Submitted by Olivia Kroth…
The Russian Arctic is of special economic and military interest for the Russian Federation. It contains huge reserves of gas and oil. The Northern Arctic Searoute connects Russia with China. Regular miltary drills are held in the Arctic to ensure combat readiness. For example, the Northern Fleet’s missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov has taken to the Barents Sea for planned combat training measures, at the end of June 2020. “During its deployment to the sea, the cruiser’s crew will practice combat training assignments in interaction with aircraft and helicopters of the Air Force and Air Defence Army, and also with the crews of the Northern Fleet’s other surface ships and submarines” (TASS, 29.06.2020). However, the Arctic also needs protection, so flora and fauna can be saved from destruction. Of special interest in Yakutia is a new Polar Bear Protection Programme. The Bear Islands Nature Reserve is due to be installed, in late 2020 – early 2021.
“An official document to set up the Medvezhyi Islands Nature Reserve in Yakutia to protect the polar bear population is due in late 2020 – early 2021. The Medvezhyi Islands, or Bear Islands, is an uninhabited group of islands at the western end of the Kolyma Gulf in the East Siberian Sea. The islands will include infrastructure to monitor the bears’ migration. The project will offer new jobs” (TASS, 19.06.2020).
The group of Bear Islands (Медвежьи острова) – Krestovsky, Leontyev, Andreyev, Pushkaryov, Lysov and Chetyrokhstolbovoi – is located 130 km north of the Kolyma River’s estuary, with a distance to the nearest mainland of 35-90 km. The Kolyma (Колыма) flows through northeastern Siberia, its basin covers parts of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). It is frozen to a depths of several metres for about 250 days each year, becoming free of ice only in early June, until October.
Krestovsky is the largest island of the Bear Islands. Its northern and eastern shores are steep and rocky, the western coast is low, covered with boulders and rubble, while the southern coast is sloping. Moss and hard, short grass grow on Krestovsky. In the north-west the island is covered by a forest of larch, fir and poplar. It is the habitat of bears, deer, foxes and wolves.
Leontyev, the second largest island of the group, has an elongated shape, extending to the north with a length of 13 kilometres. This island consists of two parallel mountain ranges with a height of up to 80 metres. Small, swampy rivulets run from the central elevation to the northwestern and eastern shores. The coasts are mostly steep, up to 22 metres high. A lot of driftwood and some mammoth bones can be found. The vegetation and wildlife are typical of all the Bear Islands: grass, lichens, moss – bears, deer, foxes, wolves and small rodents.
The first man to record their existence was the Russian explorer Yakov Permyakov, in 1710. While sailing from the Lena River to the Kolyma River in Siberia, he saw the silhouette of this unexplored island group in the East Siberian Sea. Other explorers followed in his wake.
In 1740, Dmitry Laptev reached Krestovsky Island, sailing from the Indigirka River to Kolyma. In 1763, Stepan Andreev traveled around on the Bear Islands with dogs and gave a cursory description of them. In 1769, Ivan Leontyev, Ivan Lysov and Alexei Pushkaryov rode over the ice on dog sleds from Nizhnekolymsk to the Bear Islands and drew up a fairly accurate map of them. From 1820 to 1824, Arctic explorer Fyodor Matyushkin surveyed and mapped Chetyrokhstolbovoi Island.
The surrounding sea is covered with fast ice in winter, the climate is severe. During the summer months, there is commercial fishing in the area of the islands, which belong to the Sakha Republic of Russia, formerly called Yakutia. As their name indicates, these islands are a refuge and breeding ground for polar bears.
For decades, large-scale hunting raised concern for the future of the species but populations rebounded, after controls and quotas began to take effect. For thousands of years, the polar bear has been a key figure in the material, spiritual and cultural life of the Yakut people and polar bears remain important in their culture.
The Yakuts are a Turkic ethnic group, living in the Republic of Sakha. The Yakuts call themselves Sakha (сахалар) in old chronicles. The Yakut language belongs to the Siberian branch of Turkic languages. There are around 450.000 native speakers in Yakutia. Like most Turkic languages, Yakut is an agglutinative language, employing vowel harmony.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Tsardom of Muscovy moved into their territory and settled down on it, imposed a fur tax and suppressed several Yakut rebellions, between 1634 and 1642. The tsarist brutality in collection of the pelt tax (yasak) sparked aggression among the Yakuts. The voivode Peter Golovin, leader of the tsarist forces, responded with a reign of terror. Yakut settlements were torched, hundreds of people killed.
In 1922, the Soviet Government named the area Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Якутская Автономная Советская Социалистическая Республика, Якутская АССР). In the 1930s, the operation of building the Northern Sea Route began in the Yakutsk ACCR. During World War II, which is called the Great Patriotic War in Russia, more than 50.000 inhabitants of the Yakut ASSR fought on the Soviet fronts and thirteen of them were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.
Olonkho, the Yakut heroic epos, was inscribed as Cultural Heritage of Humanity at the UNESCO, in 2008. It is one of the oldest epics of Turkic peoples. The term Olonkho refers to the entire Yakut epic tradition, as well as to its central epic. Today, it is regularly performed in the Sakha Republic. Olonkho contains poetic tales, which vary from ten to 15.000 verses in length. The topics are animals, deities, spirits and warriors of the formerly nomadic Yakut society.
The Soviet Union banned the harvest of polar bears, in 1956. However, poaching
continued and posed a serious threat to the polar bear population. Polar bears are currently listed as “Rare”, of “Uncertain Status” or “Rehabilitated and Rehabilitating” in the Red Data Book of Russia, depending on the population. In 2010, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment published a strategy for polar bear conservation in Russia.
On President Vladimir Putin’s internet site “Kremlin.ru” there is information about Russia’s Polar Bear Preservation Programme: “The programme’s main objectives are to study the polar bear habitat in the Russian Arctic; gather data about the polar bears’ migrations and the boundaries of the animals’ distribution range; identify the factors negatively affecting polar bear populations and the causes of such factors; analyze changes in the polar bear habitat caused by global climate changes; and conduct comprehensive research into these factors.”
Further objectives are to make recommendations ensuring that suitable conditions can be created for the survival and recovery of depleted polar bear populations in the Russian Arctic. At present, the most serious threats for polar bears are industrial development in the Arctic, such as shipping and oil drilling, as well as poaching. Additionally, the seasonal fluctuation of the sea ice cover due to climate changes restricts polar bear migrations.
The International Polar Bear Day has been introduced to raise awareness about the conservation status of the polar bear. This annual event is celebrated every year, on the 27th of February. International Polar Bear Day is organized by Polar Bears International. The day encourages people to find ways of reducing their carbon output, such as turning down their thermostats or driving less, in order to minimize the danger of climate change.
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a large bear. An adult male weighs 350–700 kg, the adult female is about half that size. Polar bears are the largest land carnivores currently in existence. They are marine mammals, spending many months of the year at sea. However, they have big, strong limbs and feet to walk on land. Their preferred habitat is the annual sea ice that covers the waters of the Russian Arctic. Polar bears like to live where sea ice meets water, to hunt seals.
Polar bears are playful animals. They play together and sleep in an embrace. Polar bear zoologist Nikita Ovsianikov described adult males as having “well-developed friendships.” Cubs are especially playful. Polar bears communicate with various sounds and vocalizations. Females call their young ones with chuffs and moans. When nervous, polar bears produce huffs and snorts. Growls, hisses and roars are signs of aggression.
The polar bear’s feet are large, to distribute load when walking on snow or thin ice and to provide propulsion when swimming. The pads of the paws are covered with small, soft dermal bumps (papillae), which provide traction on the ice. The claws are short, stocky and deeply scooped on the underside, to assist digging in the ice. The polar bear’ s sense of smell is well developed. It helps him to detect seals nearly two kilometres away or buried under one metre of snow. The hearing is as acute as that of a human and its vision is also good at long distances.
The polar bear is an excellent swimmer, able to swim for days. One female polar bear swam continuously for nine days in the frigid Bering Sea for 700 km, to reach ice far from land. She then travelled another 1.800 km. During the swim, she lost 22 percent of her body mass and her yearling cub died. Polar bears can swim as fast as 10 km/h. When walking, the polar bear has a lumbering gait, maintaining an average speed of 6 km/h. When sprinting, he can reach a speed of 40 km/h.
The polar bear’s diet primarily consists of bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus). The Arctic is home to millions of seals, which become prey when they surface from under the ice in order to breathe, or when they sit on the ice to rest. The polar bear’s hunting method is called still-hunting: he uses his excellent sense of smell to locate a seal breathing hole and crouches nearby in silence, waiting for a seal to appear. The bear may lie in wait for several hours. When the seal exhales, the bear smells its breath, reaches into the hole with a forepaw and drags it out onto the ice. He kills the seal by biting its head to crush the skull. The polar bear also hunts by stalking seals resting on the ice. A third hunting method is to raid the birth lairs that female seals create in the snow.
Large males even hunt larger prey, for example the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus). A polar bear may charge a group of walruses with the goal of separating a young, infirm or injured walrus from the pod. A polar bear will also attack adult walruses, when their diving holes have frozen over, or he will intercept them, before they can get back to the diving hole in the ice. Furthermore, polar bears prey on beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) and narwhals (Monodon monoceros) by swiping at them at breathing holes.
Mating takes place on the sea ice in April and May, when polar bears congregate in the best seal hunting areas. A male may follow the tracks of a breeding female for 100 km. After finding her, he can engage in intense fighting with other males over mating rights. Partners stay together and mate repeatedly for an entire week. The mating ritual induces ovulation in the female. After mating, the fertilized egg remains in a suspended state until August or September. During these four months, the pregnant female eats huge amounts of food, gaining at least 200 kg, often doubling her body weight.
When the ice floes are at their minimum in autumn, each pregnant female digs a den. It consists of a narrow entrance tunnel, leading to a few chambers. Most maternity dens are in snowdrifts but may also be dug underground in permafrost, if it is not sufficiently cold yet for snow. In the den the pregnant female enters a dormant state, similar to hibernation. Her heart rate slows from 46 to 27 beats per minute.
Between November and February, cubs are born blind. At first, they will be covered with a light down fur and weigh less than one kilogramme. On average, each litter has two cubs. The family remains in the den from February to April, while the mother nurses her cubs with fat-rich milk. By the time the mother breaks open the entrance to the den, her cubs weigh about 10 to 15 kg. For about 12 to 15 days, the family spends time outside the den.
Afterwards, they begin long walks from the den to the sea ice, where the mother can catch seals. The cubs playfully imitate the mother’s hunting methods in preparation for later life. Polar bears have an average life expectancy of 25 years. The oldest polar bear on record died at age 32. Old polar bears eventually become too weak to catch food and gradually starve to death. After being injured in fights or accidents, they may either die from their injuries or become unable to hunt effectively, which leads to starvation.
The polar bear as King of the North plays a special role in Yakut shamanism. Before the arrival of Russians, the majority of the local population in Yakutia was either Tengrist or practised shamanism. Under the domination of Imperial Russia, the local population converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and took Orthodox Christian names. Nevertheless, they continued to follow their traditional religions.
Tengrism is an ancient nature religion, centered on Tengri, God of the Sky. After 1991, the Tengrist religion was revived and celebrated again in Yakutia. The Yakut philologist Lazar Afanasyev-Teris founded the Tengrist organisation “Kut-Siur”, in 1993. The headquarters of the International Fund of Tengri Research are located in the city of Yakutsk.
Nowadays, many Yakuts still practise shamanism. The Yakuts are well known in ethnography for their animistic beliefs and shamanistic practices. The universe in Yakut shamanism is three-dimensional and populated by a large number of different spirits. It is divided into three spheres: the upper world (uwehe doydu), the middle world (orto doydu) and the lower world (urlala doydu), through which the Tree of Life passes, the World Tree.
In the 1990s, a neopagan shamanist movement called “aiyy yeurekhé” was founded by the Yakut journalist Ivan Ukhkhan. This group and others cooperated to build a shaman temple in downtown Yakutsk, in 2002. Shamanism as a native way of life is popular in Yakutia. Shaman music groups and artists venerate and celebrate the polar bear and other arctic animals as spirit leaders.
The polar bear is a powerful spiritual guide for the Yakuts. It is not surprising because the animal represents strength and endurance. Both qualities are necessary for survival in the harsh living conditions of the Arctic. As King of the North, the polar bear spirit helps to adapt to the environment and make a home in it as good as you can.
This is a lesson from the wise native peoples in the Russian North for all of us to retain. Adapting to our individual and social environment, making the best of it will serve us well, wherever we live.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia.
Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.