© Umky Patrol / WWF

Bringing the walruses back: How the Umky Patrol began

4 February 2010

Polar bear Russia Walrus Wildlife Communities Beaufort, Bering & Chukchi Seas

Since 1996, the native people of Cape Vankarem in Russia have been working to return walruses to the area. In 2006, WWF developed the Umky Patrol, or Polar Bear Patrol Project, working to preserve walrus haul-outs and protect people from the polar bears that are attracted to the haul-outs, so all can co-exist harmoniously. Here’s how it all began.

The story of the Umky Patrol, or Polar Bear Patrol, began in 1996 at Cape Vankarem on the arctic shores of Chukotka, Russia. It was a period of economic crisis in Chukotka and throughout Russia, and native people in the small village of Vankarem were simply trying to survive. There were no bullets and no motors. Hunters sat on the coast and watched the walruses and whales swimming by. And the hunters reminisced: “At one time walruses came ashore at Cape Vankarem, and our ancestors hunted them with spears.”

The economic crisis forced native people to think hard about how to return the walruses to Cape Vankarem. That year they decided to protect the cape. The hunters forbid local people to visit the cape during the walruses’ fall migration. They shot stray dogs in the area. And the protection worked – at the end of September 1996, the first walruses came to Cape Vankarem to rest. In October there were about 5000 walruses.

Use of firearms was banned at the walrus haul-out. Each hunter prepared a new spear, or found an old spear handed down from his father or grandfather. Everyone waited for the start of the spear hunt. And the hunt took place. Unlike firearms, spears allow people to hunt walrus without causing panic in the haul-out. The other walruses always stay on the cape.

The people of Vankarem consider 1996 the rebirth of the traditional walrus spear hunt. Since this time, every year the walrus now come to Cape Vankarem, less than one kilometre from the village of Vankarem. The resting walruses stretch along about one kilometre of the beach. Today their numbers reach up to 40,000.

But after a few years, the pride of Vankarem – the walrus haul-out – began to worry some local people. Each fall, a huge number of walruses congregated at the haul-out, and they were coming closer and closer to the village. The walruses arriving at the cape were very tired, and their skin had a white colour. This told the people that the walruses were having a difficult time making it through the stormy East Siberian and Chukchi seas. And this is related to climate change and the melting of the ice in the Arctic. In the past, the ice never withdrew from the arctic coast of Chukotka. In the past, the walruses could rest on the ice at any time during their migration to the Bering Strait.

When the haul-out was at its fullest, dozens of walruses were trampled. Mostly they were young animals. When the sea began to freeze in November and December, polar bears came to Cape Vankarem in search of food. Large groups of polar bears arrived, creating conflict situations with people. So after the walruses left the cape in the fall, hunters began to clear away dozens of walrus carcasses.

At the initiative of the people of Vankarem, in 2006 WWF developed the Polar Bear Patrol project. The Polar Bear Patrol works to ensure the safety of people living near polar bears, to preserve walrus haul-outs and other unique places, and to help local people participate in scientific projects on polar bears and other animals. In order to keep local people safe, Polar Bear Patrol members escort children to school and to daycare, patrol the village for bears, and keep people informed about the current situation.

Today additional Polar Bear Patrols have been created in other villages. Moreover, in 2006 the people of Vankarem voted to make the walrus haul-out at Cape Vankarem a natural monument, a decision which was approved by the government of Chukotka in August, 2007.