Akia-Maniitsoq – mother with bull calf, late summer. Photo: C. Cuyler

Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut- three cows, late winter. Photo: C. Cuyler


Ivittuut- released tame reindeer, tyre group, month of June. Photo: C. Cuyler



Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus spp.) are herbivore (plant eaters) and are found throughout the arctic. There are at least eight sub-species. The animals known in Europe or Greenland as reindeer/tuttu, are called caribou in North America. The names vary, but the species are the same. But since the beginning of time the people of the arctic have depended on reindeer for food, clothing, tools, equipment, and shelters. Reindeer have always played a large cultural and economic roll in their lives. In Scandinavia and Russia there are large herds of both wild and tame reindeer. The largest groups of wild reindeer are found in Canada and Alaska. There is widespread variation in ecotypes, for example migratory or stationary, large and small herds, living in the hills, tundra, or forests. Globally, today, reindeer are in decline. For that reason, they are classified as VU on IUCN’s Red list (vulnerable/ in danger)

Reindeer vary in size and color. Svalbard Reindeer (R.t. platyrhyncus) are the smallest. Bulls are normally 65-90 kg. The largest is the North American boreal forest reindeer (R.t. caribou) with an average weight for bulls of 180 kg, and a maximum weight of 300 kg. Reindeer living in the northern latitudes are typically almost white, and are the smallest, while the southern reindeer are typically darkest and largest. Regardless, the fur is two layered, with a woolen inner layer, and a long cover of hollow air-filled hair. The latter gives a high degree of insulation, and when swimming acts like a swimming vest, and holds the animal high in the water.

Reindeer are the only cervid animals where both bulls and cows grow antlers. The antlers grow and are shed annually. In that way antlers are quite different from horns, which are permanent, for example with Musk Ox. With reindeer, antlers begin to grow in March or April for bulls, and in May or June for cows. Antlers on bulls grow very rapidly, up to 2.5cm daily. As the antlers are growing, they have a spongy consistency, and are covered in a soft skin (Velvet) which is full of blood veins. When they are fully grown, and hard, the soft velvet is shed. Bulls have the largest antlers, which are shed entirely at the end of the rutting season in the fall. The bulls use their antlers for fighting with other bulls to decide who gets to mate with the cows. One bull can mate with several cows. Cows have smaller antlers and keep them through the winter until calving. That gives the cows an advantage during the winter when food can be scarce, and pregnant cows need to eat for two.

Pairing during heat, and calving, are highly synchronized for reindeer, typically over a period of ten days. Pregnancy takes about 228 to 234 days. Sometime twins are born, but not normally among wild reindeer

Reindeer are ruminant (cud chewers), and for that reason have four chambered stomachs. Ruminants depend on the microbes in their stomachs for digestion of the food they eat. Ruminants must chew their food two times to be able to break it down into very small pieces that the microbes can continue to break down. Reindeer are dependent on constant food to maintain the microbes in their stomachs. If the microbes die from weeks of starvation (for example due to thick ice or snow in the winter,) then the reindeer are almost certain to die, even if they eventually do find some food. If the microbe population is too small, then newly found food will not be digested. Especially if the newly found food is different from the previous food. Instead, a form of poisoning can develop, often with fatal consequences. Reindeer normally eat reindeer moss, willow, birch, eelgrass, and other grass types. But observations show that reindeer that have been nutritionally stressed can also eat tang at the edge of the beach, mice, fish, and eggs.

Figure 1. Reindeer herd/ hunting grounds in Northwest Greenland (A) and West Greenland (B).  Eleven wild reindeer (nr. 1-11) and two tame reindeer in South Greenland: Isortoq and Tuttutooq (In blue color without numbers)

Distribution in Greenland

Endemic reindeer (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) in Greenland have been present for several thousand years. Along the coast in Northeast Greenland the now extinct Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus once lived. Its main distribution was between 70° and 78° N. Latitude. These animals went extinct around the year 1900. The cause is believed to be a series of winters with catastrophic weather. Today reindeer live only along the west and northwest coasts of Greenland, between 61°N and 79°N latitudes, with the main distribution between 62°N to 69°N. latitudes. All together, we distinguish between 11 wild reindeer herds, with borders separating them that are identical to the administration and hunting areas (Figure 1). Exchanges between the herds is prevented by the natural barriers in the landscape. Remarkably, in 2008, reindeer did migrate to the peninsula Tuttulissuaq (Cape Seddon, approximately 75°N) in the southern area of Melville Bay in Northwest Greenland. Unfortunately, several years later during an aerial count, none were observed.

In addition to the endemic reindeer, Greenland now has tame reindeer released back into the wild districts in Southern Greenland where tame reindeer herding is taking place. In 1950 the number of reindeer was so low, that in 1952, 263 tame reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) were brought into Greenland

The animals were brought by ship from Finmark in northern Norway and were released into the innermost part of Godthåb’s fjord near Itinnera close to the village of Kapisllit (ca. 64 deg. N). The goal was to establish a tame reindeer herd. Following that an additional two tame reindeer herd districts were established in Southern Greenland (Isortoq and Tuttuooq) with animals taken from Itinnera. By the end of the 1990’s, the original Itinnera tame reindeer herd was ended, and has since been administered as wild. In 2019 tame reindeer herding is only taking place at Isortoq and Tuttutooq in Southern Greenland. (Figure 1.)

The reason that released tame reindeer are found in Greenland today is a human one. In the 1960s a new goal was being established by the politicians, to establish a sustainable hunting herd of wild reindeer. For that reason, several reindeer from Itinnera were moved to several locations in Greenland: 1965 Olrik Fjord; 1967 Nuussuaq Peninsula and Qeqertarsuaq (Disco Island) 1971 Ammassalik; 1975 Stor Island, and Bjørn Island in Nuup Kangerlua/Godthåb fjord. With the exception of the distribution made in Ammassalik on the east coast, all of the distributions of reindeer have been successful, and the number of wild reindeer has risen to several thousand today. In those places where distribution took place, and many years afterwards, the endemic R.t. groenlandicus and the wild R.t. tarandus have been able to mix genetically, apparently to the benefit of all the herds.

11 Reindeer population (from north to south)

  1. Inglefield/Prudhoe Land – Endemic Reindeer
  2. Olrik Fjord – Established 1965 with wild released reindeer, and possibly now mixed with endemic reindeer from Inglefield/Prudhoe Land
  3. Nuussuaq Peninsula – A mixture of endemic and wild reindeer which were introduced in 1967
  4. Naternaq / Lersletten – endemic reindeer
  5. Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut (KS) – endemic reindeer
  6. Akia-Maniitsoq (AM) – A mix of endemic and wild reindeer originally from Itinnera has migrated into the area.
  7. Ameralik – A mix of endemic and wild reindeer from Itinnera
  8. Qeqertarsuatsiaat (QEQ) – A mix of endemic and wild reindeer from Ameralik has migrated into the area.
  9. Qassit – Endemic reindeer, possibly mixed with wild reindeer
  10. Neria – Endemic reindeer, possibly mixed with wild reindeer
  11. Ivittuut – Established around 2015, released tame reindeer from the Isortoq herd migrated into the station.


2 Tame reindeer population (South Greenland)

Isortoq – Management of tame reindeer

Tuttutooq – Management of tame reindeer


The status of wild reindeer populations in Greenland

Statistics from 1721 and forward to today show that the reindeer population in West Greenland has been through two large cycles of boom and bust. This means that the population first went through a period of rapid expansion, and then was reduced rapidly, both in short periods of time. In one short period the population was reduced to almost nothing. The population of reindeer has always shown itself capable of regrowth, but that generally takes about 100 years.

It is probable that this cycle will repeat itself in the future. The causes of the historic declines in 1750 and 1850 of the reindeer in Western Greenland are not known for sure. Perhaps there was not just a single factor, but several in combination that weakened the reindeer’s survival and calf production. For example, when the reindeer population is large, pathogens (illness, parasites) can spread and intensify. And again, when the population is large, over grazing can occur due to the number of grazing reindeer on the vegetation. This can result in a reduced food supply for coming generations, which can be a contributing factor to a reduction in the population. Another probable factor, seen in connection with overgrazing, can be a period of very bad weather, which can prevent access to food by covering it with a thick layer of snow and/or ice. This is especially problematic for ruminants (cud chewers) who should have constant access to food. With respect to the two rapid reductions in 1750 and 1850, it is seen as unrealistic to blame it on over harvesting, as the number of people was low, hunting equipment primitive, and the fact that modern intensive hunting has trouble in preventing continued growth in the reindeer population.

In the first half of the 1900’s the population was strongly reduced along Greenland’s west coast. But today it is different. Several surveys have shown that the number of reindeer in West Greenland has been high during recent decades. Information from recent hunting data even indicate that the number of reindeer has been high since the 1970’s. In March 2019 there were still over 140,000 reindeer in Greenland.

Despite open hunts, and long hunting seasons during the recent decades, the number of animals in Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut (KS) herd remains basically the same. The next largest herd, Akia-Maniitsoq (AM), has increased in numbers since 2010. This is also the case since 2012 for the Ameralik herd. In 2019 the density of reindeer in the three largest herds was high. Too high of a density can negatively affect the carrying capacity of an area, because the pressure on grazing becomes too high with the result that the vegetation is damaged. If the health of the vegetation is reduced, it is likely that the reindeer’s survival and production of calves can be weakened with consequences for the numbers in the herd.

At the present time it is hard to predict how long the high density of reindeer can be maintained in consideration of the vegetation’s carrying capacity in combination with the ongoing climate change. These changes can result in more frequent, and more severe and widespread catastrophic weather. For example, summer drought can destroy the areas that the reindeer will need for winter food. In the meantime, repeated cycles of thaw and frost, together with snow cover in the winter, can prevent the reindeer from accessing their food. Both factors can have a negative impact on the number reindeer because they simply starve to death.

Therefore, although Greenland still has many reindeer in 2019, the future is unsure due to climate change, which can bring abnormal weather at any time.


Greenland’s reindeer population is administered according to the legislation of the Home Rule. There are ongoing discussions and changes with respect to the duration of the hunting season, the opening times, the hunting areas, allowable quota, etc. The Home Rule’s administration of the harvesting of wild reindeer (Endemic/wild/mixed) is administered along straight lines, regardless of the original distribution of sub species. Information cam also be found at:

Counseling from Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources (Ammassalik)

The Institute of Natural Resources’ advice to the Home Rule about the administration and exploitation of the herds is supported by, among other things, analysis of the size of the herds, the density of the vegetation, production of calves ( number of calves per 100 cows), their health, and for important seasons the water supply and the size of the areas the herds occupy.

Research and monitoring

Population counting

Since 1990 many different populations count of reindeer have been conducted. These counts give information on the herd population, density, herd structure, and the distribution of animals in the landscape. The methods used began with fast fixed wing aircraft that flew high over Greenland’s undulating terrain. Beginning in 2000, and continuing since, helicopters have been used because they can fly slowly and adjust their flight to the hilly terrain at low altitudes. This increases the likelihood that all reindeer that are present will be counted.

Greenland has enormous reindeer habitat, and it is important that aerial counts can be taken within limited economic areas. Today’s counts are conducted using distance sampling methods along arbitrarily established lines that cover the entire region that the herd lives in. It is accepted that animal counts are always associated with some degree of error, and to reflect and evaluate these results they are always presented with 95% CI, SE and CV. To increase the accuracy, one must be able to see the reindeer that are present close to a line (Figure 2, 3). How easy or difficult it is to spot reindeer is dependent on several factors. For example, the altitude flown over the hills, the speed of flight, the distance the reindeer are from the line, the size of the herd, if the animals are stationary or on the move, the weather, light conditions in general, shadows,  background camouflage (The ratio of bare ground to snow cover), the amount of rock or stones and vegetation that can be seen through the snow layer, which can often be thin, and not least the expertise of the observers who must not get airsick, or tired after long arduous flights. In addition to aerial counts, there are also counts from hilltops, which are minimum counts, often done from a snow mobile. Common to all counting is that they are conducted by researchers from the Institute of Natural Resources in cooperation with game wardens and local hunters (Figure 4). Helicopter counts with the goal of estimating the herd sizes and structure are done on an irregular basis due to a lack of funding. Further information can be found in Technical Reports from Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources,

(Numbers 32,42,46,48,61,67,78, and 98)

Figure 2. Fifteen reindeer are within 300 meters. Can you find them? Photo: C. Cuyler


Figure 3. Seven reindeer are within 100-150 meter. Can you find them? Photo: C. Cuyler


Figure 4. Aslak Jensen, commercial hunter, Nuuk, is an observer for helicopter counts. Photo: A. Jensen


Declared catch report forms

In connection with the hunting of reindeer in Greenland, the individual hunter fills out a report form. These forms give information about the locality, sex, age (Calf, young animal, or adult), and the thickness of the rump fat for every animal shot. If the animal was a cow, it is also noted if it had a calf as well. This data can give information about the different herd’s overall health. Recent analyses however illustrate widespread inaccuracies in the reported fat thicknesses and data on age.  Jaw bones from scientific research and the season’s catch are often collected. These are used for research on sex, age, and the size of the animal shot.  If animals of the same age have different lengths of jawbones it provides information about the difference in quality and quantity of food that has been available to the given animal during the growth period. The total number of reindeer shot annually in Greenland is made public in Piniarneq, an informational bulletin about hunting and hunter registration published by Greenland’s Home Rule.

State of Health

Health is examined by following a procedure developed by CARMA, an international cooperative effort on the research and observation of Reindeer. The examinations only involve cows. The state of health of the cows are a determining factor for the birth of calves, and thereby the growth of the herd. Furthermore, the state of health of the cows will be reflected in the future trends in herd density and is therefore of vital importance for the administration of reindeer in Greenland. The state of health in the two largest herds (KS and AM) has been extensively examined in 1996-97 and 2008-09. The data collected includes location, height above sea level (where the animal was shot), sex, age (calf, young animal<3 years, or adult), the presence and appearance of antlers, calves (+/-), milk in udders, and other body measurements. Every animal is photographed. Furthermore, the following measurements are taken: the weight of the animal, the skeleton, fat and organs. Also, an examination of tooth wear, and each animal is given a score for its state of health. Samples are taken of blood, muscle, liver, urine, stomach contents, bone marrow, the skeleton (lower jaw and shin bones), ovaries, fetus tissue, feces, short intestine (abomasum), contents of the long intestine, milk, and hair. The reindeer are examined for the presence of heavy metals and other pollutants. Pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, as well as different parasites, for example protozoa, round worms, tape worms, flukes, and flies were also examined. This data is still undergoing analysis. More information can be found at Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources Technical report number 37.

Satellite tagging

Greenland’s reindeer are not nearly as well observed using satellite tagging as are the herds in North America. In 1997 eight reindeer cows from the AM herd, as well as seven from the KS herd were fitted with satellite neck collars. The satellite collars transmitted data for two years and showed that some cows are stationary, with annual movements of about 10 km along a line of latitude, while other cows move up to 170 km annually. The moves occur between winter habitat and calving areas. All the moves are done individually as opposed to pronounced synchronized movements in a single herd. However, all the satellite collared cows moved to areas closer to the Inland ice, or up into the highlands in connection with calving. More information can be found at Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources Technical report number 49.


Figure 5. Satellite tagged cow, Akia-Maniitsoq herd, May 2008. Photo: C. Cuyler


In May of 2008, 40 cows from the AM herd were fitted with satellite collars (Figure 5). They were analyzed with respect to movement, spatial distribution, calving areas, local conditions, changes in activity at different times of the year, and choice of habitat.

The study established a baseline for the Akia-Maniitsoq herd’s use of the landscape at a time when the area is not being influenced by human activity, for example infrastructure. The AM cows behave more like the hill or mountain type of reindeer, rather than the tundra type. No particular calving areas were found near the inland ice but were found over a large area of Akia-Maniitsoq, from the coast to the inland ice, where there was snow covered south facing slopes in about 600 meters height. Calving seems to be occurring earlier than expected, and the cows were keen to return to those areas where they had calved previously. Annual patterns of movement followed a southwest-northeast axis (westerly during the winter, and easterly during the summer). Regardless of the pattern of movement, the height above sea level where the animals were found was the same but varied significantly through the seasons. Daily movements were at a minimum in March, and a maximum in July. More information can be found in Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources Technical report number 99.


Figure 7. Adult horse fly. Photo: A. C. Nilssen


Skin and throat horse flies

Skin and throat horse flies belong to the fly family Oestridae and have a life cycle of one year (Figure 6). In the winter they live as larvae in reindeer (their host animal). In May-June they leave their host and pupate in 41-47 days. By July or August, they are adult flies (Figure 7) and ready to mate, and then the process starts over. The adult flies do not eat, they only mate, and then find a reindeer where they can lay their eggs. Adult skin and throat horse flies can get reindeer to carry out some quite spectacular evasive maneuvers. For example, one can see reindeer almost panic in the presence of throat horse flies. The adult female throat horse flies deposit living larvae in the nostrils of reindeer. The larvae crawl up through the nostrils and end in the throat, where they take hold by attaching onto surrounding tissue (Figure 8). The larvae spend the winter in the throat of the reindeer, and during the months of May to June crawl out through the nostrils or get coughed up by the reindeer.

Skin horse flies lay their eggs in the hair of the reindeer, especially around the lower rear legs. The eggs hatch after a few days, and the larvae crawl down the hairs, and pierce through the skin and live inside the reindeer about three months. Then they take a position just beneath the skin, and pierce breathing holes through the hide. Hides taken from reindeer that are shot mid winter can be full of skin horsefly larvae up to 3 cm long (Figure 9). But hides from reindeer shot during August to September are normally free of larvae, but will have obvious scars, or visible holes, showing where the larvae had spent the winter.

Parasites survive off their hosts, and horse flies drain the reindeer’s energy reserves during the winter. Horseflies can be a contributing cause that an individual reindeer dies. But neither skin or throat horseflies can survive in the long run by killing their hosts. The host must survive the winter in order for the horseflies to continue their life cycle. If the reindeer die in the winter, then the horseflies die as well. It is first during May to June that the skin horsefly larvae crawl out through the skin, and the throat horsefly larvae get coughed up through the throat. If the reindeer are in good health through the winter, then they can tolerate a certain presence of horseflies without a problem.

Horseflies are very good at flying. They can fly up to 15 hours without a pause, and even longer with short pauses. The record is over 32 hours. And horseflies are fast, up to 20-30 km/hour cruising speed. They have been described in the Guinness Book of Records as the worlds fastest flies, with an average speed of 39 km/hour, and a top speed of 58 km/hour. They have been known to fly several hundred kilometers. They would probably have no problem finding new reindeer herds located far away.

Figure 6. One-year life cycle for skin and throat horseflies


Figure 8. Numerous squirming throat horsefly larvae deep inside a reindeer’s throat. Each horsefly larvae attached firmly to the soft tissue in the reindeer’s throat. Photo: B. White




Figure 9. Skin horsefly larvae on reindeer skin in March. Photo K. Motzfeldt



Tænia (Tapeworm)

The Institute of Natural Resources has received, over a 20-year period, reports from reindeer hunters in West Greenland, who have caught reindeer with small egg like cysts in their flesh (Figure 10). These are the larvae of tapeworms, Taenia krabbei. Tapeworm larvae like Taenia

are common in reindeer habitat, also outside of Greenland. Taenia larvae are not known to infect humans, even when eating raw meat. There have been no registered cases of infection with Taenia krabbei in humans in Greenland. But it is recommended out of precaution that any meat infected with Taenia larvae be heated to a core temperature of 75° Celsius. This heat treatment will kill the parasites. Sufficiently cooked or fried meat will have a gray or gray-brown color.

NOTE: Freezing, smoking, or drying of meat will not kill Taenia krabbei because the parasites have adapted to be able to live through heat, frost, and draught.

Figure 10. Egg like Taenia krabbei cysts in the meat of a young reindeer, September 2005, Maniitsoq. Photo: Mogens Torp & Henrik Hartmann


If one does not want to eat meat that contains Taenia larvae, then the meat should not be left out in the open or be used for dog food. Either one would lead to the spreading of the parasites, as the lifecycle would then be completed by predators and scavengers. Allowing the life cycle to be completed will increase the chance that the parasites are spread to even more reindeer. It is recommended that unwanted meat be destroyed. Burning the meat is the best way, but probably difficult out in the field due to the risk of setting fire to the tundra. Regardless, it is always possible to do something to prevent predators and scavengers from getting to the meat, for example by burying it under stones, or sinking it under water, in a lake or the sea.

Tapeworms Taenia krabbei live as adult worms in carnivores, for example fox and dogs. These animals are the main host for tapeworms (The animals that parasites live in as adults are called the parasites’ main host). Reindeer are an intermediate host for tapeworms, where they live during the larvae stage. In a main host, such as a fox, the adult tapeworms live in the intestinal tract. When the worms are sexually mature, they produce larvae in the last section of their bodies. When the larvae are fully developed, that section breaks off and leaves the host animal in its excrement.

Reindeer become infected with tapeworm larvae when, for example, they ingest food that has been mixed up with the droppings from fox. The larvae become active in the reindeer’s stomach, where the released larvae bore through the intestinal wall and get access to blood. When a larva finds a good place in a muscle, it becomes a cyst. There the larvae can lay in wait for a main host, for example a fox.

The tapeworm’s life cycle is complete, when a main host consumes reindeer meat containing cysts, so that the larvae can become established in the carnivore’s intestine and develop into adult tapeworms. Then it all starts over again. Tapeworms and tapeworm larvae do not produce symptoms of illness in their main hosts or their intermediate hosts. An infected reindeer can therefore appear healthy and fit (Figure 11).

Figure 11. This healthy young reindeer had many Taenia krabbei cysts in its meat. Photo: Mogens Torp & Henrik Hartmann.



Sarcocystis (Protozoa)

Worldwide there are hundreds of species of Sarcocystis parasites. Sarcocystis are single celled protozoa parasites, with a lifecycle that always involves two hosts. A carnivore as the main host, and a prey animal as the intermediate host. The reindeer is the intermediate host. The Institute of Natural Resources became aware of parasites in 1998 when a hunter, Vittus Holm, brought in some examples found in reindeer meat. These had probably been present in reindeer for many years already. Sarcocystis have been found in hunting areas 2,3,4, and 5, including the herds in Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut, Akia-Maniitsoq, Ameralik, and the Qeqertarsuatsiaat area. It is assumed that these have also been present in the rest of the hunting areas.

Figure 12. Sarcocystis larvae in reindeer breast muscle. The fingers point to several larvae. Photo: C. Cuyler



Greenlandic Sarcocystis larvae in reindeer appear as thins white stripes about 2-3 cm. in length, and 0.2-0.3 mm wide, and look like grains of rice in the meat. (Figure 12). These are often visible on the surface of the meat, especially in the midriff, the stomach musculature, and the breast, but can also be found in the colon These larvae are waiting until the reindeer gets eaten by a carnivore. Once the larvae are ingested into the carnivore’s digestive system, the stomach acids release them for continued development to the adult stage. When they are sexually mature the eggs are released into the local terrain together with the carnivore’s excrement. The eggs can lie for years in the terrain until an unfortunate reindeer grazes in the area. Inside the reindeer’s digestive system, the eggs develop through several stages of larvae, and finally migrate out of the digestive system and take their place as thin white stripes in the meat.

Infection in humans is not typical for most species of Sarcocystis. There have been no registered cases of infection with Sarcocystis in humans in Greenland. But it is recommended out of precaution that any meat infected with Sarcocystis be heated to a core temperature of 75° Celsius. This heat treatment will kill the parasites. Sufficiently cooked or fried meat will have a gray or gray-brown color.

NOTE: Freezing, smoking, or drying of meat will not kill Sarcocystis because the parasites have adapted to be able to live through heat, frost, and drought

If one does not want to eat meat that contains Sarcocystis larvae, then the meat should not be left out in the open or be used for dog food. Either one would lead to the spreading of the parasites, as the life cycle would be completed by predators and scavengers. Allowing the life cycle to be completed will increase the chance that the parasites are spread to even more reindeer. It is recommended that unwanted meat be destroyed. Burning the meat is the best way, but probably difficult out in the field due to the risk of setting fire to the tundra. Regardless, it is always possible to do something to prevent predators and scavengers from getting to the meat, for example by burying it under stones, or sinking it under water, in a lake or the sea.