We asked Dr. Jouko Kumpula of the National Resources Institute in Finland (Luke) about the role of tracking technology in reindeer research and husbandry. Dr. Kumpula has previously used tracking devices to collect data in several reindeer research projects studying their habitat usage and monitoring the effect of climate change on reindeer behaviour and reproduction. He and his team work closely with the Finnish Reindeer Herders’ Association (RHA) at the Kutuharju field research station, located in Inari northernmost Finland. This land area covers 43 km2 with approximately 100-180 free-ranging reindeer – some wearing collar technologies researched and coordinated by Luke. 

Reindeer in Lapland – Photo Copyright Jouko Kumpula

Q: How does tracking technology use help play a role in reindeer habitats? 

A: Earlier, GPS-collars was only for research purposes, but now several producers exist for reindeer tracking collars lowering their price and increasing their usage. I suppose that hundreds or even some thousands of this kind of GPS-collars are now in use in the reindeer herding livelihood. Collars are useful, as reindeer herders can follow at all times where their reindeer wander to, and when they start to gather reindeer for roundups, these collars make it much easier to find reindeer and save reindeer herders a lot of work. Reindeer herders can also use the GPS to observe if their reindeer starts to behave unexpectedly due to predators or other disturbances such as weather conditions. For instance, reindeers might move suddenly go in an unexpected direction on pastures. There are also frequently mortality transmitters attached in these collars or attached separately. This feature helps herders to easily find reindeer killed by predators. These transmitters send specific signals when the reindeer does not move at all for two hours. 

Q: What are the ongoing problems you can see technologies helping to solve for both reindeers and scientists?

A: Due to technologies, it is possible to study many basic biological and behavioural aspects of reindeer and their life with much higher complexity. It is also possible to explore those factors that affect pasture use by reindeer, disturbing or preventing grazing in some areas. The use of pastures can depend on different kinds of human disturbances, forestry, and other land-use forms, predators, or weather such as heavy snow conditions. Further, as I touched on earlier, reindeer herders have many benefits to use technologies within their farming practices, e.g., GPS-collars or mortality transmitters.

Q: What are the grand challenges that you hope technologies can address in this space?

A: Technology is still quite expensive and maybe partly tricky to use for reindeer herders. For GPS-tracking and location data transferring, there is usually a GSM-network connection needed. This network is often lacking in many large wilderness areas, such as in Lapland in Finland, where most reindeer roam.

Q: Do you see any dangers of using tracking technologies with reindeers?

A: It may reduce the herders’ traditional knowledge and know-how if the technology reduces the typical continuous contacts between reindeer herders and reindeer too much.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for computer scientists and engineers on how they can engage in joint research with reindeer scientists like you? 

A: With the effects of climate change, it is becoming necessary for reindeer herders to develop a monitoring system for seasonal pasture conditions. Especially in harsh winter snow in large pasture areas, knowing digging and foraging conditions is a vital part of the information needed for reindeer herders. For computer scientists and engineers, building a system that presents this kind of environmental information system alongside reindeer information (e.g., GPS-tracking) would also give many new possibilities for research to study climate change’s effects on reindeer and reindeer herding system.

Read more about reindeer husbandry research and Dr. Kumpula’s team involvement: 



The following are the two producers of reindeer GPS-collars in Finland referred to in this blog:

https://tracker.fi/en/tracker-boazu-2/ (including photos of trackers)