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...and facing extinction?

By The Siberian Times reporter
15 October 2012

Ice along the northern coast of Siberia is retreating much faster than in Canada and Greenland, leading to a special threat for our polar bears.

'The best habitat (of polar bears) is quickly disappearing. It is extreme' - Russian expert says. Picture: mi9.com

This summer the ice reached a record low, say experts. This has dramatically increased the jeopardy to polar bears with a real prospect that they will be wiped out in their natural habitat within a generation.

'It is worse for Russian polar bears than the bears in Canada or Greenland because the pack ice is retreating much faster in our waters,' warned Nikita Ovsyannikov, deputy director of Russia's polar bear reserve on Wrangel Island.

'The best habitat is quickly disappearing. It is extreme.'

He told the Canadian media: 'What we are seeing right now is very late freezing. Our polar bear population is obviously declining. It used to be that new ice was thick enough for them to walk on in late October. It now will happen much later.'

The zooologist believes the number of polar bears around the Chukchi Sea, has declined from 4,000 to 'no more than 1,700 at best' in the past 30 years, causing a catastrophic situation for the iconic creatures.

It means they could go the way of the woolly mammoths, whose last surviving home was on Wrangel Island several thousand years ago. 

The warming conditions mean that polar bears must risk going far out to sea on pack ice seeking food, or forage on Arctic islands.

Venturing far from land presents special problems for female bears who traditionally build their hibernation and birthing dens on land, said Postmedia News in a special report on the problem.

'Making a den on drifting ice is much more difficult,' said Ovsyannikov.  'One reason is that there is a greater chance that other bears will disturb them there.

'But some females are denning on the drifting ice because the ice is freezing up again so late in the fall that they cannot get back to land. We have evidence of this.'

He predicted no polar bears anywhere in the wild by 2032 to 2037.

The 'extermination' was not solely  due to global warming but also because they are now spending more time on land and  'too many of them' and now 'being shot and poached'.

Seals, walrus, Arctic fox and snowy owls are also at risk, he said. 

From an economic point of view, the ice melting is likely to see a huge increase in traffic on the Northern Sea Route, with the possibility that it will remain from from full ice until January.

'It is inevitable that economic development will continue,' said Ovsyannikov.

'So it is up to us to take as many precautions as possible because a shipping accident in the Arctic would be an absolute disaster for the entire eco-system.'

He has warned previously: 'If policies and attitudes to the polar bear...do not change, there is a real possibility that we will loose this species.'

Wrangel Island is in the Arctic Ocean between the East Siberian Sea and the Chukchi Sea. Adminstratively it is part of the Chukotka region of Russia. 

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