Serenading and protecting walruses in the Russian Arctic
Submitted by Olivia Kroth…
The Russian region of the Arctic is of great importance to Russia in many respects. It has a great number of valuable natural resources and specific ecosystems. Russia’s “Arctic Policy” covers all Russian possessions located north of the Arctic Circle, which means about one-fifth of Russia’s total landmass. The main goals of Russia’s “Arctic Policy” are to utilize its natural resources, protect its ecosystems, use the Arctic seas for transportation and ensure that it remains a zone of peace and cooperation. For many centuries, Russians have benefited from the Arctic for economic gain by fishing, hunting and shipping. Now Arctic tourism is being developed as a new branch of the Russian tourism industry. Arctic wildlife fascinates tourists but needs special protection, for example the walruses which have been placed on a Red List of endangered species. Therefore the Russian Geographical Society has set up a programme, “Protection of the Walrus”.
Like many other animals, walruses love music, they feel attracted and pacified by it. “A lucky family of walruses in Russia’s Arctic was recently treated to an accordion serenade from a boat passing by, proving that even sea creatures can be music fans. A group of Arctic explorers came across the huddle of walruses as their boat traveled near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Alexander Bogdanov did what any person would do in this situation: He brought out his accordion and started to play a song for them” (THE MOSCOW TIMES, 26.09.2019).
Alexander Bogdanov played Eugen Doga’s famous waltz from the Soviet film “My Sweet and Tender Beast” — an appropriate song choice, considering his audience. The walruses gave generous grunts of approval as the song progressed, swimming close enough to the boat so they would not miss hearing a single note. “Now the walruses will swim near every ship that passes, looking for an accordionist and waiting for a concert,” said Olga Chumachenko, the expedition member who filmed the video.
Of course, walruses prefer being serenaded than being hunted. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the walrus was heavily exploited by hunters, leading to its near-extinction.
Today, the Russian Atlantic and Laptev Sea populations are classified as Category 2 (decreasing) and Category 3 (rare) in the Russian Red Book. Commercial walrus harvesting is now outlawed in the Russian Federation, although the indigenous Chukchi people are officially permitted to kill small numbers towards the end of each summer.
Traditional hunters used all parts of the walrus. The meat was often preserved as an important winter nutrition source. The tusks and bones were used for tools and as material for handicrafts. The oil was rendered for warmth and light. Rope, as well as house and boat coverings were produced from the tough hide. Nowadays, global trade in walrus ivory is restricted, according to a CITES Appendix 3 listing.
The Russian Geographical Society has a special project, “Protection of the Walrus”, supported since 2013. The purpose of the project is to study and preserve various subspecies of walruses in the conditions of intensification of economic development in their key habitats. The project is being implemented in collaboration with the Russian Arctic National Park.
Walrus populations are being monitored in Russia’s Franz-Josef-Land, using satellite imagery RDC ScanEx. This method has proved to be promising for monitoring species in difficult and remote locations. The total number of walruses in the area of nine studied rookeries is about 2.700 individuals. Assessment of genetic intrapopulation diversity of the walruses from the northern and southern parts of the Barents Sea revealed no significant differences between the groups. Previously it was thought that they are isolated from each other.
To study walruses and other rare animals in the Russian arctic, new scientific and touristic centres will soon open on the territory of the Russian Arctic National Park in the Arkhangelsk Oblast. A network of scientific and tourist accomodation is planned on the archipelagoes of Franz-Josef-Land and Novaya Zemlya. These centres will be multifunctional Arctic complexes (MAC). Each MAC can accomodate 50 people: scientists, inspectors of the national park and also tourists (TRAVEL WIRE NEWS, 18.11.2018).
In the summer season of 2019, the Russian Arctic National Park attracted more tourists with new routes and sites, the park’s press service reported. Several new tourist agencies included the tour to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, which was unexplored territory for tourists before. Hooker Island of Franz-Josef-Land remained the main point of attraction, where the Tikhaya Cove hosted the opening of a new visitor’s centre, while renovation of the airplane hangar is being continued.
According to the park’s director Alexander Kirilov, the park welcomed 1.306 visitors in 2019, against 1.079 a year earlier. “The tourist season in 2019 is over at the national park,” the director told TASS. “This year, we have registered the highest number of tourists who visited the Franz-Josef-Land archipelago and the Novaya Zemlya archipelago’s northern part.”
In 2020, the nature reserve will regulate its tourist flow. “We shall pick different islands for different cruises, so that one island will not receive too many visitors in a limited time,” the director said. “When 100 – 120 people go ashore at a certain time every week, the pressure is getting too high, even stones in the Arctic cannot stand it” (TASS, 27.09.2019).
Established in June 2009, the National Park was expanded in 2016. It covers a large and remote area of the Arctic Ocean, the northern part of Novaya Zemlya and Franz-Josef-Land. In addition to preserving natural habitats of Arctic animals, the area of the national park is important for preserving the cultural heritage, which is related to the history of discovery and colonisation of the vast Arctic territories, starting from the sixteenth century.
The Russian archipelago of Franz-Josef-Land (Земля Франца-Иосифа), constituting the northernmost part of Arkhangelsk Oblast, consists of 192 islands, which cover an area of 16.134 square kilometres. The archipelago became Soviet territory, in 1926. In 2017, Russia’s President Vladimit Putin visited the archipelago to protect Russia’s interests in the Arctic. In August 2019, a geographic expedition by the Russian Northern Fleet discovered several new islands in the archipelago. They had previously been buried under the Vylki Glacier, until part of it melted.
The Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya (Новая Земля) lies in the extreme northeast of Europe, between the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea. Novaya Zemlya belongs to the Arkhangelsk Oblast and is composed of two main islands, the northern Severny Island and the southern Yuzhny Island, which are separated by the Matochkin Strait. Novaya Zemlya was discovered by Russians in the 11th century, when Novgorod hunters visited the area. The islands were systematically surveyed by Pyotr Pakhtusov and Avgust Tsivolko during the early 1830s. The first permanent Russian settlement was established in 1870.
Novaya Zemlya is an extension of the Northern part of the Ural Mountains and the interior is mountainous throughout. Severny Island has a large ice cap and many active glaciers. There is a meteorological station at Cape Zhelaniya, Severny’s northernmost cape. Yuzhny Island is mostly free of ice, with a tundra landscape. It is the original home of the Nenets people, as well as a large seabird population.
The serenade-loving walruses of Russia’s Arctic are the only living species of the family Odobenidae. There are two subspecies: the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) and the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). Both subspecies live in the Russian Arctic. The population of Atlantic walruses has its home in the western part of Arctic Russia. The isolated population of Laptev Sea walruses is confined year-round to the central and western regions of the Laptev Sea and the eastmost regions of the Kara Sea. The current population of these walruses has been estimated to be between 5.000 and 10.000.
In summer and autumn, several hundred thousand Pacific walruses migrate from the Bering Sea into the Chuckchi Sea through the narrow Bering Strait. The majority of the population of the Pacific walrus spends its summers north of the Bering Strait in the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of eastern Siberia. In late summer and autumn, they form massive aggregations of tens of thousands of individuals on rocky beaches.
The most prominent feature of walruses are their long tusks. These are elongated canines, which are present in both male and female animals. They can reach a length of one metre and weigh up to 5.4 kg. Male walruses use their tusks for fighting, dominance and display. The strongest males with the largest tusks typically dominate social groups. Tusks are also used to form and maintain holes in the ice and aid the walrus in climbing out of water onto ice. Generally, walruses have few teeth other than tusks.
Stiff bristles (vibrissae) surround the tusks, giving the walrus a characteristic whiskered appearance. There can be 400 to 700 vibrissae in 13 to 15 rows, reaching 30 cm in length. The vibrissae are attached to muscles and are supplied with blood and nerves, making them highly sensitive organs capable of differentiating shapes.
Walruses live in shallow shelf regions and forage on the sea floor, often from sea ice platforms. They are not particularly deep divers. Their deepest recorded dives are around 80 m but they can remain submerged for as long as half an hour. The animals feed on marine organisms, such as clams, crabs, mollusks, shrimp and worms. They forage by grazing along the sea bottom, searching and identifying prey with their sensitive vibrissae.
Due to its great size and tusks, the walrus has only two natural predators: the killer whale (orca) and the polar bear. Both the killer whale and the polar bear are most likely to prey on walrus calves. Killer whales regularly attack walruses successfully. Polar bears often hunt walruses by rushing at beached aggregations, consuming young or infirm animals that are crushed or wounded in the sudden exodus. However, even an injured walrus is a formidable opponent for a polar bear. Walruses have been known to fatally injure polar bears in battles, if the fight happens in water where the bear is at a disadvantage.
Walruses live 20 to 30 years. The males reach sexual maturity as early as seven years, but do not mate until fully developed at around 15 years of age. They rut from January through April. The females begin ovulating as soon as they are four to six years old. Breeding occurs from January to March, peaking in February. Gestation lasts 15 to 16 months.
Calves are born during the spring migration, from April to June. They weigh 45 to 75 kg at birth and are able to swim. The mothers nurse for over a year before weaning, but the young can spend up to five years with their mothers. Walrus milk contains high amounts of fats and protein. Because ovulation is suppressed until the calf is weaned, females give birth only every two years, leaving the walrus with a rather low reproductive rate.
The walrus plays an important role in Chukchi folklore and religion. The skin and bones are used in ceremonies, and the animal appears in legends, for example, in the myth of the raven. The raven recovers the sun and the moon from an evil spirit by seducing his daughter. The angry spirit throws his own daughter from a high cliff. As she drops into the water, she turns into a walrus, whose tusks are formed from the weeping girl’s long braids. This myth is related to another Chukchi myth, in which an old walrus-headed woman rules the bottom of the sea.
The walrus is an important part of Chukchi cuisine, which is based on boiled walrus, seal and whale meat, due to their life-sustaining fat. It is also an important part of folk art. Sculpturing and carving on walrus tusk has become the most highly developed form of art among the Chukchi. Traditional themes are landscapes and scenes from day-to-day life: hunting parties and herding animals native to the region.
The Russian Arctic with its harsh nature, its native people and rich wildlife is a very interesting region to be explored by tourists. The concept of Arctic tourism has become a part of tourist business management at the federal and regional level in the Russian Federation. Traditionally, the Arctic was “Terra Incognita”, unknown land, which always attracts and fascinates some travelers and tourists. Even in the 21st century, the Arctic remains largely unexplored land, little-known to modern people.
Arctic tourism brings income and profit to the Arctic people, affecting their economic and social development in a positive way. Therefore Arctic tourism has become a promising sector of the Russian economy. However, Arctic wildlife needs to be protected and preserved. The walruses, for example, like being serenaded but not crowded and disturbed by curious tourists. With this concept in mind, cruises and expeditions to the Arctic will be a satisfying, successful experience for all parties involved.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.
Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com