Reindeer may soon only exist in Christmas stories

Their numbers are plummeting.

The reindeer population in China's vast wilderness is on the decline, suggests a study published in the Journal for Nature Conservation. In light of the findings, the researchers hope to make a strong case for why the government should update the animal's conservation status. The country's Threatened Species of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) classifies reindeer as an animal of “least concern," when, according to the study's authors, they should be deemed at-risk.

They argue that by updating the IUCN's Red List to a more urgent condition, it could help increase conservation efforts.

During the investigation, researchers noticed the decline by comparing historical distribution numbers to current ones 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 by 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. As a result, one significant risk reindeer face right is inbreeding. It could lead to genetic deterioration, which, in turn, would result in birth complications, furthering their decline. There are 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, Northern Europe, and the Arctic are also threatened, but for different reasons.

In northern Canada, for instance, 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.

Read more at Discovery News, where Jennifer Viegas has reported on this dwindling population.

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