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Meet a Polar Bear Expert

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This week is #PolarBearWeek! Learn more about these majestic creatures of the North from our popular Meet a Polar Bear Expert blog article, originally published February 24, 2016. Help secure the future of this endangered species by taking the Polar Bear Week #Energy Challenge, to help save their sea ice habitats.

Each year on February 27th, polar animal lovers worldwide participate in events to draw attention to the challenges polar bears face in an Arctic increasingly affected by climate change. And Quark is proud to support the important conservation efforts of International Polar Bear Day organizers, Polar Bears International.

Climate change reducing sea ice poses major challenges for Arctic polar bear populations. Photo credit: Samantha Crimmin
Polar bear on ice. Photo credit: Samantha Crimmin

Polar Bear Expert Dr. Nikita OvsyanikovPolar Bear Expert Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov

This year, Quark passengers on board the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov will also have the opportunity to travel alongside zoologist, Doctor of Biological Sciences and polar bear expert Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov. We asked Dr. Ovsyanikov to share his thoughts on International Polar Bear Day, polar bear conservation, and his tips for Arctic or North Pole expedition travelers.

Perhaps the most iconic of the polar animals, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 of the massive creatures currently roam the planet, with 13 of the 19 known populations residing in Canada.

The polar bear faces a number of threats to its survival, primarily climate change and human influences.

After spending 13 years studying the arctic fox, Dr. Ovsyanikov shifted his focus to the world's largest land carnivore. He has specialized in the study of polar bears since 1990, and has been conducting research in the Arctic since 1977, including a four-year stint on remote Wrangel Island. Through his studies, he's experienced an incredible 2,000 polar bear encounters.

Living alongside Polar Bears

The main objective of this [first] study was to understand processes in polar bear populations and their drivers. Most of the time I was living among polar bears in areas where they gathered during ice free seasons, and observed them in various situations,” he tells us. “Most of the time, I was living alone in remote cabins in the middle of high polar bear concentrations.”

Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov lived in remote cabins in the middle of high polar bear concentrations.
Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov lived in remote cabins in the middle of high polar bear concentrations.

It was a basic ethical principle and also a methodological requirement, he adds, to ensure maximum avoidance of any impact or interference with natural polar bear life and activity.

Working with One of the Largest of Polar Animals

Surpassed in size only by the elephant seal, polar bears tower over the tundra at 7.25 to 8 feet tall (2 - 2.5 meters), and can tip the scales at 900 to 1,600 lbs (400 - 725 kg). Dr. Ovsyanikov explains he's most interested in polar bear behavior, social life and psychology; on observational studies of polar bear behavior and behavioral ecology.

“It's the best way to learn what problems animals are facing in their everyday life, how they can cope with these challenges, and what are the drivers and most important factors changing population dynamics,” he explains, adding that this research helps scientists understand the adaptive potential of the species.

This is critical, he says, because climate change has caused extensive degradation of vital polar bear habitats, particularly with drifting arctic sea ice in the polar bear zone of the Continental Shelf. At the same time, polar bears are increasingly affected by human activity.

Polar bears can tip the scales at 900-1600 lbs. Photo credit: Samantha Crimmin
Polar bears can tip the scales at 900-1600 lbs. Photo credit: Samantha Crimmin

The Human Impact on Polar Bear Survival

“The greatest threat from humans is continuous polar bear extermination by hunting, going on all over the Arctic of the Western Hemisphere – in Canada, Alaska and Greenland,” Dr. Ovsyanikov says. “Only two countries from five range states keep full bans on polar bear hunting: Russia and Norway.”

Other anthropogenic impacts (caused by humans), according to Ovsyanikov, are:

  • the physical elimination of bears during human-polar bear conflict encounters, all of which, he says, are provoked by humans;
  • pollution of the Arctic;
  • increased disturbances for polar bears in their terrestrial refuges;
  • expanding industrial activities in the Arctic and the destruction of polar bear habitats;
  • the risk of oil spills;
  • growing shipping in the Arctic.

“All of these impacts have a cumulative effect,” he explains. “For the first time in the entire polar bear evolutionary history, polar bears are struggling to survive climate change combined with the impact of high human presence and activity in the Arctic. Polar bears have a chance to survive global warming, but they have no chance to survive global warming combined with continuous extermination by humans. Therefore, the major threat for polar bear existence in the modern world is their physical extermination by humans.”

Polar Bear Conservation, Every Day

The most pressing measure to minimize human impact on polar bears, says Dr. Ovsyanikov, is an arctic-wide moratorium on hunting them.

So, what can you do as an Arctic or North Pole expedition passenger, or as a polar-passionate citizen, to help save this majestic species?

“We can all contribute to polar bear protection through an active position, considering that each of our voices do matter and can influence political decisions for better polar bear conservation. If we become active, our efforts may help polar bears survive a hard period of their evolutionary history and through that improve chances for them to live, and for us to see them in the wild, now and in future.”


Where to Spot Polar Bears

Dr. Ovsyanikov notes that Quark passengers have the best chance to see polar bears when traveling to Svalbard - including voyages to Spitsbergen - and with visits to Wrangel Island and New Siberian Islands, and at Franz Josef Land on way to the North Pole.

We also encourage you to make a donation to support the important awareness and conservation efforts undertaken by Polar Bears International.

Contact a Polar Travel Adviser to learn more about the regions in which you may see polar bears in the wild, and which expeditions include the talented and knowledgeable Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov, polar bear expert.

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