We went up north to see the “migration” of the Caribou’s and we did indeed see many Caribou’s. Not the large herds though, but a troop of migrating animals. We were also privy to a very special encounter. A few groups of “Musk Oxen”. Two animals, of which we are still very impressed. Both with a very extraordinary behaviour and both of them have something very pitying and ill-fated about them. The Caribou is one of the deer species that can be found in large herds in Alaska. It is a typical herd animal. They can survive in extreme cold winter conditions and know exactly how to trek effortlessly across the snow plains.
They can do all that, but they can barely defend themselves. They are aware of that. Their eyes practically pop out of their heads with fear. They are already asking for forgiveness before anything happens and they experience threats from animals and humans as a sort of sentence of fate. They migrate two times a year, just like the Gnu’s in Africa. In the Spring they migrate from the sheltered southern flanks of the mountains to the Arctic Slopes and there they enjoy the nourishment of the fresh tundra moss and grass. The calves are born there. In the Autumn they leave the plains to return in droves to the shelter of the mountains. They always know how to find food and roam tirelessly and restlessly in a specific direction. In spite of the harsh conditions they hold their own in the cold and in some parts of Alaska they even manage to considerably expand the herd. The Central Arctic Herd that migrates along the Dalton Highway has expanded from 30.000 to 65.000 animals in a period of 10 years.
Wolves, bears and especially humans are out to kill the Caribou and take whatever they can out of the Caribou. In the past, the “Natives” hunted the Caribou for survival in the frozen North. Humans of today hunt for the sake of it, and this year it was so bad that a single hunter is allowed to shoot up to five Caribou’s a day. If every Alaskan did that there would be no Caribou’s left within a month.
The animals appear to sense this, so they walk modestly around in groups trying everything so as to keep out of the sights of their hunters: the wolves, the bears, the humans, and the trucks. It is as if they are waiting for their pending fate, while staring with that pathetic look in their eyes.
Maybe they are thinking “Ach, there are so many of us, if one gets hit it will not be me, and even if it is me then I won’t notice it anyway”. Nevertheless, their attitude proves to be successful. At present, there are still herds of more than 60.000 animals alive today, and that’s more than you can say for their animal hunters: the wolves, the bears, and the wolverines. Only human beings outnumber the Caribou’s and in Alaska humans are multiplying in number. There will come a time when the Caribou herds will no longer have the strength to go on, or maybe, we will then be strong enough to temper our need to hunt.
Musk Oxen are not oxen but a larger sort of primal sheep that nevertheless look very frightening. It is a sort of bulldozer, a sort of rhinoceros, and seems to be undefeatable. But don’t be fooled. They are very vulnerable. Wolves, as well as bears and humans know how to successfully hunt Musk Oxen. To be able to avoid being hunted the Oxen stay humped together in a sort of corral. They look more impressive like that and they hope that their predators will decide to abort their attack. The corral instinct is so big that even the newly born calves must stay inside the corral. Hunters are only allowed to shot a very limited number of these animals.
We came across a very sad image of a newly born calf that for one reason or another did not stay in the corral. This calf will immediately be given up on. He was a mere 50 meters from the corral. It was -20° Celsius and it was continuously bleating, which did not help at all. The Musk Oxen, probably including the mother, did not even look up and the young calf did not have the courage to walk to the group. This lasted two days. We asked chauffeurs to send out a distress call. When we left the calf was just lying their lifeless. Actually, in Gold Foot we heard that the Wild Life Refuge was organizing a rescue operation. The Musk Oxen are herd animals with their own destructive rules. Any deviations from these rules will be punished by death. There are very few Musk Oxen left.
Best wishes from Rika and Harry Houthuijsen