The Limits of Environmentalism at Earth’s End: Reindeer Eradication and the Heritage of Hunting in the Sub-Antarctic

By James J. A. Blair, Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY) §

In the Arctic Circle, a Russian public health plan to cull hundreds of thousands of reindeer—in order to cleanse the landscape of anthrax-carrying bacteria—has triggered tense debate among policymakers, scientists and indigenous Nenet reindeer herders. The Nenets are refusing to allow the Russian government to kill the animals because it would severely limit their mobility as a nomadic people, but contending environmental politics of settler colonialism are not always so clearly defined. In a different disputed territory at the polar opposite side of the planet, indigenous Saami reindeer herders recently played a key role in the world’s first ever reindeer eradication, on South Georgia Island.

South Georgia is a British Overseas Territory (BOT), situated in the South Atlantic between the Falkland Islands (Malvinas in Spanish) and Antarctica. Argentina maintains an overlapping maritime claim over the South Atlantic, nearly 35 years after its military junta seized and temporarily occupied the territories in 1982. Scandinavians first introduced reindeer to South Georgia between 1911 and 1925 as a source of protein for whaling crews (Leader-Williams 2009). However, after the depletion of whales and the abandonment of whaling stations, the reindeer population irrupted to an unsustainable scale. To address this unintended environmental consequence, the British government of South Georgia, in conjunction with the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate, recruited a group of twelve indigenous Saami people of Finnmark to fence, herd and butcher the reindeer in 2012. The government’s reasoning for staging this unprecedented eradication was that culling the reindeer would be too expensive in such a remote location, grazing caused significant land degradation, and they needed the reindeer and any carrion gone in order to efficiently eradicate rats, which prey on seabirds.[1]

The South Georgia reindeer eradication was not central to my fieldwork, which focused primarily on oil, environment and self-determination in the Falklands. However, this transnational experiment to apply “indigenous knowledge of the environment” (Sillitoe 1998) in the “uttermost part of the earth” offered invaluable perspective on my broader research question: how are settlers of disputed territories in the South Atlantic, with no historical evidence of a pre-colonial indigenous presence, reinventing themselves as “natives” through new forms of governance over the environment?[2] My research incorporates 20 months of participant observation, analysis of colonial letters and reports, and interviews conducted with: (1) townspeople, farmers, migrants, resource managers, scientists, planners, engineers and business elites in the Falkland Islands; (2) government functionaries, scientists, defected Islanders and their descendants in Argentina; and (3) business partners, repatriated Islanders and government representatives in the UK. Here, I focus on fieldwork conducted within the South Atlantic from 2012-2014.

To learn more about the reindeer eradication, I visited the South Georgia Government’s Office in the Falklands’ only town, Stanley. Anne, a British Environment Officer, explained how the reindeer eradication was born.[3] She told me that people tend to find rats disgusting (this was not a foreign concept to me, as a New Yorker). But she found that British citizens, in particular, are bird-lovers. They despise South Georgia’s rats specifically for predating on rare burrowing seabirds, so the anti-rat campaign easily attracted wide media attention. Unlike rats, reindeer possess a Christmas “cuddle factor” with comparable social capital to that of local penguins. This influenced government administrators to soften the reindeer component of the eradication, and instead craft a “purely environmental” narrative.[4]

“South Georgia is great in a way because we don’t have a human population, so there’s that whole side of it that you can take out and you can just look at what’s going to be best for the environment,” Anne told me.

During the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, scientists used the Falklands and South Georgia primarily as stepping-stones to support voyages farther south, notably Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on the Endurance.[5] Scientific work, particularly mapping, became central to claim making in this remote corner of the British Empire, as a series of research stations were established for the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), now called the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).[6] Surrounded by the world’s largest sustainable use marine protected area, the territory is owned entirely by the Crown, enabling resource managers like Anne to experiment with extreme biosecurity measures for total eradication that transcend the limits of “population control.”

While this “pure” environmentalism might help to “sell” the eradication project to Western wildlife experts and enthusiasts, Saami reindeer herders presented a different challenge. No one had ever tried to eradicate reindeer anywhere else in the world, so because there is no proven methodology, the South Georgia Government ultimately chose to enlist the Saami through a preliminary process of elimination. Animal welfare experts, vets, scientists and eradication experts from around the globe—who have carried out comparable projects targeting goats, camels, pigs, and other mammals—put their minds together, and decided against aerial shooting. They elected instead to find people skilled in herding reindeer, who understand how they behave, and know how to slaughter them. The Saami seemed to fit the bill.

james001Loading reindeer carcasses onto seatruck. Photo C. E. Kilander (Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands 2012).

Accustomed to preserving and underproducing the herd as pastoralists—not simply hunters or ranchers (let alone eradicators)—the Saami tried to go at a more tempered pace than the cost-conscious government (Ingold 1988). Methods they were used to employing in the Arctic tundra faltered in the sub-Antarctic. For example, the Saami tried using a ribbon to funnel the herd, but this method accidentally gathered fur seals along with reindeer. Moreover, due to strict regulations to preserve the near-pristine territory, the Saami were not permitted to use quad bikes. According to Anne, “this was a shock” to the Saami who had become accustomed to using automobiles on a more level terrain. Mimicking the techniques that gauchos had employed to herd cattle in Patagonia and the Falklands during the nineteenth century, the Saami eventually built temporary corrals for the reindeer. They enclosed the herd at the tip of a peninsula, where they killed and slaughtered them.

Blending Lockean ideologies with anthropological concepts of personhood and sacrifice, Anne told me that the Saami viewed reindeer an “asset,” and they did not want to “waste” any of the animals. “In Finnmark, they’re working with their own animal, and their animals are their wealth, their inheritance, and what they’re going to pass on to their children.” In contrast, she said, “These were our reindeer, they were South Georgia Government reindeer, so [the Saami] didn’t have that same personal investment.” The collaboration between British conservation officers and Saami reindeer herders thus presented an opportunity for bridging divergent cultural norms of property and value. However, in order to meet government deadlines, more than half of reindeer in this phase were shot rather than herded. To decrease “diminishing returns,” the government did not contract the Saami for herding in later phases of the eradication. Instead, with the leader of the Saami group’s consent, shooters from the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate hunted the remaining reindeer. Similar to hunting co-management in some other frontier areas, the bureaucratic structures of the state proved incommensurable with indigenous experiential knowledge (Nadasdy 2003).

Reminiscent of the “factory ships” of the earlier era of whaling in South Georgia, the Saami butchered the reindeer they had herded within a makeshift, floating abattoir: a converted fishing vessel that the government chartered. To recover some of the government’s costs, the Saami produced about four tons of meat, which was sold to cruise ships and Falklands residents. Reindeer Carpaccio became a popular appetizer on the menu of the Malvina House Hotel in Stanley.

james002Reindeer Carpaccio served at The Malvina House Hotel in Stanley, Falkland Islands. Author photo.

While some Falkland Islanders rejoiced in the guilt-free luxury of reindeer meat consumption—what one local environmentalist described to me as “conservation in action”—others found the reindeer eradication tragically hard to stomach. The reindeer eradication underscored how Falkland Islanders harbor resentment toward the UK for “taking away” South Georgia from local management of the Falkland Islands Government in 1985. Bobby, an elderly Falkland Islander who worked on Christian Salvesen’s Leith Harbour whaling station more than 50 years earlier, called the reindeer eradication “the biggest sin and the biggest disaster.” Bobby invited me to his home, where, seated at his kitchen table, we discussed his experiences of whaling in South Georgia, and his opinion on the reindeer eradication. A margarine jar full of empty, broken shells of Gentoo penguin eggs sat next to his stove. Bobby supported the rat eradication, but he thought the reindeer should have been allowed to die out more naturally, perhaps by castration rather than hiring “Norwegian marksmen.” Bobby was outraged because the antlered ungulates served as the living link to what he saw as the prior glory of industrial whale destruction. When South Georgia was a “Dependency” of the Falklands, the local government regulated whaling stations through a licensing regime beginning in 1906.[7] This kept the Falklands’ economy afloat as maritime traffic decreased due to the construction of the Panama Canal. Local shareholders celebrated full cargoes of up to 40,000 barrels of whale oil produced per ship.[8] Those with sea legs, such as Bobby, seized the opportunity to participate directly in the production process.

South Georgia’s reindeer were imbued with cultural value that nativist settlers of the Falklands associated with the legacy of whale hunting. This contended with the government’s environmental reasoning for eradication in a different way from the Saami’s opposition. The British “ex-pat” who initiated the reindeer eradication project reflected:

“Your people population is a global one, and on an island like that where there isn’t a passport holder saying “I am a South Georgian,” it attracts massively strong associations for people, whether they’re historical or “I went there and I just loved it,” or whether it’s aspiration, you know this “frontier” at the end of the world type thing, so it’s something that generates amazingly strong and passionate views from a huge diversity of people. So certainly, whilst the reindeer thing as an example, you didn’t have to go out and canvas the locals on South Georgia and say “how do you feel about this?” but you’ve got the heritage aspects to consider.”

In Trouillot’s (1997) terms, the eradication of South Georgia reindeer “silenced the past” of the near-total decimation of whales for local residents, such as Bobby who wished to preserve the latter.[9] Bobby took comfort that before the eradication had even been planned independent local residents salvaged reindeer from South Georgia and introduced them to peripheral areas of the Falklands.

In conclusion, South Georgia may have no human “natives,” but former whalers and Saami contractors demonstrate human-animal relations that serve as counterpoints to the “pure” environmentalism of the eradication project. If we take seriously how transnational scientific regimes repurpose indigenous knowledge to tackle environmental problems, and how settlers form attachments to landscapes that defy Western environmentalist hegemony, they offer a wider view of life on the frontier. While it would be easy to critique British government officers for reducing South Georgia’s reindeer to non-native “pests” and Native Saami people to organic exterminators, this narrow focus would elide how anthropologists have been mired in debate about whether indigenous groups in general, and reindeer herders in particular, have developed harmonic relations with earth-beings that constitute either wholly different ontologies, or historically-produced ethnopolitical discourses (Rada 2015; Willerslev et al. 2015; Ingold 2015). The spatial and temporal dislocation of indigenous earth practices, and the heritage production of hunting in the Sub-Antarctic give us broader perspective on the limits of environmental and anthropological framing. Ultimately, it would be hyperbolic to assert that the opposing values of government administrators, reindeer herders, and former whalers represent radically different alterities, but examining how their contrasting cosmologies converge in an unprecedented biosecurity experiment may be helpful for considering the unanticipated blowback of settler colonialism.

james003Falkland Islander child’s hand-drawn Christmas card. Santa Claus is pictured enjoying the Austral summer climate and perhaps grilling reindeer meat, despite Rudolph’s alarm. “Che,” a common local term of affection, is a vestige of Patagonian gaucho speech habits. Author photo.


[1] The rationale was that rats and reindeer would be attracted to bait containing anti-coagulant poison. The rat eradication project starting in 2000 in South Georgia was the first of its kind in the South Atlantic, but it is linked to efforts to eliminate rats in the Falklands. See Tabak (2014).
[2] See Blair (Forthcoming).
[3] Names of living interlocutors are pseudonyms.
[4] See Milton (1993); Brosius (1999); Agrawal (2005) West (2006).
[5] See Le Guin (2005) for an imaginative feminist short story of historical fiction, in which a crew of Latin American women became the first to reach the South Pole, leaving no sign, or even footprints—a wonderful contrast to the imperial-patriarchal romanticism of the “Heroic Age.”
[6] For a history and geopolitical analysis of FIDS, see Dodds (2002).
[7] Colonial Report 1871, Governor D’Arcy, February 27, 1872, Jane Cameron National Archives (JCNA), Stanley, Falkland Islands. For discussion of the whaling stations on South Georgia, see Robertson (1954); Gordon (2004); and Basberg (2004).
[8] See shareholder reports in Falkland Islands Magazine, May, August, November and December 1922, JCNA.
[9] In spite of his pride, Bobby did regret particular moments in his whaling experience, particularly when his colleagues accidentally caught pregnant mothers.

Works Cited

Agrawal, Arun. 2005. Environmentality. Durham: Duke University Press.
Basberg, Bjorn L. 2004. The Shore Whaling Stations at South Georgia. Novus Press.
Blair, James J. A. n.d. “Settler Indigeneity and the Eradication of the Non-Native: Self-Determination and Biosecurity in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas).” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Forthcoming.
Brosius, J. Peter. 1999. “Analyses and Interventions: Anthropological Engagements with Environmentalism.” Current Anthropology 40 (3): 277–310.
Dodds, Klaus. 2002. Pink Ice: Britain and the South Atlantic Empire. London: I.B.Tauris.
Gordon, Tam. 2004. Whaling Thoughts Recalled. T. Gordon.
Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. 2012. “Reindeer Eradication Project-Phase 1 Summary Report.”
Ingold, Tim. 1988. Hunters, Pastoralists and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and Their Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2015. “From the Master’s Point of View: Hunting Is Sacrifice.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21 (1): 24–27.
Leader-Williams, N. 2009. Reindeer on South Georgia: The Ecology of an Introduced Population. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Le Guin, Ursula K. 2005. “Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic, 1909-1910.” In The Compass Rose: Stories. New York: Harper Perennial.
Milton, Kay. 1993. Environmentalism: The View from Anthropology. London: Routledge.
Nadasdy, Paul. 2003. Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Rada, Ángel Díaz de. 2015. “Discursive Elaborations of ‘Saami’ Ethnos: A Multi-Source Model of Ethnic and Ethnopolitical Structuration.” Anthropological Theory 15 (4): 472–96.
Robertson, R. B. 1954. Of Whales and Men. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Sillitoe, Paul. 1998. “The Development of Indigenous Knowledge: A New Applied Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 39 (2): 223–52.
Tabak, Michael A., Sally Poncet, Ken Passfield, Jacob R. Goheen, and Carlos Martinez del Rio. 2014. “Rat Eradication and the Resistance and Resilience of Passerine Bird Assemblages in the Falkland Islands.” Journal of Animal Ecology, October.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1997. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.
West, Paige. 2006. Conservation Is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.
Willerslev, Rane, Piers Vitebsky, and Anatoly Alekseyev. 2015. “Sacrifice as the Ideal Hunt: A Cosmological Explanation for the Origin of Reindeer Domestication.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21 (1): 1–23.

James J. A. Blair is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY). Blair holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the CUNY Graduate Center. Rooted in environmental anthropology, his research employs ethnographic and historical methods to advance the fields of political ecology, science & technology studies (STS), and settler colonial studies. His current book project examines sovereignty and natural resources in the afterlife of the British South Atlantic Empire. Blair has a forthcoming article accepted for publication in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI) that complements and expands on themes explored here. He has published essays and book reviews in The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, The Journal of Agrarian Change, and Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE), as well as journalistic writing for The Economist and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, Fulbright-IIE, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. Blair is a recipient of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2016 Next Generation Award.

This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism