The Chukchi based their economies on reindeer husbandry in the interior of the region and marine mammal hunting on the coast. There are nearly 16000 Chukchi, with the majority living in small rural villages. Their large herds, often several thousand animals, graze in the open tundra in the summer, and migrate between protected and more sheltered areas in the winter.
Traditionally marine mammal hunters and reindeer herders had close trading relationships – whale fat and seal skins for reindeer skins and meat.
The origin of the Chukchi reindeer husbandry is unclear, but it has been suggested that they adopted it from Eveny. Reindeer have come to provide many of their necessities: meat for food, and skins for clothing and tents called Yaranga which are covered by reindeer skin and built on props.
Chukchi practice both taiga and tundra reindeer husbandry. They differ in clothing, some practices and transportation usage. The tundra form continues the tradition of long migration routes and large herds. At one time, Chukotka was one of the world’s largest regions of reindeer husbandry, in terms of numbers. In the 1980’s there were over 500,000 reindeer. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a more precipitous decline in herd size than anywhere else in Russia. The number of reindeer fell to around 90,000 in 2001.
The number of people employed in reindeer husbandry fell from 2,272 in 1976 to 837 in 2001. Many collective farms were closed which had a severe effect on the rural villages. Many reindeer herders were forced to abandon reindeer husbandry. Since then, substantial progress has been made in regenerating Chukchi reindeer husbandry, thanks to the benevolence of Governor Roman Abramovich.
Herd sizes are increasing, there has been investment in modern slaughter houses and housing stock and there are now approximately 3000 people engaged in reindeer husbandry including family members.
The development of private ownership has been slow – in 2008, 92 per cent of reindeer husbandry in Chukotka is under either public ownership or sovkhozy ownership.