeer. “If we know where they are, we can at least limit the number of reindeer they take,” he says.
Life in the subarctic is never going to be easy. Winters have always been harsh and global warming is changing weather patterns in a way that adds to the already tough challenge of feeding for the north’s reindeer herds.
And an increase in the number of hungry wolves, not to mention Scandinavian cars and trains, is killing more animals. But three things provide hope for the future; the reindeer demonstrate a tremendous capacity to adapt, the herders are clever and resourceful people, and cellular IoT technology can help them better protect and nurture their animals.