Millions of years of evolution have prepared Arctic species, including polar bears and walrus, for life on sea ice. As the sea ice they depend upon disappears, polar bears have become a more common sight in Arctic communities, bringing them into greater conflict with people.
In the coastal village of Ryrkaipiy in Chukotka, Russia, wildlife dominates, and polar bears are the landlords not people.
Every fall, the polar bear patrol, with the support of WWF Russia, works to protect the community of Ryrkaipiy. Tatyana Minenko has been leading the patrol team for more than ten years.
Tatyana first organized the patrol in 2006, when walrus began to gather near the village every fall, because of declining sea ice. Adult Pacific walrus use sea ice as a platform to rest on and leave their calves when they dive for food.
With sea ice retreating too far north and no longer over the feeding areas for walrus, they are forced to gather on shore. The area around Ryrkaipiy has turned into the westernmost rookery of Pacific walrus. Sometimes their numbers reach tens of thousands.
The walrus haulout, or rookery, takes place on a small peninsula called Cape Kozhevnikov (a hop and a skip from the village of Ryrkaipiy), known by the locals as a “bearish” place, because the walrus attract large numbers of polar bears.
The large walrus haulouts are extremely crowded and dangerous. A loud noise can cause panic and a stampede, leading to unfortunate deaths. The polar bears are attracted by walrus carcasses in Cape Kozhevnikov. It is important to move this polar bear buffet away from the village. To do this, Tatyana needs to secure equipment and trucks from local administration. This year, with help from WWF Russia, the patrol team got an ATV and a snowmobile.
Arctic sea ice reached its likely maximum extent for 2020 on March 5.
It is the eleventh lowest in the 42-year satellite record and the highest since 2013, reaching 15.05 million square kilometers (5.81 million square miles).
Tatyana Minenko and the polar bear patrol team
The polar bear patrol team, led by Tatyana, along with other villagers prepares for the walrus in advance of their arrival. The patrol team calls the fall their hot season. During the hot season, Tatyana inspects the peninsula almost every day, keeps a record of the walrus and bears and accompanies the rare tourist.
We informed people that we have a large rookery and asked everyone not to approach and do not drive up close to the rookery, not to frighten the animals and spread panic among walrus. And invited fellow villagers to sign up as volunteers to guard the rookery. To warn is, of course, good, but you still need constant monitoring. It is important for us to minimize the panic descent of animals into the water.
Polar bear safety training
Tatyana is also a star at the local school. Every year she meets with the school children and talks about polar bear safety. It is inevitable that every child in the village will eventually come face-to-face with a polar bear.
She teaches the students that it is better to walk as a group in the village. She also teaches them to examine their surroundings carefully.
Tatyana explains to them that when they meet a bear, under no circumstances should they run away as the polar bear will go into hunter mode. It is better to slowly retreat and scare the bear off with a cry or even a roar. The training always ends with lots of noisy fun.
As climate change causes summer sea ice to dwindle in the Arctic, hungry polar bears increasingly come into conflict with local people.
WWF Russia’s Polar Bear Patrol helps local communities reduce conflicts between animals and people. Over a period of four days, more than 60 polar bears gathered at Cape Kozhevnikova in Chukotka close to the village Ryrkaypiy looking for food.