Last year Paul and I had the pleasure of taking an amazing adventure into the Arctic with Heritage Expeditions on the Spirit of Enderby (Professor Khromov). In addition to seeing a ton of wildlife (polar bears, arctic fox, walrus, puffins, whales, etc.) we were fortunate enough to meet some of the local experts who have spent years of their lives studying and helping to better understand many of these animals. Two of the people that we met were Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov (a polar bear expert has worked on the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve for 30+ years and has dedicated his work in educating and studying their behaviors) and his daughter Katya Ovsyanikova – who has been going to Wrangel since a child and has dedicated her time and studies to sea otters and other marine critters as well.

So, why am I blogging about this now?

Katya is in the US this week (she arrived yesterday) to speak at the Sea Otter Conservation Workshop at the Seattle Aquarium. Since she arrived we've been chatting about the state of affairs for polar bears and the possibility of the hunt being opened up again in the Chukotka region of Russia (aka the Russian Far East). While there has been some media attention stating that the polar bear hunt has been reopened (Russia lifts ban on polar bear hunting and Russia's Chukotka backs polar bear hunting), there is also still some debate about the current status. It has not yet been approved by the Russian Federal Government even though it's been signed by the Chukotka Regional Government. Because this is still under debate, you can help to influence their decision by writing to them now. A more formal letter about the state of the polar bear is attached below.

What can you do?

(1) Tell as many people as possible, tweet, facebook, do you know someone in the media? Please spread the word! And, if they want to talk to Katya – shoot me an email and I'll get you/them hooked up!

(2) Write a letter of discontent to the Ministry of Natural Resources:

123995, Bolshaya Gruzinskaya 4/6,
Moscow, Russia
Minister – Truntev Yuriy Petrovich

(3) Sign the petition: Help to save Polar Bears in Russia!

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Dear friends!

Sadly, there has arisen in Russia a very disturbing situation with polar bears.  The plight of polar bears in Russia hangs in the balance if legislation currently before the Russian Government is passed.

The total number of polar bears in the wild is only about 20,000.  Part of the Chukchi-Alaskan population, which was almost exterminated by the middle of the twentieth century, lives on the Chukotka Peninsula (North-East Russia). At present, specialists estimate its size to be no greater than 2,000 bears.  After the USSR imposed a moratorium on polar bear hunting in 1957, the Russian coast was a stronghold for polar bear conservation. For decades, and the Chukchi-Alaskan population had a chance to increase in numbers. Unfortunately, poaching also increased in the Chukotka region, and has been thriving there, particularly since the 1990s.  Poachers now kill up to 300 polar bears a year for their pelts, and do so without even trying to conceal it.  There is a huge black market for those pelts, with each one selling for about $20,000.

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In 2007, a bilateral Russian-American agreement on the conservation and management of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population was legislated, mentioning a possibility of issuing a hunting quota for indigenous people on both sides. Disregarding the fact that IUCN's Polar Bear Specialists Group considered the situation with polar bears critical, the Russian-American Polar Bear Commission issued a resolution that a quota may be introduced on both sides of the Bering Strait. The decision was reached despite the fact that there is not enough data on the size of the population.  Moreover, the possibility of a moratorium was not even considered. As of March 2011, after more than half a century of moratorium, the hunt is being re-evaluated and potentionally re-opened in Russia!

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Global warming has been rapidly shrinking the extent of the Arctic sea ice, the major platform from which polar bears hunt during most of the year.  It is difficult for polar bears to survive the ice-free seasons because their main habitat (drifting ice) is shrinking, and what remains is far from the best hunting grounds. More and more often in recent years, scientists have observed famished bears, as well as fewer females showing up to den on Wrangel Island, the main polar bear “maternity ward” in the Chukchi Sea and a protected Nature Reserve since 1976.

Under these stressful conditions, the impacts of poaching on the polar bear population are disastrous, and implementation of hunting will simply constitute legalization of poaching, and a cover for the poachers.  With regards to traditional use, the indigenous people of Chukotka have never hunted polar bears for subsistence. Legalization of polar bear hunting is just a path to the commercial use of the species. And, while a quota is intended to be issued only for “subsistence” use by indigenous people, trophy hunters are actively lobbying for implementation of the quota, which, in itself, is revealing as to the consequences of legalizing polar bear hunting. 

It is not global warming that is dangerous for polar bears; the species has survived cyclic warm periods and glaciations before.  It is the presence and activity of humans in the Arctic that pose a very real threat for bears.  With all the pressures on the population now, it is disastrous, malicious, and inhumane to open the hunt.  It would be tragic to lose such a unique species because of greediness and cynicism of a small group of people that is interested in exploiting these animals for profit.

We are deeply unhappy with this situation and are trying to raise people’s awareness and to convince the Russian government not to legislate polar bear hunting.  It is not too late, and we have to do everything possible to express the discontent of the people.

For further information on the subject, see the article by polar bear specialist Nikita Ovsyanikov:
http://premier.gov.ru/bear/eng/news/11730/

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And, for additional information – check out some of these links:

Thanks for reading and an even bigger thanks for giving your time and your signature to help these beautiful mammals.
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