Irina Menyushina: Polar bear species faces extinction

Irina Menyushina: Polar bear species faces extinction

5 February 2016

As Arctic exploration gains pace, encounters between humans and polar bears become more and more frequent. Unfortunately, most cases have a sad outcome. Often, bears are provoked by people. The workers employed by companies for Arctic ventures aren’t properly instructed on how to behave if they see a bear and are virtually unprepared for such incidents.


Irina Menyushina(DSc in Biology) discusses conflicts between humans and the “king of the Arctic”, how to avoid them and how to protect polar bears from extinction.


The incident on Wrangel Island, where a female polar bear was injured by a firecracker, in my opinion, stems from and is a telling symptom of the absence of a clear-cut and effective polar bear protection system in the Russian Arctic. It was not just unprecedented but also deliberate cruelty, as one can see in the video. The bear would have never snatched an activated firecracker unless the animal had been fed by humans before or the lethal bait had been masked to look tasty. The comments heard in the background of the video are explicit. In August, one more video of polar bears being fed by humans on Wrangel Island was spread in Chukotka. Why did this shameful practice continue for such a long time in the world-famous nature reserve known as “polar bear island”?


In fact, polar bear feeding is not uncommon in the Russian Arctic. There have been many such incidents, but most of them are hidden from the public eye. As a result, in 90 or perhaps even 100 percent of cases the scenario is always the same: people provoke polar bears by intentionally leaving food out or throwing away food waste that attracts the hungry beasts. And then, when a bear threatens their safety, they find the easiest way out – shoot the bear.


Despite being protected by law, polar bears in the Russian Arctic fall victim to human irresponsibility. The main problem is that all these bear-human conflicts were provoked by man. I am a zoologist and have been working in the Arctic all my life. I spent more than 30 years on Wrangel Island. I survived hundreds of polar bear encounters, and I know from my personal experience that conflicts with polar bears, even in situations where these encounters may occur fairly often, can be easily avoided if humans stick to the polar bear safety rules, which we successfully applied on Wrangel Island for years and which include measures to avoid human-bear conflicts.    


On Wrangel, you may run into a polar bear anywhere at any time. Here is a comparison made by Nikita Ovsyannikov (a polar bear expert with a DSc in Biology), which I like: once you get behind the wheel, you immediately find yourself in a risk zone; the same applies to people coming to the Arctic. As a matter of fact, they intrude on the polar bear’s land. In both cases, safety rules must be strictly observed. 


What makes the shocking killing of the female polar bear especially cynical is that it occurred on Wrangel Island, of all places, in a nature reserve where local security inspectors can and must instruct people who come on the island to work. The fact that at the world-famous Arctic nature reserve, the rules were neglected, uninstructed people were allowed in, security in the reserve was faltering and discipline at construction sites was loose is a systemic disease that requires urgent treatment.


Every bear-human conflict must be investigated, and the culprits must not escape punishment.


The Arctic is an extreme environment, but polar bears are very cautious predators. Their life depends on their ability to hunt, and that’s why it is so vital for them to be physically strong. A wounded or maimed bear is unable to hunt and therefore has no chance to survive. Polar bears are very clever and social animals. The problem is that people often misinterpret their behaviour. For example, if a bear follows the tracks left by a group of people, the first explanation that comes to mind that he is stealthily hunting. In reality, this is not so. For every predator, it’s important to know and understand what is happening on his territory, who came and why. That’s why polar bears always follow the tracks of other bears and human tracks as well. This is normal behaviour: the animal is not hunting but inspecting his habitat and collecting information.


In our country, certain measures have been adopted to protect the species nearing extinction, including the polar bear in the Arctic. A one-million-rouble fine is a serious argument for poachers. Those measures have recently been tightened, which is important, but not enough. Polar bear feeding must be classified as an administrative offence punished by a sizable fine. A system of effective practical measures is needed to ensure law abidance and implement the state concept for the protection of rare and near-extinct large predators. Companies must be obliged by law to properly train their staff for areas where encounters with large predators are possible. For the Arctic it must be mandatory everywhere and for all. This goal can be achieved, and we must work towards it.


In addition, companies operating in the Arctic must be properly licensed, and a system of penalties for safety violations and for provoking conflicts with polar bears must also be put in place. To obtain a licence, a company must instruct and train its staff, including on personal safety during encounters with polar bears and on keeping the bear safe in order to minimise the risk of human-bear conflicts. The staff must be equipped with and be able to handle non-lethal means of scaring off polar bears.


Of course, the situation cannot change overnight. This is a long and painstaking process. But we must labour, and then the system will work.


As regards the polar bear population, here is what I’d like to note. Over the past 15 years, the official estimates of the polar bear population in the world have been almost unchanged – 20,000-25,000 animals. But these estimates by so-called experts are doubtful as they go back to the 1980s. The Arctic has suffered drastic climatic and socio-economic changes since that time. Global warming has caused a decline in the population of even such fast-reproducing species as the polar fox and the snow owl. For comparison: a female bear can suckle a maximum of two cubs (from one to three; the latter happens rarely and under very favourable conditions) once every three to four years, while she has 15-16 reproductive years, and a polar fox litter may amount to 18 cubs, depending on the abundance of food.


So, we are balancing on the brink behind which the polar bear may irreversibly vanish. Unless we take systemic measures to enforce polar bear protection, we may pass the point of no return, beyond which the extinction of this species will be biologically unstoppable, in 10-15 years. It depends entirely on humans whether the polar bear will survive as a species.    

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