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Meet the man working at the world's largest maternity hospital for polar bears

By The Siberian Times reporter
04 February 2021

Up to 500 mother bears a year give birth on remote Wrangel island, also the last place to see woolly mammoths.

Leonid, 31, came to work at Russia’s northernmost nature reserve at the remote Wrangel Island after spending years protecting endangered big cats like Amur tigers and Amur leopards in the Far East. Picture: Leonid Zaika 


Up to 500 mother bears a year give birth on remote Wrangel island, also the last place to see woolly mammoths. 

Researcher Leonid Zaika spoke to The Siberian Times to share his experience of surviving a face to face meeting with a furious mother bear whose den he went to explore after wrongly calculating that it was empty, of seeing bears gathering under kitchen window because they like smell of milky porridge, of some predators that attack but others that ‘wag their tails’, and studying their maternity dens. 

Leonid, 31, came to work at Russia’s northernmost nature reserve at the remote Wrangel Island after spending years protecting endangered big cats like Amur tigers and Amur leopards in the Far East. 

It was here that the world’s last woolly mammoth died some 4,000 years ago; now it has a nature reserve, a weather station, a Russian military base - and the largest number of polar bear maternity dens in the world.



Meet the man working at the world's largest maternity house for polar bears



Meet the man working at the world's largest maternity house for polar bears



Meet the man working at the world's largest maternity house for polar bears


‘Polar bears do in fact remind me of dogs. If they are at a distance and you jokingly say hello, some of them even wag their tails’, the researcher said. Pictures and video from Wrangel island nature reserve by Leonid Zaika


Leonid is an expert on the maternity dens structure and size, from his personal experience. 

‘After cubs are born, mothers take them away from the ‘maternity dens’ to teach hunting and other key survival skills, and never come back. Our task is to catch the moment when a family leaves a den so that we can crawl inside it, study the delivery chamber and pick up biological material like hair and food derivatives,’ the researcher said. 

This information is needed to understand if animals were comfortable while they stayed inside, if a mother bear was peaceful or irritated. 

Leonid shared videos of his ‘dives’ inside the den, which show several metre long narrow entrances that lead inside ‘delivery room’ where polar bear cubs - born tiny and helpless, with their eyes closed and very fine hair - spend the first weeks of their lives. 


Up to 500 mother bears a year give birth on remote Wrangel island, also the last place to see woolly mammoths. Video: Leonid Zaika


One of such attempts to get inside a den nearly cost Leonid and his colleagues their lives, as, unexpectedly,  the mother bear was still there with two of her cubs. 

The scientists monitored the den and saw no fresh traces for a while, so they assumed it was empty and safe to go. 

‘The moment mother bear rose in the air and roared I thought that the tiger’s roar wasn’t so scary!’ - said Leonid, whose quick reaction rescued them both. 

The scientists had flare guns, and luckily for them the bright lights scared the furious mother. 

Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears
Wrangel Island Nature Reserve in the Arctic. Pictures: Leonid Zaika


Polar bears that populate Chukotka and Alaska are a lot less aggressive and even timid, compared to those living further west on the Franz Josef Land archipelago. 

‘My first trip inside a polar bear’s den felt very similar to diving, when a new world opens before your eyes. You don’t feel scared because the fascination from what you see overweighs the fear. Inside there snow is all pitted with snow, it actually looks quite incredible when you see it up close’, said Leonid. 

The scientists have a main base in the newly-built part of Ushakovskoye village, and several stationary posts around the island that they have to check during the year.

Food is delivered once a year by ship, the internet is bad, communication with the ‘outer world’ is limited. 

‘I am no introvert, in fact quite the opposite, so I miss talking to my family and friends quite badly. But living here taught me to concentrate on myself which would have been impossible to do in the city, and I would recommend it to anyone. I fell in love with the north, working and living here is just incredible, and watching people who spend lives in the Arctic doing their favourite jobs is priceless’, said Leonid, who is single and has no children. 

Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears
There are at least two ways to get to Wrangel Island: as a nature reserve’s volunteer (prepare to stay for at least one month, better two, be ready to live in severe climate and pretty spartan conditions), and as a tourist from June until the end of September. Pictures: Leonid Zaika


In autumn when the ice isn’t strong enough for bears to leave the island and start hunting, they call in human settlements and peek through windows. 

‘Every window in our village has a strong frame with spikes. Quite often bears will be over at breakfast when we are cooking porridge. For some reason they can’t resist its smell and sit under the kitchen window as if waiting for their share’, Leonid explains. 

Living so close to the large population of polar bears means that there is a strict set of safety rules, which are always to look around when leaving the house, always to keep flare gun and a pepper spray, and a gun if there is a permission to carry it. 

‘This was said a million times, but once again - never run and always remember that if a tiger starts an attack, it will always finish. A polar bear can be stopped: you can yell at it, or make some unexpected noise. 

‘They do in fact remind me of dogs. If they are at a distance and you jokingly say hello, some of them even wag their tails’, the researcher said.

Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears
It was here on Wrangel Island that the world’s last woolly mammoth died some 4,000 years ago; now it has a nature reserve, a weather station, a Russian military base - and the largest number of polar bear maternity dens in the world. Pictures: Leonid Zaika


There are at least two ways to get to Wrangel Island: as a nature reserve’s volunteer (prepare to stay for at least one month, better two, be ready to live in severe climate and pretty spartan conditions), and as a tourist from June until the end of September. 

Usually a trip to the island costs about $12,000 USD. 

The reserve offers nine routes, with the most popular being a trip around the island with short stops. 

Other routes involve longer trips across the island, with nights spend in comfortable houses.

Travellers or volunteers are  guaranteed to see polar bears, grey whales, musk oxen, Arctic foxes and thousands of birds. 

Comments (16)

it was on 17 May 1884 that the Alaska Board of the United States Department of the Treasury added Wrangell Island to the District of Alaska under the authority of Section 1 of the Harrison Alaska Organic Act as territory 'known as Alaska". Formal possession was taken of "New Columbia Land" by a landing party from the USRM steamer Thomas Corwin on 12 August 1881 under the command of 3rd Lt. William Edward Reynolds, USRM. John Muir was part of that landing party.

Reynolds later became the first Rear Admiral of the United States Coast Guard.

The sua sponte order to annex New Columbia Land came from Captain Calvin L. Hooper, USRM to 1st Lt. Michael Healy, USRM. Hooper later became the first Arctic Advisor of the US Department of State and on 30 December 1898 issued the sua sponte order to annex Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean which took place on 17 January 1899. Healy was the first African American to be commissioned as an officer in a Uniform and Service of the United States.

Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
10/02/2021 03:51
0
0
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