Ivan Mizin: The polar bear conservation strategy until 2020

Ivan Mizin: The polar bear conservation strategy until 2020

5 August 2019

What new knowledge has been gained in polar bear research? Why are experts so interested in this animal? What interesting facts are there about research expeditions? These and other questions are addressed by Ivan Mizin, deputy director for research at Russian Arctic National Park.

How often is the polar bear studied in its natural habitat?


Research is conducted regularly. We work in the national park all year, but regarding deeper research, an expedition took place in April 2019.


Researchers continue to explore the Franz Josef Land archipelago, the key habitat of polar bears. The mammals have good conditions for raising their offspring there.


Every year we have to monitor the ice situation, as well as the manmade impact on the polar bears, and the condition of the coastline. We also study the entire area to see when polar bears leave their dens, and we also monitor the animals’ movements, the times they move with their cubs and their habitat in general.


We’ve found that the polar bear habitat is currently stable, there have been no significant changes in den location; everything is fine and the bears seem healthy and happy.


It is also noteworthy that this year, we managed to see a polar bear right on the North Pole; this is the first time in the history of our national park.


You often have to work in harsh climate conditions. Does this affect your work?


Yes, of course.  


The weather here changes a lot. Fog, rain, snow and storms limit the usable time we have on the search for new information and to collect samples in the field. It would be great if we had 365 days of calm, sunny weather, but in reality we only have about 65 usable days a year.


Such extreme weather also has a negative impact on human health, which also must be considered.


Are there conflicts between bears and people?


Fortunately, encounters with animals usually occur without direct contact, I mean from tourist groups. People watch the bears from aboard a ship, while keeping a safe distance.


There can be unexpected encounters when a group of experts or tourists walk on unprotected areas where there are no fences or other preventive obstacles.


In the Arctic in general, every year there are cases, if not of direct attack, but of conflicts with predators, that interfere with the everyday life of people. Conflicts happen pretty often, but there have been no attacks in the past few years. There used to be, including in Russian Arctic.


What does one need to know when encountering a polar bear?


The only rule is to be alert, and the most important thing is to see the animal as soon as possible.


An encounter with a predator does not mean an attack. You should quickly plan your behaviour near the animal. If the bear is close to you, you shouldn’t run because it will provoke it. You need to back away slowly and keep calm. If the bear charges, the experts use rubber bullets or scare cartridges.


A group of state inspectors from the national park always escort tourists when they get off a ship. Each inspector has firearms as a last resort. It is important to keep a distance and not walk away from the group; you don’t want to find yourself alone.


What dangers do researchers face when they fit a polar bear with a GPS collar?


There is nothing dangerous here: the animals are fast asleep. Also, they are put to sleep from helicopters or other transport.


There are many precautionary measures and regulations that are important both for the bears and for people. Everything is done according to these measures. They were developed a long time ago, so we have a lot of experience in dealing with wild animals. These precautions help us avoid incidents.


How does the polar bear differ from other inhabitants of the Arctic?


The polar bear is an apex predator; judging by its behaviour and movements we can understand what is going on in the Arctic and the adjacent areas.


The polar bear is at the top of the food chain and thus is indicative of the condition of the Arctic ecosystem. When we track the movements of a polar bear, we also see the movement of fish, invertebrates, seals and other prey of the king of the Arctic. While studying the predator and watching its behaviour, we can see how and how fast the weather is changing and the ice is melting.


In fact, the polar bear is one of the most fascinating animals. They are large, fluffy and curious, and they are always interesting to people.


What are the research plans for the near future?


There is a polar bear conservation strategy until 2020, it was adopted in 2010.


Our programme is based on this strategy, which outlines what areas we should pay attention to, what methods we should use and what goals we need to achieve.


The most important objective is to expand our spring work to count polar bear dens from one area on Franz Josef Land to two or three and also move on to Novaya Zemlya.


How can a non-expert help polar bears?


First of all, you need to filter the information on the internet: not everything that is written about the polar bear is true.


The media needs to provide correct information about polar bears.


We also have a fund to support the preservation of the polar bear (and other animals), so anyone interested can help us improve research, protection and create polar bear patrols.


Why did you choose to research polar bears?


There were no special events that pushed me to study polar bears; it’s just part of my professional activity. I used to switch between animal species, but you can’t avoid this bear if you work in the Arctic. This is the species you see most often. It is an active predator that is constantly on the move covering large distances.


Also, the polar bear is the symbol of the Arctic. It is also called a flagship species here.


My goal is to record all my encounters with polar bears; I need to observe them, understand what they are doing here and where they will go next, all their behaviour.


What has been your most successful project in polar bear research?


We consider our main success to be that we managed to establish a system of constant monitoring in the spring. This is the most important time in the life of a polar bear because it’s when they reproduce and leave their dens.


We were the first to create a system like this; systems like this haven’t been successful in the Barents region. Now we can share new and fascinating information about polar bears.


By Sofia Lovtsova