Arctic Volunteers: Heroes of our time

Arctic Volunteers: Heroes of our time

8 October 2019

The first environmental volunteer team landed in the “polar bear kingdom” in 2012. Harsh conditions and bad weather could not scare them. Since then, these people have spent their summer holidays collecting rubbish in the most severe region of our country, instead of travelling south. Yevgeny Rozhkovsky, chairman of the Green Arctic interregional eco-sociological public organisation, shares how it all began and how the kings of the Arctic treat volunteers.

How did you get the idea to clean up the Arctic?

The participating countries in a 2012 Arctic summit specifically highlighted the environmental situation in the Arctic and decided that the northern region needed a cleanup.


Because we humans are part of nature, it was obvious that we were to join the process.


The first team went to Bely Island. The volunteers explored the place and studied its specifics, because apart from the cleanup work, the group had to be provided with food, housing, and acceptable working conditions in such a distant area.


In the first two years, more than 400 tonnes of scrap metal were removed from the island and recycled; another 800 tonnes are now ready for shipping.


Since 2014, this environmental mission has been part of the Arctic Volunteers project. The Green Arctic group still operates on this track.


The next project was Vilkitsky Island; the work there began in 2016.


About 200 volunteers from 19 countries took part in the environmental cleanup.


Why manual labour?

It is a swampy area where it is very difficult to operate any equipment because machinery gets stuck. This is one reason.


The second reason is we want to clean up the island, not harm it, so it was decided to do without machinery. During the summer, volunteers collected all the rubbish on wooden pallets. In May, special equipment was used to drag the loaded pallets to the shore where they were packed in large shipping containers.


How did you manage to sign people up for such hard work?

In 2013, when the general recruitment for volunteers was announced, we had about seven people apply per one vacancy. They were to work in three shifts, 20 people each. There were so many peoples – everyone wanted to go there. There is some romanticism to it, an adventure.


The volunteers who have been there are real heroes of our time. We might not realise this at the moment, but I am sure they are. Dragging huge barrels by hand, enduring all weather extremes – strong winds and low temperatures, living in absolutely uncomfortable conditions... At first, we had to zip up in sleeping bags, there was no furnace or bathhouse.


But all these people chose working in the Arctic over going on holiday to a warm seaside.


We had so many interesting experiences. A man of about 50 contacted us and said he had participated in the development of this island in his youth. He said he felt very guilty of what happened to this land, because the goals and objectives had been very different then. He wanted to go so much, we just could not refuse.


Many want to go for personal reasons.


Have you encountered any polar bears?

Sure. Smells lure them. When we worked on Bely Island, we once counted around 13 bears.


They stay nearby almost all the time. Once these predators came to our camp, attracted by smells. But we always manage to cope with such situations.


We certainly train volunteers, and each team is accompanied by two Emergencies Ministry rescuers who look after us and instruct us. We always bring along a hand flare and objects that make loud sounds. We never walk alone or venture out during fog or poor visibility – everyone should stay in sight.


We comply with all safety regulations, so nothing bad has ever happened.


There was another good thing we did. Polar bears were frequently poached here before. In 2015, we found a freshly skinned bear. We gave the skin to the police and complained to the prosecutor's office. After some time, the poacher was found and punished.


Now they know that we are there, and do not venture out.


Which event was the most memorable during the expedition?

In 2013, we saved a bear cub. It was very warm, even too warm (24˚C), and the ice melted earlier than usual. A lot of bears remained on the island, mostly pregnant females, or mothers with cubs.


We saw one female with a little cub nearby. After some time, they disappeared. Later we saw the cub alone. It stayed with us for about a day. We didn’t realise what happened at first, but then the volunteers became alarmed: something was definitely wrong. The baby bear (it was the size of a dog) simply could not be left alone.


We approached it and saw that it was injured. It became clear that the family had been attacked by poachers. We did not find the remains of the mother.


The bullet missed the little bear’s heart, hitting its shoulder instead. Fortunately, the bullet came out around its elbow, without damaging anything.


Since we got involved, we had to follow through. There were two options: either the cub would be eaten by adult males (there were a lot of hungry ones around), or it had to be sent to a nursery. We called the mainland and explained the situation. A place for the cub was found in the Perm Zoo.


The bear was named Seriku – a diminutive of the name of the island. The Nenets people call it the Island of the White Old Man (Ser Iri Ngo).


The little bear was very weak. The volunteers cleared a site for the vets to fly in. We started to feed it. I also gave it antibiotics for a few days, diluted with condensed milk and some water.


At first we gave the cub fish. Then a seal got caught in a fishing net and died; we carried it to shore. We cut it and fed it to the little bear, who ate it and started growling, showing its wild temper.


Then the vets came. They put the cub to sleep for the journey and transported it via Salekhard to Perm.


We followed up on it for a few years. Recently I received news that Seriku is alive and well, and even has offspring. Now it is a huge bear.