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Polar bear invasion in Russia: a global warming wake-up call


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Authorities in the Novaya Zemlya islands, northern Russia, declared a state of emergency on Saturday, following the arrival of dozens of hungry polar bears in the human settlements.

At least 52 bears have been counted in the vicinity of the archipelago’s main settlement, Belushya Guba. Photos and video footage on social media show the bears foraging through rubbish, entering residential and office buildings, and sauntering around playgrounds.

Understandably, locals are afraid to leave their homes, or allow their children to go to school. Some residents are even being transported to their workplace in military vehicles.

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As reported in The Guardian, the local head of administration, Zhigansha Musin, who has worked on Novaya Zemlya since 1983 said, "there's never been such a mass invasion of polar bears.

“They have literally been chasing people.”

The bears have so far not been deterred by vehicle patrols, warning shots or explosions, or brigades of dogs.

It does not take an expert to recognise that these creatures should not be entering human urban territory in such great numbers. It goes against their solitary, seal-hunting nature. 

Why is this happening?

Rod Downie, a Polar Expert for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), spoke to the BBCexplaining why polar bears are increasingly being attracted to towns. He said that "the sea ice is melting earlier in the year, and refreezing later.

"They can't get out onto the sea ice to hunt the seals, so they're attracted into the communities by the smell of food, and also by the smell of rubbish; of waste dumps. It's becoming increasingly common, right across the Arctic, incidences of human-polar bear conflict."

The cause is climate change

As reported in the Washington Post, the Arctic is warming at more than double the rate of the rest of the planet, causing sea ice to melt at almost 13% per decade. This has a grave effect on the bears’ migration patterns.

The bears causing mayhem on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago are said to have migrated away from the Southern region, where sea ice is gradually getting thinner, towards the north, where ice is considerably more solid. When sea ice is too thin, they are unable to hunt seals – their main food source.  

However, en route to the north, they encountered alternative food sources in the form of edible waste from rubbish dumps at Belushya Guba.

The worry here is not only the obvious danger of human-polar bear conflict, but the malnourishment that the animals will suffer. Polar bears require a high-fat, carnivorous diet, which a rubbish-dump diet is unlikely to provide, meaning a higher likelihood of poor body condition and reduced reproductive capacities.

These consequences are extremely concerning for a vulnerable species with a declining population.

There is an increasing fear that, if the polar bears cannot be coaxed away from the settlements, there will be no other option but to shoot the animals, despite their protected status.

Nevertheless, specialists are reportedly being deployed to sedate and remove the animals.

Despite this, it is likely that these polar bears will continue returning to the settlement, which the creatures will associate with an easy meal, in a world where a lot of their hunting and breeding grounds are being increasingly damaged by humans and climate change.

Ian Stirling, a polar bear expert from the University of Alberta, described how the animals are traditional and, “always remember places where there was something to eat, whether it’s a garbage dump or a dead whale.”

Global warming has long been seen as a problem for the future. Yet, the situation in Belushya Guba is proof that it is a problem for the present. More serious action needs to be taken now. Otherwise, situations like these will become more common and animals will suffer even more than they already have, as a result of humanity's actions.

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Lead Image: World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

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