In February 2019, 52 polar bears descended on a Russian settlement in the Arctic Circle. They ransacked rubbish dumps and overran the town in search of food, walking through schoolyards and open corridors. The village of Belushya Guba declared a national emergency.
Novaya Zemlya, meaning ‘New Land’ is an island chain around the size of Cuba in the Russian Arctic. Its 3,000 inhabitants include those in the military, oil and gas industry and their families. 1,987 of them live in Belushya Guba, its largest settlement. Since the 1950s, the Soviet and Russian governments have used the island for airfields, oil extraction and nuclear testing.
Polar bears live on the island’s coasts. During the summer they converge on the southern end to hunt seals but usually avoid the inland settlements. As global temperatures increase and ice sheets melt, the bears stray closer and closer to human settlements. Specialist patrols keep the polar bears at bay and scare them off when they get too close. Polar bears are endangered and under Russian law and it is illegal to kill them or shoot them with live rounds. Whilst polar bears are the only bears to eat only meat, and the only species known to purposely hunt humans, they rarely attack humans unless acting out of fear or desperation.
Fifty-two bears converged on the outskirts on Belushya Guba in December 2018. Patrols tried to ward them off with vehicles, warning shots and dogs but, undeterred, the bears marched on. By February the ursine ‘invaders’ entered the town. They gathered at local rubbish dumps and scavenged for food as the town’s inhabitants locked their doors and hid inside. On the 16th of February, the provincial government declared an emergency as the bears roamed free through the streets and schoolyards. While the inhabitants cowered in terror, the polar bears amazingly left them be with no reported casualties. Governemnt watchdogs denied a town request to shoot the bears.
Polar bears need sea ice to hunt seals. 2019 was the hottest year on record and, as the Arctic Ice sheet continues to melt, the bears search for alternative food sources. Polar bears are massive animals however and, unlike their smaller cousins, cannot sustain themselves on human scraps. A high protein diet is essential to their survival.
A team of specialists eventually fended off the bears and the town set up more rigorous patrols and bear-proof fences around schools and kindergartens. Though not matching the ‘invasion’ of February, polar bears continued to wonder into villages throughout Novaya Zemyla.
Sources: BBC, BGR, Polar Bear Science, RT