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Polar bears unable to reach the ocean have invaded two Russian villages

Source: Meduza
Maksimilian / Shutterstock.com

Novaya Zemlya, a Russian archipelago north of the country’s mainland, has been in a state of emergency since February 9 due to a polar bear invasion. Fifty-two bears have been sighted near the village of Belushya Guba; some of them exhibited aggressive behavior and attempted to enter businesses or residential buildings. Local residents have observed that the bears are drawn to landfills and trash cans, where they search for food. Russia’s regulatory agency for natural resources, Rosprirodnadzor, has forbidden residents of Novaya Zemlya to shoot even “the most aggressive specimens.” Special patrols have been organized in the archipelago’s two villages to scare away bears using light and sound effects along with dogs and automobiles. Meduza asked Nadezhda Volf, a resident of Belushya Guba, to describe how her village has coped with the presence of their new neighbors in the past few months.

Nadezhda Volf

Belushya Guba resident

This is my seventh year living in the village, but it’s the first time I’ve seen bears. They came to us back in November 2018. The bears couldn’t get to the ocean in time, and that’s where they hunt, so our trash cans have become just about the only source of food they can find. People say they used to dig through our trash before, but it was rare, and they would only come along one by one, not in whole families.

From the beginning, it was really interesting to watch them — it was like a zoo. Once, I was taking my kid to daycare, and on the other side of the lake, walking parallel to us, there was a family of bears taking a stroll. My daughter — she’s five years old — was unbelievably excited.

Another time — this was also on the way to daycare — our bear patrol was chasing a bear cub, and it was so scared that it jumped out in front of us from behind a snowdrift. I grabbed my daughter and ran even though the instructions say you’re not supposed to do that. It’s a good thing the patrol managed to get to the cub in time. I saw his beautiful little eyes, but I’ve never been more scared in my life. My daughter was also very frightened, and she’s been telling the story to her grandmothers ever since. It really is better to see them in a zoo than to meet them on the street.

Not too long ago, I saw seven bears all at once. Well, they were far away from us, but it was still scary — I mean, they can run really fast. The adult bears just walked around, and the cubs played in the snow and slid around the frozen lake on their bellies. I didn’t notice them being aggressive. I thought they were just hungry because they seemed pretty lethargic. But I did hear that a bear tried to come after some of our men. Everyone came out of it alive — they were just very frightened. I don’t know anything else about that particular incident. The less you know, the better you sleep.

When the polar night came around and it got completely, permanently dark, the bears started blending in with the snow, and they would scare us when they would appear behind the corner of your house or in your dumpster. People tried to frighten them away and chase them, but they weren’t scared of all that anymore, and the teenage bears just treated it like a game.

Since then, walking outside alone has been prohibited, so we walk in large groups. A special bus takes people to work, school, and daycare. Our village is small: there are only two streets, so the school is on the way to the daycare. All of us have been trying to walk with our kids [instead of letting them go out alone], even the older ones. There are bears, dogs, it’s winter, the weather changes fast — our parents are all very vigilant right now.

I always go with my daughter to daycare, and then I go to work, which is a two-minute walk away. We go with our husbands to buy groceries and try not to run off anywhere alone — only if it’s an emergency. Everything’s close by here, and if you have to, you can just run into the lobby of one of the buildings and call the patrol headquarters so they can chase the bears away.

The bear patrol works great here. They have special sound and light effects, though I have to say that doesn’t help for long. The bears are never very eager to leave, and then they come back to our trash cans for dinner. Trash collection happens more often now, and everyone tries to take everything out before lunch so there will be as little as possible left when evening comes around. But a lot of people work shifts that don’t leave time for them to do that.

I think there have been fewer bears in the past few days. I don’t see them so often through my window. Maybe the dumpsters are all empty, or maybe they found food somewhere else. Maybe our patrol is being especially active. The polar night is over, so it’s a little more comfortable and safe outside now. But I feel so very sorry for the bears. After all, it’s not like they’re our guests — we’re the ones who live on their territory.

Story recorded by Sasha Sulim

Translation by Hilah Kohen