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New National Marine Strict Nature Reserve Medvezhyi Islands has been Established in the East Siberian Sea

04 july 2020
The Government of the Russian Federation has created the Bear Islands national marine strict nature reserve (zapovednik) in Yakutia based on WWF-Russia project

The main part of the zapovednik's territory is constituted by the Medvezhyi Islands, six islands situated near the mouth of the Kolyma River and adjusted waters of the East-Siberian Sea. This place has the highest recorded concentration of the polar bear dens from the Taymyr Peninsula to Wrangel Island, and, in spring, females can be seen on the adjacent landfast ice with their cubs. This feature of the group of islands has become one of the main arguments in favor of establishing a strict nature reserve  (IUCN category Ia) on the territory. 

The creation of the zapovednik was initiated by the Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Forestry of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). An ecological economic justification was prepared by WWF with the financial support of Oceans 5. The reserve was established on June 30 by decree of the Government of the Russian Federation No. 954. The new zapovednik occupies 8,155 square kilometers, which includes 4,679 square kilometers of the East Siberian Sea adjacent to the Medvezhyi Islands archipelago.

The waters surrounding the archipelago are home to unique, little studied communities of benthic organisms that have existed here since warmer eras of the past, being preserved for as many as about seven thousand years. The shallow waters around the archipelago also serve as a kind of "nursery" for juvenile fish native to the Arctic seas. The waters surrounding the islands are home to bearded and ringed seals and are visited by beluga whales, walruses, and even sea lions.

"The name of the Medvezhyi Islands (the Bear Islands) speaks for itself. These islands are important to the conservation of the polar bear and are a popular place for polar bears to give birth. Females and their cubs are especially vulnerable and need extra protection in the spring when they leave their dens," says Dmitry Gorshkov, Director of WWF-Russia. "However, it is important to preserve not only the land portion of the reserve but also the waters surrounding the islands. Currently, only 2.4 percent of Russian marine areas are under conservation status: in this regard, Russia still has room for improvement. The establishment of the nature reserve around the archipelago will help us not only protect its unique ecosystems but also come closer to the global environmental goal of giving 10 percent of marine areas conservation status. According to WWF-Russia's recent systematic conservation planning exercise at least 25% of the Russian Arctic Seas should be protected by area-based conservation measures."

Bear Patrol expedition to the islands

Besides the islands and adjacent waters, the territory of the zapovednik also includes a portion of the Lower Kolyma tundra on the mainland. Keremsit-Sundrun interfluvial area parts of which were included in the reserve, is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA)

The territory of the zapovednik is home to 27 species of animals and 8 species of plants that are included in international, federal, and regional Red Lists. The islands are home to the pink seagull, the Bewick's Swan, the black goose, the yellow-billed loon, the teal, the peregrine falcon, and the white-tailed eagle. You can find there wolves, polar foxes, wolverines, Siberian brown, and Arctic lemmings.

"The reserve will be situated on an archipelago in the East Siberian Sea, to the north of the Kolyma River mouth. According to research conducted by scientists, up to 26 polar bear cubs are born here every year," says Sakhamin Afanasyev, Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Forestry of the Republic. "The reserve will be funded through the federal budget."

Last spring, the Yakut group of the WWF-Russia Polar Bear Patrol worked on the Medvezhyi Islands. The volunteers traveled on snowmobiles across the ice to count polar bear dens. During the observation period, they have recorded 8 dens, 14 adult polar bears, and 11 cubs. According to them, all of the animals are well-fed and do not pose any particular threat to people. 

The Medvezhyi Islands have had no permanent settlements or economic activity for at least three hundred years, allowing their nature to be preserved in its original form. In the 1930s, there used to be a polar station on the Chetyrehstolbovoy (the Four Pillar Island), one of the islands of the archipelago, but it closed down at the end of the century. The island was named after the four kigilyakh pillars with a height of more than 15 meters (50 feet) that were found there at the time of the island's discovery.