The Jewels of the Taiga

Where to see wild Finnish Forest Reindeer in Finland

In June 2018, I was lucky enough to present my work at the European Congress on Conservation Biology (ECCB) organized in Jyväskylä, Finland. This was the perfect opportunity to go and take a walk in the Finnish wilderness, so I joined a three-days trip organized by talented biologists to explore the beautiful taiga forest.

Finland is a true boreal country: it is almost entirely covered by the typical coniferous forests, called taiga, mires and lakes. Even though Finland is sparsely inhabited, little of the original Finnish nature remains as most peatlands were drained and replaced with intensive farming and forestry activities. Today, most forests in Finland are managed for wood production and therefore hold little biodiversity. The plan was for our little group of conservationists to visit three different sites, all perfect examples of the issues the Finnish nature has to face.

We first visited a peatland restoration project in the Salamajärvi national park. This project was a brilliant idea of the organizers of the conference: it was paid for by each attendee of the conference to compensate for the carbon footprint generated by the event. Peatlands are very important habitats, not only because they are home to many plants and animals, but also because they can store a huge amount of carbon and therefore play an important role in mitigating climate change. Although costly, many peatlands across the country are being restored to their natural waterlogged conditions. Once trees are removed and ditches are filled, the water level increases, facilitating the recovery of mire plant species and decreasing decomposition rates. It may not look pretty at first, but it will produce a well-functioning peatland in the long-term!

We spent the next two days hiking in the Salamanperä strict conservation area and the Pyhä-Häkki National Park. It was the most delightful way to discover unspoilt taiga and look for the elusive wild Finnish forest Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus)

Domesticated Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) are abundant in Scandinavia where they are herded for their meat and hides. The wild subspecies (the Finnish forest Reindeer) is however hard to find, partly because they live in dense boreal forests but mainly because they were hunted to extinction in Finland in the 19th century. Luckily, a few individuals were reintroduced in the nearby Salamajärvi National Park a few decades ago. Since then, forest reindeer population has grown and spread over the area, meaning we had a good chance to see one of them! The most important things when looking for wild reindeer is to be quiet and keep your expectations lows: the animals are extremely shy and will run away as soon as they have spotted you (and they are more likely to spot you first). But even wild reindeer cannot escape the inquisitive gaze of a group of 30 experienced, field-trained biologists and we spotted 5 of these magnificent creatures! Each encounter was brief and remote, but we all knew too well that we were lucky people.

To connect with nature, there is no better way than to walk through it. With every step inside the woods, with every bend in the path, a new world opens to your eyes. The atmosphere in the taiga forest is eyrie: bathing in a green glow, the thin pine tree trunks are perfectly spaced out and the stones scattered around the forest floor are covered with moss. Suddenly, the dense rows of trees become more and more sparse and a peatland appears, covered in yellow turf speckled with white tufts.

If you keep going you will get to one of the lakes scattered in the area, expanses of crystal-clear water bordered by more trees. In the middle of summer, the lakeside is the perfect place to sit down and enjoy the sun setting. At such latitudes and at this time of the year, sunsets are stunning. The sun takes hours to descent towards to horizon which it barely touches before rising again. For hours, the sky is ablaze. If it were not for the millions of mosquitoes relentlessly buzzing around (and biting) anyone at any time of day and night, the Finnish taiga would be paradise.

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