Clad in a camouflage jacket, the mosquito netting unzipped from his hood, Yuri Khudi squats by the fire inside his large chum. Outside, seven more of the teepee-like tents cluster in a semicircle. Swells of Siberian tundra roll north toward the Arctic Ocean; a reindeer herd grazes on a distant crest. It’s mid-July, and the group of Nenets herders that Yuri leads are about halfway through an annual trek that takes them 400 miles north on the Yamal Peninsula to the Arctic coast—in normal years, that is.
“It’s been three years since we have made it all the way to our summer pastures by the Kara Sea,” Yuri says as his wife, Katya, pours him a steaming mug of tea. “Our reindeer were too weak for the long journey.” In the winter of 2013-14, an unusual warm spell brought rain to southern Yamal; the deep freeze that followed encased most of the winter pastures in thick ice. The reindeer, used to digging through snow to find lichen, their main winter food, couldn’t dig through the ice. In this herd and others, tens of thousands starved. Now, in the summer of 2016, the survivors are still recovering.
The canvas entrance of the chum flaps open, and a reindeer, antlers down, bursts inside. It pauses in front of the fire, shakes vigorously, and flops down to chew its cud meditatively.