My first personal meeting with muskoxen (Оvibos moschatus, in Latin “musky sheep-ox”) happened in Alaska in one of the Wildlife Conservation Centres there. That time I was surprised how different muskoxen look from other Arctic animals: having such a massive ugly body they have very short legs but with very strong hooves. There was quite a big herd of these animals, bigger in number than other wild species in this park. In some places, there was a sign – DANGER MUSKOX, reminding the visitors that they must not touch them like domestic pets. Later I learned that muskoxen are occasionally semi-domesticated by humans for wool. The wool is highly prized for its insulation value.
The muskox in Inuktitut: ᐅᒥᖕᒪᒃ, umingmak; and its Wood Cree name is : ᒫᖨᒨᐢ, mâthi-môs, ᒫᖨᒧᐢᑐᐢ, mâthi-mostos), or “mâthi-môs” and “mâthi-mostos” which can be translated as “ugly moose” and “ugly bison”. In Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre there is a big herd of muskoxen. In a huge enclosure there are special places where muskoxen can scratch their bodies during shedding. Since it is spring-time some animals were quite busy with this work, leaving shreds of wool on snags and special brushes prepared for them by the park workers. I should admit that this time of the year they do not look really good.
After I returned from the national park the next day, there was a stand in the lobby of the hotel in Anchorage, where the 2023 North American Caribou Workshop and Arctic Ungulate conference was being held. On a table there were various brooches with different images of local muskoxen. In a beautiful vase, decorated with red glass, there was some wool. I came closer and saw the inscription that this is a musk ox wool and it is especially appreciated by local indigenous peoples of Alaska. They spin threads from it and knit things for themselves and the shop. The musk ox wool has special thermal insulation properties and is considered the most expensive in the world. I looked at the price of one hat and was a little taken aback by the number of zeros there. Well, I thought, there is the address of another store where you can buy it, I’ll see what is there.
I have heard about muskoxen before, since in Yamal there is also the Gorno-Khadytinsky preservation centre in the Polar-Ural Mountains, where 26 years ago in 1997 the re-introduction of musk oxen project began in the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug. In 2020 there were 110 animals. The goal of the project was to make the national wildlife part of the tourist attraction. However, not all wildlife, such as yaks, bison and wild reindeer (caribou) managed to survive there, but only muskoxen. They were introduced by officials as a positive factor influence on the natural local environment, increasing the productivity of pastures, turning the tundra-marsh landscape into a tundra-steppe one, and even returning the soils and plant communities to a state characteristic of the Polar Urals in Paleolithic times. I’ve never seen them in Siberia and in local indigenous languages of Yamal there is no special name for them.
The musk ox wool store was very close to my hotel in the city centre. A small wooden building. I went inside this shop. My very first impression was that there are working people who are very careful about their traditional culture and preserve its values. There were beautifully knitted hats, scarves and vests. In the counter of the shop there were three types of musk ox wool yarn: surprisingly light and soft. There was wool for spinning if you want to make the threads at home. I looked at the prices again and decided that if we also have musk oxen in Yamal, maybe next time I will ask for some wool there :). We talked to the store employees, I introduced myself and said where I came from. I was told that the prices in the store are high because they include payment for the work of local indigenous craftswomen. This is their main income and when compared with local prices of food which is quite expensive in Alaska, this is very little money.
I asked saleswomen how they harvested wool. It turned out that there are three ways to get musk ox wool. However, it is dangerous to collect wool yourself, as the animals are very aggressive and the price of collecting wool can be your life. Yes, it is a fact that muskoxen are quite aggressive animals, I heard this also from local reindeer herders in Yamal. They do not afraid of anyone, can safely approach humans’ dwellings in the tundra and even attack people. People are not allowed to hunt them and many local people do not have any idea why muskoxen were introduced to the Polar Ural tundra. Since I have never heard anything before about the musk ox wool and the possibility to make things from it, therefore, I think, this information can be useful to local people about what they can do with their herd of muskoxen in the Polar Urals.
Unlike reindeer, muskoxen live in one place, settled, and migrate very little, but feed on the same food and lichen as the reindeer. And just like reindeer, in recent years, they also suffer from icing events on Arctic tundra, because despite their formidable appearance, their short legs do not allow them to go far from their homes, where they can get forage. At the same time, they live under the protection of gamekeepers and maybe in the national park they get more attention and help from people who control them.