In the company of polite bears
This Arctic.ru story, by Rossiya Segondnya correspondent Vera Kostamo, is about Arctic researcher Nikita Ovsyannikov.

In the Arctic, Nikita Ovsyannikov met up with polar bears over two thousand times, and only four of those occasions ended with the animal trying to attack him. "It was by my own mistake," the researcher says. In each case, the human-provoked aggression could be stopped without violence. Doctor of Biological Sciences, zoologist, honorary Arctic explorer of Russia, Nikita Ovsyannikov has spent 26 seasons on Wrangel Island in the Chukotka Autonomous Area. RIA Novosti tells the story of this person's rare job and his life among polar bears.

The first field season in the Arctic began in 1977. Prior to that, Ovsyannikov had worked on Commander Islands and in a desert. He had studied feral canines, including Arctic foxes, not large predators. After coming to Wrangel Island, the natural nursing home of the polar bear, the researcher chose what he deemed to be the most natural way to study the big predator - observation without interference. This method, however, takes time. In the case of Nikita Ovsyannikov, it took a lifetime.

Nikita Ovsyannikov riding a snowmobile to Vrangel Island, spring, 1993
Nikita Ovsyannikov riding a snowmobile to Vrangel Island, spring, 1993 ©Photo by Irina Menyushina

But he never regrets having spent so many years in the Arctic. In arroyos, in tents, at the controls of a snowmobile or a four-wheeler away from the civilization but in the eternal pursuit of the bear. He would encounter them more often than humans, sometimes as close as a meter away.

Once, a bear even showed Ovsyannikov that it wanted to play.

The researcher says that bears are very social animals with each having a distinct character, an expressive face and complex social behavior.


Polite bears

It is a little-known fact, but female bears often adopt cubs who have lost their mothers or who are lost among ice hummocks.

"Every year I saw families with cubs that were only one year apart in age, which makes them biologically impossible to have come from the same female. It means this adoption phenomenon is common. Normally, a female bear may have one to three cubs, Ovsyannikov says. Cubs go out on their own at about 3 years old, some even earlier. They will then rely on others to find food eating what remains from other animals' prey as they are not yet able to hunt themselves."

The young initiate a special ritual to ask for food from the luckier adults. Ovsyannikov calls this the polite approach.

Bears do not hunt in packs but they do share what they get their paws on. It is a trait that plays an important role for the survival of the population. Any bear can find itself among the losers of a hunt.

"It was a revelation for me to discover such complex social behaviour in these animals. They are described as loners who wander around the ice but it is not true. When you have lived for a long time among bears you discover that there are entire communities. There are individual ties and relationships. The bears don't have a formal hierarchy as in a wolf pack. They don't live in packs but there are friendships among males, even of different ages. Two or three friends can travel together. There are family groups, for example, two females with cubs," Ovsyannikov says recalling his encounters with the animals.

Bears feeding on a walrus carcass.
Bears feeding on a walrus carcass ©Photo by Nikita Ovsyannikov
Show that you are not a seal

Ovsyannikov has his own technique for safe coexistence with the bears on their territory. It was based on the study of animal behaviour during encounters with humans and it is, according to Ovsyannikov, the only professional solution that helps humans avoid contact with the bears.

It is a system of rules combined with non-lethal measures of scaring a bear away if needed. The technique has worked well for those who have trained to use it.

"To develop it I've had to live for a long time among polar bears to study their behaviour, but to use it you only need to know the rules and follow them closely," Ovsyannikov says.


In 1990, during his first season with the white bears, Ovsyannikov went with a BBC camera operator to a small house at Cap Blossom. They were to shoot a film as well as observe. The researcher recalls that it was the first year that ice had almost completely disappeared along the entire continental shelf from Taimyr to Cape Barrow, and there were many bears on the seaside on Wrangel Island and in Chukotka.

A decision had to be made fast whether to leave or to continuing working.

"I approached that decision first from the theoretical side and the assumption that the polar bear is a normal wild animal that prioritizes survival, which will make it cautious about any object that looks dangerous. Then I started showing the bears that I am strong and dangerous: I would behave aggressively chasing approaching bears away from the hut with a spade. They got really scared," the researcher says, laughing.

"Bears are very smart, but they are also naive and credulous like little kids. They see the world as it is. When we stand tall, we are taller than they are," Ovsyannikov says.

By default, a human being is big and no one knows what it will or won't do. From that evening, Ovsyannikov began focusing on the bears' reaction to meeting humans and improving safety techniques.

Arctic safety tips are critical for the preservation of polar bears as well as for the well-being of humans. Incompetent guidelines are not just useless but can also be deadly.

Once, Ovsyannikov saw a guidebook developed for the staff of the Russian Hydrometeorological Service that was stationed in the Arctic. It said that if the bear cannot be scared, you must fall to the ground and play dead. In other words, imitate a ringed seal, the bear's favourite food.


"This is popular advice in America on how to deal with brown bears, so it came from there. Brown bears are vegetarians, and it is incorrectly assumed that if you lie down it will not touch you," the zoologist said.

Ovsyannikov hopes that people that work in the Arctic, are more mindful than those who drafted the guidelines. "I even wrote to the Presidential Executive Office to raise awareness about the guideline," he says.

Nikita Ovsyannikov has held seminars on safely dealing with polar bears for Arctic guides in Sweden and Canada. In Russia, only a local Greenpeace office showed interest in the course.

Hunger and global consumption

The Chukotka-Alaska population numbers 1200-1500 animals. Ovsyannikov puts the overall Arctic population at around 16,000-20,000 bears against the official estimate of 26,000.

"There is no data for half of the geographically identified populations. The official estimate is not supported by precise accounting, which is impossible to carry out in most Arctic regions. To understand what is happening to polar bears we need to look at the processes in their populations. Then, we can judge the prospects for the survival of the species in a time of climate and other global changes," Ovsyannikov says.

Photographer Paul Nicklen recently published a video showing a polar bear dying from hunger on Canada's Baffin Island.

The animal was discovered by the environmental group Sea Legacy, who recorded the video, which the mass media carried as a shocking illustration of the effects of global warming.

"The wasted polar bear story is a dramatic example of what happens to animals when their habitat deteriorates. The ice is deteriorating mainly within the polar bear habitat in the continental shelf area," Ovsyannikov says.

The Eurasian Arctic is almost completely ice-free almost every year. This means the polar bear has nowhere to live.

Even so, the animal is still being hunted in Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and the US (Alaska). Canada is the leader in extermination. Russia banned polar bear hunting in 1957, with Norway following suit in 1971.


"There were many comments under Paul's video asking why the bear had not been fed or killed. We need to realize that we come to the Arctic not to play God, deciding the fates of animals. The polar bear in the video was from a region with favourable ice conditions and numerous healthy bears. That one, however, had lost the capacity for hunting for some reason, maybe because of an injury or wound," Ovsyannikov says.

Ovsyannikov now calls himself an independent researcher and no longer works at reserves. Still, he travels to the Arctic every year.

He says that he will continue studying and protecting the polar bear while he can. His wife Irina, and daughter Yekaterina, who has spent some time with her parents on Wrangel Island, are zoologists, too.

Ice observation, Wrangel Island, 2009
Ice observation, Wrangel Island, 2009 ©Photo by Nikita Ovsyannikov

"If we look at polar bear history, it has been around since at least the mid-Pleistocene, or for several hundred thousand years. This means it has survived five or six cycles of global warming," the researcher says.

But there is a difference, and it is us. Never before has there been such negative impact from humans.

"This is where we can undertake real steps to save the polar bear, Ovsyannikov says.