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    Ovibos in Northeast Greenland

    Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General

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    EA- G g eneral

    (John Giaver)


            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

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    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).

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    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


            Occasional epidemics may have caused periodical fluctuations of the ovibos

    population. In connection with this, their strange survival in the latter

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    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,

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    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

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

    EA-II. Giaver:


    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,


    3. Koldewey, K.C. Die Zweite Deutsche Nordpolarfahrt in den Jahren 1869

    und 1870 unter Führung dee Kapt. Karl Koldewey.

    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,



    John Giaver

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