Mist-shrouded mountains loom over icy waters in Russia’s Franz Josef Land, an area where Polar Bears International is expanding its conservation efforts.

© Kieran Mulvaney

3/8/2018 6:43:15 PM

Into the Wild: Franz Josef Land

Photos and story by Kieran Mulvaney

At its most northerly point, Franz Josef Land sits a mere 560 miles from the North Pole: closer than any other land in Eurasia, closer than anywhere else on Earth, in fact, except for parts of Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that polar proximity attracted several waves of explorers, many of whom used the archipelago as a launching pad for what were universally unsuccessful attempts to reach the top of the world.

There is no permanent human presence on the islands, but there is plenty of life. The 192 islands support 150 species of moss, 167 species of lichen, and 50 species of flowering plants. Seabirds such as kittiwakes and auks patrol the skies and cling to cliff faces, closely watched by Arctic foxes. The surrounding seas and sea ice boast bowhead whales, walruses – and, of course, polar bears.

It is not easy to reach Franz Josef Land – not only because it is remote, but because since 2012 it has been part of the Russian Arctic National Park; there is very little infrastructure to support tourists, and permits to visit are awarded sparingly.

The great majority of visitors are passengers on board the nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), which carries tourists from Murmansk to the North Pole and back on roughly 10-day journeys chartered by companies such as Quark Expeditions.

Polar Bears International has long had an interest in expanding its conservation efforts to this remote region. An opportunity presented itself last year when PBI Executive Director Krista Wright, PBI Director of Conservation Geoff York, and I were invited to join a Quark voyage to the Pole on board 50 Years of Victory. On both our northward and southward legs we steamed through some of the channels of the archipelago and stepped ashore on some of the islands.

Geoff and Krista gave a number of presentations to the passengers during the voyage, talking about polar bear biology, ecology, research and conservation, and the ways in which polar bears and their sea ice habitat are threatened by climate change. And they spoke at length to several of the Russian Arctic National Park (RANP) scientists and employees who were on board the ship - also giving lectures and taking advantage of the logistical support offered by Quark, which enables them to travel to and among the islands of the archipelago – to learn about their work and how PBI could contribute.

Those conversations continued after the voyage, and are now bearing fruit.

PBI is providing educational and informational materials, including those on polar bear safety, that are being translated into Russian for use at the RANP’s headquarters and outreach center in Arkhangelsk as well as for visitors to Franz Josef Land. The goal is that those first materials will be ready for this upcoming summer.

In 2019, PBI will return to Franz Josef Land with Quark, and if all goes to plan, the ship will be carrying some materials that will help scientists fill in some key areas of information.

“Jon Aars of the Norwegian Polar Institute is just starting a new polar bear genetic project that aspires to look at relatedness of bears in the greater Barents Sea region, and right now he has no way of getting regular samples from Russia; Arctic Parks could be really pivotal in that,” says Geoff. One way in which such samples could be collected was recently tested in the field on the other side of the Arctic, on Russia’s Wrangel island, by a team led by Eric Regehr of the University of Washington, which deployed a new polar bear hair snagging trap.

“They’re basically little boxes with, essentially, wire brushes on the inside,” Geoff explains. “You just put the essence of something smelly on the inside of the box – say, some marine mammal oil, something to attract a polar bear -  and they stick their heads in, and the brushes snag a little bit of hair. At the end of the season you collect the hair from the boxes. The idea is that we could get some boxes on the next Quark trip and get them out to the park and start collecting samples. Super easy and non-invasive.”

“One of our most important goals at PBI is finding ways to help researchers get the information that they need – whether through funding or providing logistical support or whatever else needs to be done,” adds Krista. “And then of course it is vital to disseminate the results of that research to as broad an audience as possible. This project allows us to tick all those boxes: helping educate the passengers who are fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the most remote places on Earth, and helping researchers understand a lot more about the bears that are there.”

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