Anthrax in the Arctic: why wolves are the least of a reindeer’s worries this Christmas

The story about reindeer that Planet Earth II never told you.

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David Attenborough's Planet Earth II should be top of the TV catch-up list this Christmas. An epic ending to the Grasslands episode sees a high-speed chase between an Arctic wolf and a young caribou – the wild relative of the reindeer. But the year’s most shocking reindeer-related story is both more touching and troubling than anything seen on screen.

Over 75 years ago, a naturally occurring outbreak of anthrax (a bacterial disease affecting the skin and lungs), caused mass death among the caribou of the Yamal-Nenets region in Arctic Siberia. For decades, the diseased bodies lay buried beneath the frozen ice. But this summer, unusually high temperatures caused the permafrost to thaw.

The results were catastrophic. Spores from the unleashed bacteria were ingested by a herd of grazing reindeer, some of whom were then consumed by the local human population. Over 70 people, including 41 children, were rushed to Salekhard hospital, where a 12-year-old boy died of the infection.

If the Planet Earth team had flown over the Yamal tundra this August, their cameras would have captured a landscape strewn with the smoking pyres of caribou carcasses – 2,000-plus of whom also perished from the disease. The region’s governor, Dmitry Kobylkin, has announced that the cull of a further 100,000 animals is set to follow.

So what held the producers back? The programme was probably past its edit by the time this particular tragedy unfolded. Yet even if the schedule had allowed, such a story would have been unlikely to make the cut. In the entire six-hour series, there was only one example of humanity’s troubled relationship with the animal world. And, for that, viewers had to wait until the final storyline of the very last episode.

After a heartening set of stories about how leopards, falcons and monkeys are thriving in our cities, the Cities episode eventually took a darker turn. On a beach in Barbados, newborn baby turtles, disorientated by the lights of nearby cars, were squished and stranded in their desperate attempt to reach the sea.

Attenborough himself followed this a massacre with a personal plea to viewers: “It is surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home, not just for us, but for all life on earth,” he said from atop a London skyscraper. Yet even then, the words “climate change” did not pass his lips.

There are healthy reasons for this. Positive stories about things we love, rather than fear, can inspire viewers to action, as Michela Cortese, a lecturer at Bangor University, points out on The Conversation. “Planet Earth employs a “positive” narrative that, according to some studies, can generate a bigger impact on the public and sometimes lead to individual action,” she writes.

Also, leaving the most important message until last could help the call to action pack a punch.

It may feel like sacrilege to criticise Planet Earth, but in an era facing climate change, a new mass extinction and a rise in infectious disease, did it get the balance right?

The caribou wolf hunt may serve as a beautiful metaphor for the tenacious and ingenious struggle for survival (animal or human). But it was also troublingly thin on context. Not only is man-made climate change responsible for the “extraordinary” temperatures that led to this summer’s anthrax outbreak. But warmer winters mean more snow is falling as rain – when this freezes it prevents animals from reaching the grazing beneath. According to research conducted on an Arctic island near the North Pole, the average weight of an adult reindeer has fallen from 55kg to 48kg since the 1990s.

Professor Florian Stammler, an arctic anthropologist and associate of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute, is also concerned about the impact the cull will have on the local community. In a blog for Arctic Anthropology, he writes about the importance of providing herders with fair compensation and not making it conditional on giving up their nomadic way of life.

Set these decisions against the background of government plans to speed up gas exploration in the region and a wolf hunt suddenly feels like the least of worries for a reindeer – or for humanity.

As Professor Claire Heffernan from the University of Bristol, tells the New Statesman: “The Arctic really is Pandora’s Box” of infectious disease. With pathogens appearing in new places and hosts, the need for joined-up animal-human disease surveillance has never been greater.

So as fans look ahead to a possible third series of Planet Earth, let anthrax in the Arctic serve as a reminder that our connection to the natural world is tighter and more tense than ever.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.