Greenland sled dogs in danger
The domestic dog is one of the most successful species in the world by any ecological measure, so discussing their conservation may seem odd. However, despite the wide distribution and large number of dogs, there are genetic populations at risk. One such group is the Greenland sled dog, which lives in human communities north of the Arctic Circle on the east and west coasts of Greenland.
The ancestors of Greenland’s sled dogs were first brought to the region almost a thousand years ago by the Thule people, who are the ancestors of modern Inuit. Genetic studies published in 2015 established that these dogs are not a distinct breed from the Canadian Eskimo Dog, but the population is distinct from Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies, and Malamutes.
Greenland dogs stand 20 to 27 inches tall at the shoulders, with males typically in the larger half of this range and females in the smaller half. Dogs of both sexes are powerfully built with broad, wedge-shaped heads and muscular, short-furred legs. These dogs have double coats and very small ears, likely to help prevent frostbite. When lying down and curling up, their tail often covers the nose, although it is held high and across the back when standing. Many dogs have a triangular patch on their shoulders.
The Greenland sled dog population dropped by 40% to 15,000 individuals from 2002 to 2016. There are a number of reasons why this breed is in such decline. Infectious canine diseases such as canine parvovirus and distemper have caused the death of many dogs. The increased use of snowmobiles means that dogs are no longer valued as they once were. One of the reasons snowmobiles are more common now is that the cost of feeding dogs has gone up. Industrial fish waste that was once used in food is now increasingly being used for human consumption, which means people have to pay more for dog food. Additionally, climate change resulting in the loss of sea ice has led to fewer forays onto the ice to hunt and fish, which means the demand for sled dogs is down.
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For many wild animals at risk of declining populations, it can be very difficult to increase reproduction, but it’s much easier to do with domestic animals. If the dogs are popular, people will have a strong incentive to breed them. Like all sled dogs, Greenland sled dogs are valued for their ability to work hard and travel long distances. Many Polar and Antarctic expeditions have used this breed due to its great endurance and ability to pull heavy loads through cold and harsh landscapes.
Their relationship with humans over thousands of years has created a unique sled dog culture that deserves to be preserved as part of Greenland’s identity. Residents are extremely proud to have a vibrant sled dog culture, and many are alarmed to see it under threat. If the dog population declines too much, the culture (that which is intrinsically linked to a way of life involving the relationship between man and dog) will be lost. That’s why officials in Greenland and Denmark are pushing to grant UNESCO World Heritage protection to West Greenland’s unique 4,000 square kilometer hunting area. If the region’s culture is officially recognized as valuable, increased attention (and possibly funding) from the rest of the world could help the dogs that are so much a part of that culture, both historically and currently.