As It Happens

Siberian town under 'siege' as dozens of hungry polar bears invade

A small town in Siberia is being invaded by polar bears. The bears are feasting on garbage, strolling into apartment buildings, and chasing down residents.

A lack of sea ice for the bears to go hunting may be to blame, says Siberian Times editor Svetlana Skarbo

Siberian Times editor Svetlana Skarbo says the bears have been feasting on garbage in the town because there's not enough sea ice for them to go hunt. (The Siberian Times)

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They are used to the odd polar bear. It comes with the remote territory. But residents in a small town perched on the Arctic Ocean in northern Siberia have never seen this many all at once.

The small town of Belushya Guba, located on an Arctic archipelago, is dealing with an invasion of more than 50 polar bears — and the unwanted visitors are wreaking havoc. Town officials have called in Russian wildlife authorities for help.

Svetlana Skarbo, editor of the Siberian Times, which has covered the story, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about how the town is coping.

Here is part of their conversation.

Svetlana, what kind of problems are these polars causing?

It's actually a huge and unprecedented number of polar bears now. The locals who've lived there for years say that they've never ever come across such a number of bears.

It's quite literally a siege because people can't do anything — like do a school run with their kids, go to Kindergarten, go shopping, take the rubbish out — you can't do that.

You have to have like a team of five to ten people. And ideally what they call a bear patrol, which is a team of people, an escort of people, with the light grenades and guns.

Skarbo says the polar bears have displayed some brazen behaviour. (The Siberian Times)

What are the theories as to why Belushya Guba has so many polar bears?

People didn't take proper care of how they dumped their rubbish. This was the issue, number one.

And number two is that this is the area of polar bears, not humans. This is where they kind of use this area to migrate. Normally they go hunting. They use the ice to kind of go out from the land.

But this winter, when they were supposed to leave, around November, beginning of December of 2018, they actually couldn't do that because there wasn't enough ice.

They've realized they've actually got like free meals there because of so much food waste.

Residents have to travel in groups and take extra precautions to go about their daily life safely. (The Siberian Times)

This archipelago where this is happening is Novaya Zemlya. 

Exactly, it's where Soviet Union used to have those huge nuclear tests.

And that's why there are people living out there. They remained after the Soviet nuclear tests that happened on those grounds.

It's the military area, yes. Again, that's one of the issues.

They were warned about the issue and they knew about the issue. Because you actually had to have scientists there. Not consulting them remotely, but actually being there, checking those bears, checking their numbers, saying actually we've got to do something now.

But they were not allowed to come because the paper work and the bureaucracy of getting into the restricted area is so complex that actually they never came. They're there now, but the number of bears now is quite over what they expected to see.

But if they knew for a long time that this was going to become a problem — that these people had been living there, that this was polar bear territory in the Arctic, that the rubbish was piling up with all this food waste — what has made this such an urgent crisis right away? Why, suddenly, are there so many bears?

Because of the ice not being strong enough, I presume.

These males shouldn't be there just roaming around the area. They should be out hunting, as they used to do for years. But it didn't happen this year because of the sea ice not being strong enough.

Skarbo says a temporary solution is to sedate and relocate the polar bears. (The Siberian Times)

They can't survive on eating food waste, right? We know what is happening to bears elsewhere that are not being able to get at their prey, which is seals and sea animals, and get that high protein and fat that they need. So what state are these bears in?

The team of experts, they came just today. So they are going to be looking at the bears properly tomorrow.

From the pictures and videos that we've seen, they look, actually, pretty good. I mean, they look quite healthy from going through the food waste.

But definitely that's not going to be a long term solution. They'll have to do something.

The idea is that they might be sedated and then taken somewhere, miles away from Belushya Guba. Just moving those bears, I mean, as the scientists say, it's definitely going to be a temporary solution.

Written by Jeanne Armstrong and John McGill. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.