Andrei Boltunov: We still don’t know enough about the polar bear

Andrei Boltunov: We still don’t know enough about the polar bear

10 June 2015

Interview with Andrei Boltunov, deputy chairman of the Marine Mammal Council


– How large is the polar bear population?


– Polar bear experts with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimate that there are about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in 19 subpopulation groups. I can’t provide the precise figure, because it is very difficult to calculate the number of these predators in the wild. Many subpopulations have not been studied sufficiently.


We also know very little about their seasonal distribution. We don’t know where the polar bears' birth lairs are located in the bulk of their habitat in Russia, excluding the Chukotka coast, Wrangel Island and Franz Josef Land. We don’t know enough about their population, the gender and age structure or the survival rate for different age groups, but especially cubs, in different parts of their habitat.


Polar bears are a recognised natural indicator of the wellbeing of the marine ecosystems of the Arctic. This is very important now that the development of the offshore hydrocarbon deposits in the Arctic is gaining momentum. The polar bear is one of the endangered animals listed in the Russian Red Data Book, which means that economic activity must not damage the animal or its habitat.


Another goal is to prevent conflicts between humans and bears.


– Why have you decided to study the polar bear?


– It is a very charismatic animal. The most interesting factor for me is that the polar bear evolved from the same land-based ancestor as the brown bear. But it split from the brown bear when it started hunting its favourite prey, the ringed seal, in the Arctic. And gradually it became what it is now – the undeniable symbol of the Arctic.


The polar bear is a fairly young lineage in evolutionary time, but it has developed traits that distinguish it from the land-based sister species, and even has a physiology that is now closer to sea mammals.