Year of the Environment: Stepping up action to save polar bears

Year of the Environment: Stepping up action to save polar bears

24 April 2017

How can we prevent the polar bear from becoming extinct? What are the dangers of developing the Arctic more actively? Can humans and predators coexist on one and the same territory? Leading polar bear experts Viktor Nikiforov and Nikita Ovsyanikov discuss these and other issues.


What do you think of the decision to declare 2017 the Year of the Environment in Russia?


Nikita Ovsyanikov: This is certainly a major event and a reason to once again raise public awareness of the need to save the polar bear. We need to focus on the critical and absolutely cynical situation with regard to polar bears.


As we know, many animal species have become extinct all over the world. First, they were directly exterminated by hunters; second, their habitats disappeared. Polar bears are now affected by both factors. We are facing a situation where this species needs special protection to survive the global warming process.


Rising temperatures are not the main problem facing polar bears during global warming. Dwindling sea ice deprives polar bears of their habitat.


At the same time, this predator continues to be hunted in the Western Hemisphere. All this can reduce its population to critical levels from which it would be impossible to recover.


Russia has the most progressive polar bear protection concept. We provide legislative protection to these animals. But this protection needs to be enforced because it would otherwise prove ineffective. Our own experience and national experience show that the situation improves considerably in those regions where executive agencies work hard and pay attention to this issue. My colleagues have told me that the governor of the Nenets Autonomous Area is seriously concerned about this aspect, local police are up to the mark, and the fight against poaching is quite effective. At the same time, authorities in the Chukotka Autonomous Area are posting negative results.


Canada, the United States and Greenland, which allow polar bear hunting, say it is important for the indigenous population, and that it is their traditional subsistence. Therefore polar bear hunting quotas are set each year. Alaskan authorities have been trying to introduce these quotas for a long time but have so far failed, and polar bears are being hunted there without any quotas. But any discussions of hunting quotas have become irrelevant in the 21st century. First, Canadian aborigines  sell these quotas to trophy hunters on a commercial basis and use the proceeds obtained from these hunters, which no longer amounts to “traditional subsistence.” Native hunters are being used as an integrated tool of the trophy-hunting business. What does this have to do with preserving their “traditional cultural and spiritual values” when they simply sell these values? Second, if industrial countries continue to claim that their native population needs to hunt polar bears for “traditional subsistence,” this virtually portrays indigenous Arctic residents as people living in reservations and stuck in the past. The world has changed, the entire human race has a different technological standard of life in the 21st century, and it also exerts a different influence on wildlife. The indigenous Arctic population includes modern individuals who share technological achievements, environmental issues and responsibility for preserving the planet’s animal species with all other people.


Viktor Nikiforov: The Year of the Environment is an excellent chance for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and other government agencies to convert their correct calls to save polar bears into real, practical actions. For example, banning the import of polar bear skins to Russia is a very good initiative.


Today, we need to support Interior Ministry divisions in their fight against polar bear poaching. Unfortunately, we are still unable to rectify the situation regarding polar bear skin sales. Sometimes, the Russian segment of the online market sells up to 70 polar bear skins annually.


We will prove unable to save polar bears in the Russian Arctic unless we fight poaching effectively.


What is happening to the polar bear population?


Viktor Nikiforov: The global polar bear population is believed to total 26,000, including 5,000-7,000 bears in the Russian Arctic, but there is no exact figure.


Experts say this predator is worst affected by global climate change. Plus, over a thousand polar bears are killed every year.


We can hardly influence polar bear hunting in Canada, Greenland or Alaska; it is an international problem. But in Russia, we have every right and ability to stop this from happening.


Experts and officials have cited different statistics on polar bear poaching in Russia, with some of their figures reaching 200 bears a year. I have studied court proceedings against poachers and discovered that in the period between 2000 and 2016, only eight criminal cases ever made it to court, and none of them had a real prison term as a verdict. Poachers were amnestied, received suspended sentences or were fined – in other words, courts were lenient in their decisions.


It is next to impossible to take a poacher red-handed in the Arctic. Nor has there been any punishment for transporting, storing and selling polar bear skins. There were cases where a poacher posted a polar bear skin and was apprehended receiving the delivered parcel in another town; eventually he was fined a mere 1,500 roubles. In 2013, a law came into force in Russia, which made it a serious offence to transport, store and sell skins of endangered species such as tigers, Far Eastern leopards or polar bears. An organised group committing this crime can face up to five-seven years in jail.


We have already mentioned the positive example of the Nenets Autonomous Area, where the efforts of Governor Igor Koshin and the professional work of police officers have brought several poachers to court.


On the negative side, we all remember the horrifying incident on Wrangel Island where builders decided to blow up a female polar bear with a detonator. The video was posted on the internet and caused uproar. But investigators could not get to the remote island and pursue the case.


In the same place, local residents found a young female polar bear with two gunshot wounds in her stomach on 26 December 2014 on the outskirts of the village of Ryrkaipiy. Photos taken at the scene prove this did take place. Witnesses informed the police and the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources.


However, neither the federal watchdog nor the police inspected the body of the animal properly and thereby virtually thwarted the investigation. In response to our request to launch criminal proceedings, the Chukotka Autonomous Area police said the bear had died from wounds inflicted by another animal. We contacted the Chukotka Prosecutor’s Office, citing the gunshot wounds on the animal’s body. A year has passed, and there is still no response. The villagers received a phone call from the Prosecutor’s Office with an order to burn the body of the killed bear. And this is only one example of the “fight” against poaching by local authorities.


Nikita Ovsyanikov: We have first-hand evidence from people. In 2002, young people travelling across the Arctic on homemade cross-country vehicles came to our nature reserve office in Pevek. They said they had seen villagers selling polar bear skins all along the northern Chukotka coast in the belief that they were now allowed to hunt polar bears.


The surge of poaching in Chukotka resulted from an illegal campaign to persuade the indigenous population of their exclusive hunting rights. This campaign of lobbying for polar bear hunting legalisation is still going on today.


But our ethnic village residents are normal people, and the majority of them do not want to hunt the polar bear. They do not need it. This campaign is nothing but an attempt to play the ethnic card in order to throw the social situation off balance. But I believe this incitement should be both refuted by the public and the executive authorities and should fail to find any support whatsoever.


Is it possible to know the exact number of polar bears?


Nikita Ovsyanikov: It is absolutely impossible to count them in the Arctic. Even setting a goal to count the population would be absurd.


As a rule, researchers count the animals in the areas that are most densely populated. The research data is then extended to other areas. This is not the way to do it.


To understand the situation, it is important to monitor processes within populations. It doesn’t matter how many polar bears, two thousand or two and a half. The population may suddenly crash, if the demographic situation is unfavourable. It is important to know the population trends, which is possible by monitoring demographic processes. And we have the necessary conditions for this kind of research.


The Arctic is developing rapidly. Many companies are present there. How can they avoid conflicts? What should be done to reduce the human impact on polar bears?


Viktor Nikiforov: This is a very topical issue. Large industrial companies have come to the Arctic. More and more people come the North, who have never dealt with polar bears before and know nothing about their biology and behaviour. But this is not a polar bear’s problem. This is a human problem. The animal has lived there for thousands of years. Those who came to its territory must be ready to encounter one and know how to behave. These companies must invest in training their staff and developing measures to minimise the conflict between polar bears and humans in order to keep both humans and this strictly protected rare species in good health.


Nikita Ovsyanikov: First of all, what is happening now across the area, I mean feeding polar bears (there are plenty of photos and videos online) and sending people to work in the Arctic without proper training, puts the people in the Arctic in danger. It has become very popular to feed the bears and pose for photos with them. It is typical that, when a bear approaches a settlement or a ship, people start feeding it. There must be a serious administrative punishment for this kind of “entertainment” as it creates a threat to human lives. The bear got food out of people’s hands. Now it knows that humans are sources of food. It will see people again and run after them to get more.


Secondly, this is a direct provocation to shoot a rare species protected by Russian law. Should there be a conflict, people will demand that the bears be shot. And the competent agency will allow this to avoid liability.


This situation can be resolved quite easily if there is administrative will and discipline. Managers can and must ensure it is resolved.


Viktor Nikiforov: As concerns instructions, I maintain good contacts with the staff of polar weather stations. From time to time, they receive instructions on what to do in case of an encounter with a polar bear. The instructions come in as orders from the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, which delineate specific steps. These instructions have some reasonable points, but when it comes to the most important thing, an encounter with a polar bear, it is horrible. Those are truly provocative steps that can just provoke people to kill bears and result in a tragedy. And that is written in official documents that the employees must follow.


Nikita Ovsyanikov: Incompetent recommendations on how to act when dealing with polar bears can lead to tragic consequences. They are inevitable if somebody follows those instructions. A recent example is recommendations approved last January by the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring that advise people to “lie down on the ground” if a polar bear attacks. That official document is an incompetent compilation which, in addition to some useless measures, includes absolutely irresponsible and dangerous advice.


It does not include the steps that could in fact prevent conflicts with polar bears and cut short its aggression by non-lethal means if the conflict cannot be avoided. When it comes to security, we need rules rather than recommendations. You can draw an analogy with driving. When you are driving a car, you follow certain rules. Nobody “recommends” that you  step on the brakes when you see a red light. In fact, you must do it. The same goes for the Arctic. The conclusion is simple: the rules must be developed by experts.


The only technology based on long-term research on the polar bear’s behaviour during its encounter with humans is the technology I am teaching right now. I believe this approach, that is, developing a safety technology to be applied in a large predator’s territory, is required with all predators.


In your opinion, what are the best ways to study polar bears? 


Nikita Ovsyanikov: The best way is to use methods that provide objective information. As I’ve said, we want to learn how the animal lives in a natural environment. For this reason, we want to have as little influence as possible. This requirement is based not only on ethical, but also methodological imperatives whereby research on how an animal lives should be carried out without affecting it.


First, when we need samples of, say, genetic material, methods are now available to obtain them without chasing the animal, immobilising it or subjecting it to any kind of violence.


Second, basic research on the population, long-term observation of processes within a population, is also a must. It is only by observing a process unfold that we can understand the mechanisms and factors behind it.


Here in Russia there are still places where this kind of research can be conducted. For example, it can take place in Franz Josef Land. In order to carry out actual field studies, you have to live in the field and put up with some discomfort and deprivation. Science requires sacrifice, but the sacrifice should come from researchers, not animals.


Viktor Nikiforov: I would like to add that wild animals should not notice that researchers are studying them. This is a fundamental principle. Science has been advancing, and state-of-the-art camera traps are available. Researchers have learned to obtain genetic samples from a bear’s paw print. Huge troves of data can be obtained about an animal without causing any suffering, since the use of heavy machinery is always stressful for bears, and also costs a lot of money.