How is the animal population in the Russian Arctic changing?21 march 2023
In 2023, scientists counted the walrus population of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago—to the great surprise of specialists, they were able to record 7,000 animals. This is double the expected figure and is a pleasant surprise for the staff of the Russian Arctic National Park, noted Alexander Kirillov, Director of the protected area. During the expedition, old rookeries were inspected and new ones were discovered. Scientists note that previously the population of walruses in Russia's northernmost nature reserve was estimated at 3,000–3,500 animals and was subject to special control by the nature conservation services.
On the other hand, there is talk of alarming statistics on the declining populations of many Arctic animals, including walruses. For example, a recent film by Yakut directors, Haulout, the only Russian film to qualify for an Oscars 2023, raised the issue of the drastic reduction in the number of these animals due to climate change. Many international organisations and research groups talk about the problems posed by global warming. So how is the Arctic fauna really doing?
Nature's fragile balance
The arrival of man in the Arctic, until the middle of the last century, brought nothing but trouble for the local fauna. Between the 19th and the first third of the 20th centuries, the trawling industry severely depleted the Arctic bioresource, pushing many species to the brink of extinction. An example would be bowhead whales near Franz Josef Land. After the ban on whaling they were thought to have been wiped out, then individual whales were recorded, and it is only in the last decades of this century that there has been a very slow recovery in numbers. According to the website of the Russian Arctic National Park, their number is only a few dozen. The management of the protected area emphasises the importance of maintaining the conservation status of the archipelago waters as the only place where these whales can regain their numbers in their natural environment. Now that legislation has been introduced to protect a multitude of species, national parks and nature reserves, one could cautiously hope to restore the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Unfortunately, it is not that simple—in addition to the anthropogenic factor, climate change intervenes.
The fate of the polar bear is an example of the negative impact of global climate change on the survival of individual animal species. According to scientists, the polar predator population could decline by 30% or more by 2050. The main reason is the shrinking of the bear's habitat—the drifting ice on which the animals spend a large part of the year is melting. According to several international organisations, the volume of ice cover in the Arctic could shrink by tens of per cent over the coming decades. If you add poachers, as well as pollution of their natural habitat, the outlook is grim enough.
However, there is a ray of hope here too—polar bears in Russia have a number of protected areas under the protection and control of nature conservation services. These are the Russian Arctic and Wrangel Island, which is also called the 'maternity home for polar bears', Beringia, Ust-Lensky and Big Arctic. They are used to monitor and control the numbers of animals, as well as to find solutions for conserving populations. By the way, the habitat is also being cleaned little by little. In the two years of the Clean Arctic project, for example, volunteers have cleaned up 340 ha and disposed of more than 5,000 tons of waste.
Dialectics of the human factor
This is not the first time that climate change has caused animal extinctions, nor is it the first time that anthropogenic interference has caused them. Today, however, a truly unique process is underway—the restoration of the Arctic fauna's diversity by man. Today, the experiment to bring muskox back to the Russian Arctic, which began back in 1974, continues. In what is now the Great Arctic Reserve and on Wrangel Island, 30 and 20 specimens were released, respectively. For more than half a century, the animal has been able to acclimatise and settle on the coast of the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea, Yakutia and the Polar Urals. According to the portal ovtsebyk.rf, the population in 2022 numbers between 9,700 and 18,500 animals, but accurate counts are very difficult because it is virtually impossible to keep count from an aeroplane in the vast expanse of tundra.
Today, the issue of climate change and its impact on the polar biosphere involves many countries around the world. For example, a scientific conference on climate change under Russia's chairmanship of the Arctic Council, to be held in Yakutsk on 22–24 March, will bring together some 200 experts from around the world. Thanks to a concerted effort to cope with the effects of global warming, perhaps the happy news about walrus populations nearly doubling in size will be more common.Read more Save the king of the Arctic Russia consistently implements polar bear conservation strategy