Reindeer populations are declining, and if their numbers continue to plummet, Santa's iconic sleigh pullers may only be remembered in Christmas stories.

Discovery New's Jennifer Viegas writes on a recent study published in the Journal for Nature Conservation that shows the reindeer population in China is on the decline. Through this research, the authors hope to make a strong case for why the government should update its conservation status. The country's Threatened Species of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) classifies reindeer as an animal of “least concern” when they should be at risk, according to researchers. They argue that by updating the IUCN's Red List to a more urgent condition, it could help increase conservation efforts.

In the study, researchers noticed the decline from comparing historical to current distribution numbers throughout China. They cite that the reindeer population peaked in the 1970s with over 1,080 reindeer, but from 1998 onward their numbers have dwindled as much as 28 percent.

There are several factors contributing to their decline. Their populations are already low, so genetic variance among mates becomes less and less. The biggest risk right now is inbreeding that may result in genetic deterioration, which would result in birth complications, furthering their decline. There's also issues with poachers killing the reindeer for their antlers, as the last remaining herders move toward more populated areas to get in on the tourist trade. Natural predators are also a threat, and kill as many as “a third of reindeer calves each year,” according to researchers.

The research team hopes their data is enough to convince the IUCN to update their information and begin conservation efforts for the reindeer in China. However, reindeer populations that make up parts of North America, other portions of Asia, norther Europe, and the Arctic are also threatened, but for different reasons. In northern Canada, for example, reindeer have trouble foraging for food because of changing weather patterns. Their decline has sent ripples that have affected northern tribes, which rely on these animals for food and clothing, according to a story on the site Living on Earth.

Perhaps being a Christmas icon doesn't have as many perks as one would think, since stories of their decline keep circulating around the same time only once every year.

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