|Polar Bears, Walruses, and Muskoxen
Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov (left) is an amazing man. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1974 with a doctor of biological
science degree. He has been involved in research in the Arctic since 1977. Since 1990 he has undertaken research of polar
bears and knows them better than any human. He has had 500 close encounters with polar bears. Based on his policy, the
Russian rangers do not carry guns--only flare guns. He explained to us the technique to use when approaching polar bears.
Stand tall. The rangers carry sticks to make themselves seem taller. Do not act like prey. Make noise, but not with the human
voice. Ironically, with their no gun approach, their safety record is better than those countries where rangers and guides carry
Our first encounters with polar bears were on ice. Polar bears only retreat to land when the ice melts. Sadly, with global
warming, they are forced to retreat to land for longer periods each year.
We also encountered polar bears on land.
This female polar bear had climbed up to a snow bank looking for a place to create a snow cave to have her cub this next winter
when the snow falls.
Below, one of several snow caves we saw where cubs were born last winter. Until a couple decades ago, Wrangel Island and
Harald Island were a prime place for polar bear births. But with the receding ice, birth rates are now way down.
We saw this polar bear while driving across the island. Our driver stopped and we slipped up the hill to a fairly close distance
from the bear that was napping. Then it smelled us.
The bear then got up and walked away.
Some bears we saw from a Zodiac. Once they observed our presence, they sniffed the air, observed us, and walked the other
Unlike Canada and the US, polar bears are protected in Russia. But with the fall of the USSR, there are not sufficient law
resources and poaching is a problem. Sadly, the US and Canada still carve out exceptions for hunting the endangered polar
bear. Nikita is of the opinion that the combination of global warming and hunting will doom the polar bear in another generation.
Another endangered animal is the walrus. Like the polar bear, they prefer to be on ice, not land. Unlike the polar bears in
Russia, they are still hunted by indigenous people. Considering that the indigenous population keeps growing and uses
modern techniques to hunt the walrus, it is not a fair match. While we saw a fairly large number of walrus in the vicinity of
Wrangel Island, we could not get as close as we did in Svalbard where they are no longer hunted. These walruses are very
skittish of humans.
A walrus with our ship in the background taken from a zodiac.
Coming further south, the ice was all gone and the walrus were forced to lie together on the beach. We stayed a very
respectable distance so as to not alarm them.
Muskoxen were introduced to Wrangel Island in 1975 and have been doing well on the island. Recently muskoxen from
Wrangel Island have been introduced to other areas in the Russian arctic.
Under all the hair, muskoxen look more like a goat.
The hair of the muskoxen is the warmest wool from any animal.
In the summer, they can look rather motley with all the shedding.
A muskoxen is unpredictable and is considered to be more dangerous than a grizzly bear.