The staggering decline of Arctic caribou has been called North America's greatest wildlife mystery. Caribou are the most important terrestrial mammal in the far north: they shape the rugged landscape with their vast migrations, connect remote indigenous communities, and feed countless species along the way with their bodies, bones, and droppings. It’s no exaggeration to say the Arctic wouldn’t be the Arctic without caribou—and this is what makes their vanishing so alarming.
During the last 30 years the population of migratory caribou—animals that traverse immense distances during their annual wandering—has fallen by half, from nearly 5 million animals to 2 million. In some places the pace of loss seems to be speeding up. This could be disastrous for northern ecosystems already reeling from climate change. It may also severely harm humans—especially in the often small, often isolated towns and villages where families rely on caribou for food, spiritual well-being, and connection to the land itself.
The Vanishing Caribou project investigates possible causes for caribou decline and explores the unfolding consequences. From western Alaska to northern Canada, National Geographic writer Neil Shea travels with Indigenous hunters and speaks with biologists and wildlife officials about food security, ecology in a time of climate upheaval, and what it means to northern cultures when the animals that inform language and identity begin to disappear.