Russians spotted a polar bear painted in cryptic graffiti. Scientists are searching for answers.
By REIS THEBAULT | The Washington Post | Published: December 4, 2019
On grainy, shaky footage, a polar bear lumbers into view, its off-white pelt barely distinguishable from the pockmarked snow of its environs — until it turns its flank to the camera, revealing mysterious graffiti scrawled across its side.
The man-made markings on a wild polar bear thought to be roaming northern or eastern Russia have stumped scientists, have alarmed conservationists and have spurred speculation in the local press. The writing, apparently spray painted in black onto the animal’s fur, reads clearly, “T-34.”
What, exactly, that means is less clear.
Notably, the tag spells the name of a famous Soviet-era tank introduced during World War II and often credited with outgunning and outmaneuvering its German contemporaries. It’s unclear whether the lettering was a practical joke or a sign of escalating frustration from some Arctic-dwelling Russians who have described a “mass invasion” of polar bear interlopers pushed into human settlements by climate change.
The video first surfaced in a WhatsApp group for indigenous people of Chukotka, an autonomous region in the Russian Far East, and then was posted to Facebook by a World Wildlife Fund employee based there, BBC reported. From there, it circulated online and in Russian and international outlets — though researchers still haven’t authenticated it or determined precisely where the video was taken. And they haven’t located the bear pictured, either.
But the graffiti dismayed them nonetheless.
The WWF worker who posted the video wrote in a caption, “Why?! He won’t be able to hunt without being noticed!”
Other experts have agreed, saying the polar bear now might have trouble blending into its surroundings and the markings could be a giveaway to the potential prey it tracks through snow and ice.
One scientist told a state news agency that the writing must have been done while the bear was sedated, so clear and steady the lettering.
A spokesperson for WWF Russia told BBC that the writing on the bear was “quite a shock” and “looks like a bad joke.”
But if the bear came from near the Russian archipelago Novaya Zemlya, as some have suggested, the sentiment behind the statement could have been quite serious.
In February, officials in the Arkhangelsk region, where the archipelago is located, declared a state of emergency after at least 52 polar bears swarmed a town of roughly 2,000. They called it a “mass invasion of polar bears in residential areas.”
TASS, another state news outlet, reported that the animals had entered offices and apartment buildings, menacing residents and occasionally attacking passersby. They marauded through playgrounds, stared down dogs and feasted on garbage.
“The people are scared,” regional officials said in a statement. “They are frightened to leave homes and their daily routines are broken. Parents are afraid to let the children go to school or kindergarten.”
Residents have been barred from hunting the animals, which are classified as a vulnerable species, but if the government’s efforts to protect the remote island community fail, officials might kill the bears, TASS reported.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that there are between 22,000 and 31,000 polar bears worldwide, a number increasingly threatened by climate change-caused destruction of their sea ice habitat.
As temperatures warm, Arctic ice thins, pushing the animals onto the shore, away from the seals on which they usually feed. Ravenous, they scavenge for meals, which sometimes brings them into contact with humans.
It’s a collision that may become more common.
But for whoever filmed the “T-34” bear, the experience appeared novel. In the video, two men can be heard chatting excitedly. One asks, “Why is it so dirty?”
“A spotty bear?” the other replies, according to a translation by the Siberian Times.
Then, the pair made out the lettering and gasped, their shock easily registered. The outlet confessed: “We had to beep the rest of the recording due to the Russian expletives.”
The Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.