Declining sea ice and human garbage have set the stage for a huge influx of polar bears on the Russian Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. This week a state of emergency was declared in the village of Belushya Guba because of more than 50 bears who overran the landfill and even entered homes and buildings in search of food.
Such a massive gathering of polar bears is unique to the area and illustrates a larger trend across parts of the Arctic: encounters between people and polar bears are on the rise. As sea ice declines due to climate change, polar bears are increasingly forced ashore in search of food. Settlements with easily accessible garbage are an attractive destination: bears are highly drawn to the smell of food waste.
Polar bears pose a huge safety risk for people living in the Arctic and conflict can lead to property damage, injuries and loss of life for both people and bears. Since 1996, WWF has responded with a variety of locally-led initiatives to help reduce conflict between people and polar bears.
Mikhail Stishov, Arctic biodiversity projects coordinator for WWF Russia, says:
“The first step is to clean up the landfill. In the future, a polar bear patrol should be established in the village. These patrols, trained and equipped by WWF, are successfully preventing conflict in Chukotka and in the Nenets Autonomous District. Their main task is to be on alert when a bear approaches and to drive it away. Eventually, the village will need fences and barriers, video monitoring and alarm warning systems."
Melanie Lancaster, Senior Specialist, Arctic species with the WWF Arctic Programme, says:
"We know that declining sea ice will result in more encounters between people living in the Arctic and polar bears, but even so, this event on Novaya Zemlya is quite astounding. WWF is working across the Arctic to help communities manage this huge safety risk, but as a global community we must take action that will reduce the effects of climate change. Sea ice is essential habitat for polar bears, and with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, their habitat will continue to be lost unless we act now."
- In Russia, Canada, the United States and Greenland, WWF-supports polar bear patrols that deter bears before they get into populated areas.
- To help keep people safe, WWF is providing steel food storage containers and electric fencing around dumps in some Arctic communities.
- The first WWF-supported polar bear patrol was established in Chukotka, Russia, in 1996.