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Russia's Polar Bear Patrol

By Dmitry Ryabov, WWF-Russia

Story by WWF February 26th, 2018

Travelling less than three hours by helicopter from Naryan-Mar, the capital of the Nenets Autonomous District, we arrive on the shores of the Kara Sea. The landscape is clearly whispering: "winter is coming". The bright colours of the autumn tundra and a light frost contrast with lakes and rivers completely covered with ice.

© WWF-Russia / Dmitry Ryabov

We spend the night in the coastal village of Amderma. Once home to 12,000 people, all that’s left of this military settlement is a small airport, a couple of shops, a school and a weather station. Today, there are only three hundred inhabitants. Crumbling buildings and piles of scrap metal rusting in the icy wind are monuments to Soviet era decay.

© WWF-Russia / Dmitry Ryabov

The people who live here won’t leave their beloved homeland, despite all the difficulties and almost complete isolation.

“Well, I like it here”, Yuri Popovich says with a smile. Every dog in Anderma knows him. Perhaps it’s because Yuri leads a patrol that frightens polar bears away from the village.

© Victor Kudryashov / WWF-Russia

Yuri isn’t the only line of defense. Bears are frequent visitors and villagers understand they can only protect themselves from such a formidable a predator by working together.

"A hunter lives in every house; many have a weapon. Of course, it is forbidden to shoot in the village, but when a bear is here - you can come out and shoot into the air. This happens a lot."

© Victor Kudryashov / WWF-Russia

Most of all, people worry about the children. As soon as someone notices a bear wandering around the village they call the school.

Yuri says precautions have made a difference: so far no one has been injured.

© Victor Kudryashov / WWF-Russia
© Victor Kudryashov / WWF-Russia

It's clear that life with polar bears is a sensitive issue for locals. Yuri emotionally recounts his most frightening conflict with a polar bear.

“I used to see bears quite often. Once I even ran into one face-to-face while fishing. He appeared from around the corner and we met nose-to-nose. I yelled and hid, while my friend stormed out with a gun and shot into the air. Well, long story short, the bear was just as terrified as I was!”

“Usually, bears are too timid to attack. Nenets say that just lighting a match can frighten them away. I didn’t try it personally – to hell with that! It is still a predator, big and wild.”

Yuri’s story is interrupted by a call from a friend reporting a possible bear near the airport.

He is skeptical: it's too early for the bears to be migrating, and this year has been quiet so far. He’s only seen a couple bears, nothing compared to the "invasion" of three years ago.

But we must check it out. We jump on Yuri’s ATV – purchased with funds from WWF and Exness - and head for Amderma’s main road.

© WWF-Russia / Dmitry Ryabov

As expected, there’s no trace of a polar bear. To dispel all doubts, we check the seashore. Unwanted guests come most often from the ocean – they’re just as comfortable in the sea as on land.

© WWF-Russia / Dmitry Ryabov

We make sure everything is fine and return to the village. Before saying goodbye, I ask Yuri the question that’s been on my mind - why is he doing this work? Why does he take responsibility for organizing the patrol? Why does dedicate his spare time to maintaining the patrol’s equipment, and to standing ready to face a bear at a moment’s notice?

Yuri laughs, “Well, if not us, who? We live here.”

© Victor Kudryashov / WWF-Russia

As we complete our visits to a few more patrols and fly home, the Arctic presents us with a final gift. Someone cries "bear!", and we rush to the windows.

The “King of the Arctic” is swimming towards the villages.

And that means it’s time for the polar bear patrol to go to work.

Learn more about how WWF is helping communities prevent dangerous conflict between people and polar bears:

Text by Dmitry Ryabov, WWF-Russia. Photos: Victor Kudryashov / WWF-Russia (polar bears), WWF-Russia / Dmitry Ryabov (all other photos).