Melting ice drives bears toward humans

Melting ice drives bears toward humans

8 October 2012

The melting ice in Chukotka and resultant lack of food for polar bears have provoked a conflict between the animals and humans, say Russian members of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN/SSC).


Last week, two polar bears, which are listed in the Russian Red Data Book, were shot dead in the Chaun District of Chukotka. On 24 September, a policeman killed a polar bear which had attacked an intoxicated local woman who was trying to feed the animal in the coastal village of Yanranay. Five days later, a policeman shot and killed another bear near the Valkarkay polar station, 50 kilometres from Yanranay.


“Bears come ashore not because there are too many of them, but because the ice is melting. The fact the bears are coming ashore is a sign that they are in trouble. There is an abundance of evidence showing that the Chukotka polar bears are already an endangered species, and if this trend continues they face extinction at the hands of man,” said Nikita Ovsyanikov, deputy director of the Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.


According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), the area of sea ice in the Arctic reached the annual minimum of 3.41 million square kilometres on 16 September. This is the lowest figure since satellite monitoring of the Arctic began in 1979.


The appearance of polar bears in local villages was to be expected, said Andrei Boltunov, a leading researcher at the All-Russian Research Institute for Nature Protection at the Ministry of Natural Resources. “In early September, Polar Bear Patrol Programme observers reported that a sustained and strong northern wind was driving broken ice floes with polar bears towards the shore. We knew then that the situation was getting worse. As expected, the ice soon melted and the polar bears came ashore. The hungry animals wandered around villages and places where locals catch sea mammals in search of food. Unfortunately, we have not created an effective system for preventing conflicts with polar bears along the Arctic coast. What happened in the village of Yanranay and at the Valkarkay station showed that shooting bears is still the only method of resolving conflicts,” Boltunov said.


Stanislav Belikov, head of the laboratory for the conservation of marine and coastal ecosystems at the Research Institute for Nature Protection, believes that the situation is critical. “It should be emphasised that the appearance of polar bears near populated areas does not mean that their numbers are increasing,” he said. “On the contrary, it means that the bears find themselves in a precarious situation.”


Police officers should prevent contacts between people and polar bears, such as people attempting to feed them or photograph them, and also stop drunks from approaching them, the scientists say.


“There are lots of methods of driving polar bears away used around the world, including rubber bullets, sirens, bear pepper spray and specially trained dogs. Polar stations and other standalone facilities must be surrounded by special mesh fences,” said Viktor Nikiforov, head of WWF Russia’s Polar Bear Patrol project. People must understand that the Arctic coast is the habitat of the polar bear. Until efforts are taken to prevent conflicts between people and polar bears, they will both continue dying.


Not only bears but people too should be taught to avoid confrontation, scientists say. “Human behaviour that provokes conflicts should be considered a threat to human life and a provocation to shoot a protected animal. This kind of behaviour should be punished administratively, that is by fines,” Nikita Ovsyanikov said. “This is the only way to encourage people to frighten the bears away rather than kill them as soon as they approach their villages.”


The polar bear is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and in the Russian Red Data Book. There are between 5,000 and 6,000 polar bears in the Russian Arctic areas (precise data is not available) and about 21,000 in the subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere as a whole.