Russian town invaded by polar bears forced to set up street patrols while residents only dare travel by car

Alec Luhn

Residents of a Russian town invaded by polar bears have said they are taking children to school by car and patrolling the streets with stun grenades as they wait for bear experts to arrive.

Nadezhda Kireyeva, a postal worker in the Arctic military town of Belushya Guba, told The Telegraph that locals have taken precautions against attack while trying to continue with their daily lives, even though coming face-to-face with a polar bear incites a mix of “adrenaline, terror and the question of what to do”. She recently saw a group of seven bears on the street.

According to Ms Kireyeva, the town's 2,000 residents have become more vigilant and don't go outside alone. Despite the short distances, cars have been organised to bring employees to work and children to school. Soldiers are under orders to move around only in vehicles.

An employee of the local administration told The Telegraph that security personnel were “patrolling constantly,” and there were currently no bears in populated areas. He admitted, however, that the situation was changing frequently.

“The more bears, the more patrols,” he said, declining to give his name. 

The groups typically fire shots into the air, set off stun grenades or chase bears away with large vehicles.

But Ms Kireyeva and others warned that the predators were becoming inured to attempts to scare them as they searched for food, attracted by the town's rubbish.

“Night and day they walk the streets in gangs of three to six, testing how solid doors and windows are,” one resident told the news site Fontanka. “They're not aggressive, more just impudent and fearless.” 

Polar bears have been filmed entering homes in Belushya Guba, a military town on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya Credit: VK

At least 52 bears have been spotted since December on the streets of Belushya Guba, which is located near a military base and nuclear testing grounds on the island of Novaya Zemlya. A state of emergency was declared on the island on Saturday as videos surfaced of bears entering blocks of flats and foraging at a rubbish dump.

The authorities blamed the “mass invasion” of polar bears on climate change, which has melted the sea ice where they can hunt seals. The western shore of Novaya Zemlya is now ice-free year-round. Stuck on land, bears often seek sustenance among human refuse, like those who besieged the coastal town of Dikson last autumn.

Meanwhile, more and more people are arriving to man the energy projects and military bases Russia has been establishing in the warming Arctic, raising the risk of conflict. A polar bear killed an oil and gas worker in Franz Josef Land in 2016.

While Belushya Guba administrators reportedly wanted permission to shoot the protected animals, Russia's environmental oversight agency instead sent a crisis response group of experts to count the bears and find a solution, perhaps even tranquillising and moving them away from town. A blizzard with winds of 20 metres a second on the island has delayed the group's arrival until at least Wednesday.

When the bears first began appearing, Ms Kireyeva and her five-year-old daughter enjoyed watching them as if they were at the zoo, she said.  

But in January, Ms Kireyeva was taking her daughter to school when the town “bear patrol” inadvertently chased one directly into their path.

“We had decided to go hide somewhere, but suddenly it jumped out in front of us all scared,” she recalled. “I grabbed the kid and ran in the other direction. Just then the patrol caught up and the bear ran away.”

She and her daughter had never been so afraid, she added.

Polar bears forage for food at a tip on Novaya Zemlya Credit: VK

Mikhail Stishov, a polar bear expert with the World Wildlife Fund, said Belushya Guba had led the bears on by failing to burn or store rubbish out of reach. A recent social media video from the area showed a huge pack of bears clustering around waste food at a tip. 

“They're coming to land more often, but the fact that they settled in next to a village, that's the fault of the authorities,” he told The Telegraph. “Sooner or later, they will eat what's there and leave, but if you're throwing rubbish nearby, this will be repeated.”

The environmental oversight agency has asked Belushya Guba authorities to shut down the rubbish dump and replace open bins with covered ones.

The town is reportedly planning to build a rubbish processing facility, but it won't come online until 2024. 

Polar bears, which can weigh 1,300lbs or more and run up to 25 miles per hour, do not typically hunt humans but can attack if they are surprised, feel threatened or are searching for food. 

Vladimir Putin measures a tranquillised polar bear with scientists in Franz Josef Land in 2010 Credit: Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty

As sea ice retreats further and faster, they are increasingly stranded on land. Vladimir Putin, the president, said that only 25,000 of them were left in the wild when he measured a tranquillised polar bear with scientists in Franz Josef Land in 2010, but estimates vary widely. 

Those who encounter the “tsar of the Arctic” are advised to suppress the instinct to flee lest they be mistaken for prey. Instead, they should try to frighten it off with loud noises. 

Camera-wielding locals often feed the animals, which raises their expectations and makes it harder to chase them away. Several videos in recent years have shown Russians in the far north feeding cookies to bears through kitchen windows.

“They're spitting on their own safety,” Mr Stishov said. 

He also recommended that electric fences be installed around schools and residents travel in groups carry small fireworks with them to frighten bears. 

Both the oil and gas worker in Franz Josef Land and the head of a meteorological station killed there by a polar bear in 2011 reportedly violated safety rules by going outside alone and unarmed. 

Ms Kireyeva said the situation was improving with the end of the polar night, which plunges the area into permanent darkness for 10 weeks and makes it hard to spot the bears among the snow. 

Despite the close encounters with the local megafauna, she said residents have not been packing up to leave Belushya Guba. 

“We all understand that it's not the bears that are coming to us, but rather we are living on their territory,” she said. “So we've gotten used to being neighbours with them.”

Environmentalists have warned that human encounters with other predators could also jump as climate change forces them to seek food in populated areas. In particular, Siberian tigers have been spied more frequently near towns in the Primorye region on Russia's Pacific coast.