Like something from a Hollywood horror film, researchers have found that the melting permafrost across Siberia is reviving long frozen strains of deadly anthrax. Unfortunately, this story is all too real, as so far at least 13 people have been infected, and one child has died. In order to try and stem the spread of the bacteria, the Russian government is planning on culling 100,000 reindeer, which host the pathogen and spread it over vast distances as they migrate.
For those living in the Yamal-Nenets region of Siberia, reindeer herding is one of the most important industries, with many earning their livelihood from the practice. But recently it may have started putting their lives at risk, as reindeer carcasses infected with anthrax have started thawing out from the melting the permafrost. Earlier this year, a 12-year-old boy was killed by the bacteria, as well as an estimated 2,500 reindeer.
It is thought that there are roughly 750,000 of the creatures living in the region, many more than the land can support. This has added to the worries, as it compounds the risk from disease as it is not only passed between animals, but because the over-grazing of the ground reduces the plant cover, thus increasing the thawing of the permafrost in summer, making more likely that more anthrax will be released.
The government now plans on culling 100,000 of these reindeer, but experts fear that this is not enough. The director of the Urals Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, Vladimir Bogdanov, told the Russian news organization Rossiyskaya Gazeta that the figure should be more in the region of 200,000, twice the official number.
The plan is for the government to buy all the reindeer off the local herders, and process the animals themselves, meaning that exports of meat will increase this year from 300 to 800 tonnes (330 to 880 tons), though this plan has been met with resistance. As the main income for many in the region, the prospect of losing so many reindeer is particularly unwelcome.
With climate change continuing to warm the planet, and the Arctic taking the hardest hit, it does seem that issues such as the awakening of diseases like “zombie” anthrax are not going to go away anytime soon.