It was a long journey. Most likely driven by hunger, the emaciated polar bear had strayed far from its natural habitat before reaching the Russian city of Norilsk.
The city, a nickel-mining center with a population of about 175,000, is just inside the Arctic Circle. But residents of Norilsk had not seen a polar bear so far south in about four decades, according to local reports. Trudging along on mud-blackened paws that contrasted with the still-white fur across its back, the bear was seen this week roaming rusty scrap yards, concrete housing developments and even in the city center.
The bear would normally be in the Kara Sea area, north of the Siberian coast, some 300 miles from Norilsk. But the ravages of climate change have taken their toll on the animals, which depend on sea ice to survive.
Dmitry Gorshkov, head of biodiversity at the World Wildlife Fund’s Russia office, said polar bears were sometimes forced to take desperate gambles.
“It’s not normal for them to walk so far south, but the unusual situation can happen because of the lack of natural food and ice,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to reduce climate change locally,” Mr. Gorshkov added. “The Arctic is one of the places that are most affected.”
The Arctic region is warming about twice as fast as the global average, and scientists agree that ice loss in the region is accelerating.
Biologists have warned that the decrease in Arctic ice cover will lead to a pronounced drop in the global polar bear population. The animals are typically born on land but use the sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, the main staple of their diet. As the ice thins, the bears move ashore, ravenous, and begin to scavenge for food. This sometimes brings them into contact with human populations, especially when garbage and food are not stored properly.
Local news reports said the bear might have traveled as far as 1,000 miles to reach Norilsk, but Mr. Gorshkov said the journey was most likely shorter, probably less than half that distance.
Farther north, he added, polar bears have been a regular sight in recent years.
This winter, dozens of polar bears descended on the coastal settlement of Belushya Guba, deep in the Russian Arctic, breaking into houses, menacing schools and feasting on a local dump. The invasion prompted the authorities to declare a state of emergency, and residents stayed locked up in their homes.
Seeing the starving bear in Norilsk prompted many on social media to call for residents to give it food, Mr. Gorshkov said. But he warned against feeding the animal. “If the bear understands that the food comes from humans, it may become impossible for it to return to nature,” he said.
Mr. Gorshkov said that officials from Krasnoyarsk Zoo, hundreds of miles to the south, were considering a response to the situation. There was a chance the bear would be sedated and transported to the zoo, he said.
In Norilsk, emergency officials have issued warnings about the bear. But because it belongs to an endangered species, a decision was required from Moscow on whether to return it to its natural habitat or take it to a zoo, the English-language news outlet Siberian Times reported.
Follow Palko Karasz on Twitter: @karaszpalko.
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