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Ovibos in Northeast Greenland: Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Ovibos in Northeast Greenland

Greenland-Svalbard,
EA- G g eneral
(John Giaver)

OVIBOS IN NORTHEAST GREENLAND

The Musk ox or ovibos ( Ovibos moschatus ) is met with in small scattered
herds in northern and northeastern Greenland, from Cape May on the north
coast (82° 27′N.) to Scoresby Sound on the east coast. The districts rich–
est in ovibos are Scoresby Sound, Andree Land, and Strindberg Land; the region
between the innermost part of Franz Josef Fjord and Clavering Island; the
southern and western part of Kuhn Island, and the mainland there, Hochstetter
Foreland. Widely differing estimates of the exact number have been made, and
it may be concluded that the number lies somewhere between the highest estimate,
17,000, and the lowest, 9,000. Sporadic observations have shown that the
main stock of ovibos is found at a distance from the coast, and numerous
herds are found even on the mountainous islands and nunataks surrounded by
the icecap and local glaciers.
In former times the ovibos ranged widely over Greenland. Musk-ox bones
have been found in ancient Eskimo ruins at Cape York; at Thule they were
apparently very common, if one is to judge by the great number of their bones
found in the kitchen middens there, where now they are extinct. But we are
confining our study to the northeast coast of Greenland, where herds still
range in great numbers.
Here as elsewhere the population has greatly fluctuated in modern times.
The Scoresbys saw no ovibos when, in 1822, they visited the sound that bears

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Giaver: Ovibos in Northeast Greenland #2

their name (Scoresby Sound, about 70° N.), nor did Clavering and Sabine
when, in 1823, they worked along the coast to about 74° N. Yet in 1869-70,
the German expedition under Koldewey encountered ovibos between the Gaus
Peninsula (about 73° 30′ N.) and Hochstetter Foreland (75° 10′to 75° 35′N.).
Koldewey counted a total of 84 ovibos, including 12 calves; and his report
is the first record of the existence of ovibos in Greenland in modern times (3).
In the summer of 1889, Capt. Ragnvald Knudsen observed a few herds grazing
north of Hold with Hope (73° 30′N.), and it is interesting to note that the
Norwegian expedition also recorded that reindeer, now practically extinct,
were then very numerous. In 1891, the Swedish explorer, A. G. Nathorst,
counted a total of 240 ovibos during his summer expedition of 1899, when he
mapped the complex of fjords and sounds between King Oscar Fjord (72° N.)
and Sabine Island (74° 32′N.) (3). In the following summer (1900) the Danish
expedition, under Andrup, counted 400 ovibos in the same region (1). The
Kolthoff expedition (Swedish) in the same year, in about the same region,
reported the presence of a herd of 200, pl u s about 30 calves. The Danish
expedition of 1906-1908 reported some 30 ovibos on Germania Land, and observed
a few herds as far north as Peary Land.
These last-named expeditions visited Greenland when the hunting of ovibos
had seriously begun. In the years 1900 to 1930, the Norwegian sealers, on
their regular voyages to Greenland, must have taken a certain toll of the
stock of ovibos for their food supply. We know that during that period of
30 years, 112 vessels visited the area under consideration. According to
Jensen, the ovibos in Greenland have been reduced in number, as compared
with their population of a few hundred years ago, largely because of such
inroads and "very reckless treatment ... by the hunting of the Eskimos and
arctic expeditions" (2).

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Giaver: Ovibos in Northeast Greenland

Certainly, it cannot be denied that wintering parties, both for the
purpose of hunting and for scientific observation, have taken their toll of
animal life, particularly as regards the ovibos, the meat of which has long
been a staple food for men and dogs. The first wintering expedition on this
coast took place in 1908-1909, when seven Norwegian hunters spent the winter
in Wollaston Foreland (about 74° N.). They, and the next party of six in the
following year, could not be charged with any wholesale slaughter. Danish
hunting parties lived on this part of the coast from 1919 to 1924, and con–
tinual winterings have taken place there from 1926 to the present year (1950).
In the later period, scientists as well as hunters have visited the coast
annually from Scoresby Sound to Germania Land, and have contributed with
their observations, to our knowledge of the fauna of the region, particularly
of the ovibos. It is true that the areas covered by these observations, in
the region of the great scientific stations, on Clavering Island and in the
northern part of King Oscar Fjord, are now practically devoid of ovibos.
However, other causes have been at work. There have been periods of weather
conditions which have been unfavorable to grazing animals, and predatory
wolves can be charged with having taken their toll of the stock as well.
The arguments for and against the wolves are many, and it has even been
denied that wolves are capable of doing much damage to a herd of ovibos.
This may be the case in some regions, but the argument is fallible when
applied to the deep-snow district of northeast Greenland where even dogs
have been known to kill calves and half-starved ovibos in the late winter
season.
Occasional epidemics may have caused periodical fluctuations of the ovibos
population. In connection with this, their strange survival in the latter

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Giaver: Ovibos in Northeast Greenland

part of the 19th century must be cited, since it was at that period that the
other great ungulates of Greenland, the reindeer, once so numerous, became
practically extinct.
On Clavering Island and in the northern part of King Oscar Fjord, ovibos
had become almost nonexistent by World War II. But the total number through–
out northeast Greenland seems to have increased greatly between 1929 and 1947.
Herds have appeared on Geographical Society Island and on Traill Island, where,
up to 1938, there were no ovibos. These are much-hunted-over regions. Un–
doubtedly, a complex of causes must be sought for and will be found to account
for these phenomena. It is claimed that the Norwegian hunters have exterminated
the wolves of the region, and this fact may be a contributing factor in the
apparent and gratifying increase in number of the ovibos. Then, the absence
of ovibos from a certain region in a certain year does not necessarily imply
their extermination. There are vast regions along the northeast coast to
which the herds might withdraw and find a natural sanctuary, regions where
no shot has ever been fired. And, too, following the first reckless slaughter
by the sealers and the hunting parties, strict regulations with regard to the
hunting of ovibos were formulated by Danes and Norwegians alike.
At present (1950) the herds of ovibos seem to be on the increase. In
fact, while some naturalists are advocating stricter [: ] enforcement of pro–
tective laws, others are protesting that the increase in number is now so
great that, in a few more years, there may not be sufficient grazing land
to ensure their existence, and foresee a time when the whole stock will
perish from starvation. The relatively recent disappearance of the reindeer
and the hare is cited as examples of such "natural" extinction. In isolated
cases, there have been successes in the domestication of this valuable food
animal, and a more extended study should be made of this angle. However,

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Giaver: Ovibos in Northeast Greenland

it is the writer's conviction that this vast country can provide sufficient
food and protection for years to come, and that in northeast Greenland,
which probably has the largest stock of ovibos in the world, there is no
reason why the number should not go i o n increasing.
John Giaver

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Giaver: Ovibos in Northeast Greenland

EA-II. Giaver:

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Amdrup, G. "Beretning o [: ] Kystekspeditionen langs Groønlands OØstkyst
1900," Medd.Grønland vol.27, pp.185-271, 1902.

2. Jensen, Ad.S. "The fauna [: ] of Greenland, " Commission for the Direction
of the Geological and Geographical Investigations in Greenland.
Greenland . Copenhagen, Reitzel; London, Mi i l ford, 1928, vol.1,
pp.319-55.

3. Koldewey, K.C. Die Zweite Deutsche Nordpolarfahrt in den Jahren 1869
und 1870 unter Führung dee Kapt. Karl Koldewey.
Herausgegeben
von dem Verein für die Deutsche Nordpolarfahrt in Bremen.
Leipzig, Brockhaus, 1873-74. 2 vol.

4. Natherst, A.G. Två Somrar i Norra Ishaivet . Sto c kholm, Beijer, 1900,
vol.2.

John Giaver
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