Hungry polar bears are on the march, and this town’s in their way
A bear in town is ‘par for the course’, but they've begun invading in larger numbers, thanks to global warming
Airport maintenance worker Ruslan Prikazchikov was coming to the end of a night shift last week when he glanced out the window and saw a polar bear walking down the taxiway, stopping every few metres to look around.
He wasn’t overly concerned. As a lifelong resident of Amderma, a former mining and military town perched on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, 1,900km northeast of Moscow, Prikazchikov has seen more than 100 polar bears first-hand.
He took a quick video on his phone, yelled out of the window so the bear would keep moving, and put the kettle on.
“It’s par for the course,” he said. “They were always here. They are the masters here, so we don’t conflict with them, and they don’t show aggression toward us.”
The “tsar of the Arctic” has always been part of life in Amderma.
It features in the folktales of indigenous Nenets reindeer herders, and old photographs show Soviet soldiers feeding condensed milk to polar bears well within reach of their razor-sharp 5cm claws.
Some residents even admitted to having poached the animals in the hungry 1990s, when a hide was said to fetch $10,000.
But as global warming melts the polar sea ice, these marine hunters are increasingly being forced onto land.
The risk is rising of conflict with humans, who are also arriving in greater numbers as Russia develops oil and gas deposits and expands its military capabilities in the Arctic.
In response, coastal towns have started to organise “polar bear patrols” to scare off intruders with flares and snowmobiles.
Almost every resident of Amderma has seen a polar bear, even the youngest.
Anastasia Popovich, now 15, was out with friends in May 2016 when she ran into a bear cub they initially mistook for a huge white dog.
“The white thing turned, and we understood that it wasn’t a dog,” she remembered. “We saw the cub turn toward us and we froze in horror.”
The girls tried to hide in a nearby abandoned building but couldn’t open the door, so they ran to the guard booth at a vehicle depot.
Her father, a member of the local polar bear patrol, had an even closer call when he came face to face with a bear coming out of his fishing hut in 2015. Luckily, the creature ran from his shouts.
“It was terrifying because it was such a surprise. I just yelled,” Yury Popovich said.
“If he didn’t like me he could have hit me or grabbed me.”
Eight polar bears have come into Amderma so far this year, compared with five throughout all of last year, according to Eduard Davletshin, head of the patrol.
“They used to go on ice to hunt seals,” he said. “Now there’s no ice, they have no choice. They go along the shore, and the town is in the way.”
Although it is the world’s largest land predator, the polar bear prefers to spend its time on sea ice, often swimming more than 160km to reach it. That is changing, however, with global warming.
In February, the restricted-access military town of Belushya Guba across the Kara Strait from Amderma declared a state of emergency after an “invasion” of 52 polar bears.
CCTV cameras caught one bear walking in the hallway of a young family’s flat.
“The emotions are indescribable – adrenaline, terror and the question what to do,” postal worker Nadezhda Kireyeva said at the time.
Experts blamed the invasion on an open rubbish dump where packs of bears were seen foraging.
The predators departed when sea ice finally formed off the coast in late February. But that can hardly be counted on for the future.
This year, Arctic sea ice hit a new record low for April, and a study predicted that the Arctic Ocean would become ice-free in the summer within the next 20 years.
In Amderma, the “fast ice” that is firmly attached to the coast has been forming later and not growing as thick, according to Nelli Shuvalova, a meteorologist who has been taking measurements since 1981.
This year, the maximum extent of the fast ice was 10km – some years it has stretched to the horizon 26km away – and its maximum thickness was 60cm.
“That’s really small,” Shuvalova said. “The ice is thin for bears.”“We have a catastrophic situation with the fast ice,” Ilya Mordvintsev, a polar bear expert, said while visiting Amderma last week.“When the ice comes south in the winter, so do the bears. When it recedes, the majority don’t make it back on to the ice.”These stragglers tend to head north along the coast in search of ice – which means towns like Amderma are now located on a polar bear highway.Amderma’s population has dwindled from 20,000 in the 1990s – when it was home to a fighter jet regiment – to just 300 today. But its town hall is hoping to attract back Russian troops, as well as scientists and tourists.Either way, those townspeople still here are mostly determined to stay, and 25 children attend the town school, which is located next to a windswept beach frequented by bears.
Whenever one comes into the town, the school calls parents to take their children home early.Other Arctic settlements are growing quickly. Belushya Guba, with a population of 2,000, is developing new military facilities, an airstrip and a port, and there are plans to mine lead and zinc nearby.Vladimir Putin cut the ribbon on the Sabetta gas plant on the northern coast in 2017. Moscow has also revamped several Arctic bases in recent years.All that increases the risk of human-bear run-ins, which can turn violent if the animal is ill or hungry – or is provoked by boorish behaviour.But while polar bears have killed people in the Arctic, they aren’t typically aggressive towards humans and can usually be scared off by loud noises and moving vehicles.Mordvintsev said creating bear patrols would help avoid conflict situations that could harm people or animals.Amderma hunters started their patrol in 2017 with flares, rubber bullets and flashbangs.
During their visit last week, World Wildlife Fund and regional officials promised the Amderma patrol radios, fuel and satellite phones to upload photographs of bears.
A meeting with residents finished with a short debate about whether scientists should try to save the polar bear at all.
“The polar bear is the top of the food chain and a symbol of the Arctic,” Mordvintsev said.
“If there was no polar bear, what would we do here? If there was no polar bear here, would you be at peace?”
The audience began murmuring before one woman came up with an answer: “It would be boring!”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)