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© Juha Taskinen/WWF-Finland
Finland’s warm winter threatens next generation of Saimaa ringed seals

Finland’s exceptionally warm winter has brought very little ice and snow - critical components for the arrival of the next generation of endangered Saimaa ringed seal pups. Saimaa ringed seals give birth in late February or early March in lairs built into snowdrifts. The lairs offer the pups protection against predators and the cold. Without lairs to protect them, up to half of the pups may not survive.

The Saimaa ringed seal is one of the rarest seals in the world. The size of the population is estimated at a little over 400 individuals. Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the species.

In recent years, WWF helped build up snowbanks for the seals to dig their lairs. Parks and Wildlife Finland oversees the operation and many volunteers, including WWF, participate.

This video from 2017, shows WWF-Finland helping build snowbanks.

This January was the warmest in Finnish recorded history, and the situation is extremely alarming. The piling of snow into banks has helped during previous snow-scarce winters, but now there is extremely little snow and ice.

WWF expert Teemu Niinimäki

In past years, the man-made banks were an effective way of helping the seals. During winters with little snow, up to 90 per cent of seal pups are born in man-made snowbanks. This year, an exceptional lack of ice and snow made it difficult to build snowbanks for the seals.

In past years, the man-made banks were an effective way of helping the seals. During winters with little snow, up to 90 per cent of seal pups are born in man-made snowbanks. This year, an exceptional lack of ice and snow made it difficult to build snowbanks for the seals.

©Petteri Tolvanen/WWF-Finland
WWF-Finland could only build nine small snowbanks, far less than in recent years. Parks and Wildlife Finland is also having a hard time building snowbanks.

WWF-Finland could only build nine small snowbanks, far less than in recent years. Parks and Wildlife Finland is also having a hard time building snowbanks.

©Ismo Marttinen/WWF-Finland
“Now we can only hope that the banks we were able to build will save as many pups as possible,” says WWF volunteer Ismo Marttinen.

“Now we can only hope that the banks we were able to build will save as many pups as possible,” says WWF volunteer Ismo Marttinen.

©WWF-Finland
© Artificial lair C Mervi Kunnasranta UEF

Testing artificial lairs

Parks and Wildlife Finland, together with WWF-supported researchers from the University of Eastern Finland, are investigating if Saimaa ringed seals will accept man-made constructions as their lairs. In 2018, there was a breakthrough, when a female gave birth to a healthy pup in an artificial lair that floated on pontoons and was anchored to a lakebed.

This winter, twenty artificial lairs, made from different materials, were taken to Lake Saimaa.

The artificial lairs might help in the future, but by far the most important way to help the Saimaa ringed seal is to mitigate climate change.

© Mervi Kunnasranta/WWF-Finland
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