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W.Bruce Lincoln

Meet the man working at the world's largest maternity hospital for polar bears

By The Siberian Times reporter
04 February 2021

Up to 500 mother bears a year give birth on remote Wrangel island, also the last place to see woolly mammoths.

Leonid, 31, came to work at Russia’s northernmost nature reserve at the remote Wrangel Island after spending years protecting endangered big cats like Amur tigers and Amur leopards in the Far East. Picture: Leonid Zaika 


Up to 500 mother bears a year give birth on remote Wrangel island, also the last place to see woolly mammoths. 

Researcher Leonid Zaika spoke to The Siberian Times to share his experience of surviving a face to face meeting with a furious mother bear whose den he went to explore after wrongly calculating that it was empty, of seeing bears gathering under kitchen window because they like smell of milky porridge, of some predators that attack but others that ‘wag their tails’, and studying their maternity dens. 

Leonid, 31, came to work at Russia’s northernmost nature reserve at the remote Wrangel Island after spending years protecting endangered big cats like Amur tigers and Amur leopards in the Far East. 

It was here that the world’s last woolly mammoth died some 4,000 years ago; now it has a nature reserve, a weather station, a Russian military base - and the largest number of polar bear maternity dens in the world.



Meet the man working at the world's largest maternity house for polar bears



Meet the man working at the world's largest maternity house for polar bears



Meet the man working at the world's largest maternity house for polar bears


‘Polar bears do in fact remind me of dogs. If they are at a distance and you jokingly say hello, some of them even wag their tails’, the researcher said. Pictures and video from Wrangel island nature reserve by Leonid Zaika


Leonid is an expert on the maternity dens structure and size, from his personal experience. 

‘After cubs are born, mothers take them away from the ‘maternity dens’ to teach hunting and other key survival skills, and never come back. Our task is to catch the moment when a family leaves a den so that we can crawl inside it, study the delivery chamber and pick up biological material like hair and food derivatives,’ the researcher said. 

This information is needed to understand if animals were comfortable while they stayed inside, if a mother bear was peaceful or irritated. 

Leonid shared videos of his ‘dives’ inside the den, which show several metre long narrow entrances that lead inside ‘delivery room’ where polar bear cubs - born tiny and helpless, with their eyes closed and very fine hair - spend the first weeks of their lives. 


Up to 500 mother bears a year give birth on remote Wrangel island, also the last place to see woolly mammoths. Video: Leonid Zaika


One of such attempts to get inside a den nearly cost Leonid and his colleagues their lives, as, unexpectedly,  the mother bear was still there with two of her cubs. 

The scientists monitored the den and saw no fresh traces for a while, so they assumed it was empty and safe to go. 

‘The moment mother bear rose in the air and roared I thought that the tiger’s roar wasn’t so scary!’ - said Leonid, whose quick reaction rescued them both. 

The scientists had flare guns, and luckily for them the bright lights scared the furious mother. 

Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears
Wrangel Island Nature Reserve in the Arctic. Pictures: Leonid Zaika


Polar bears that populate Chukotka and Alaska are a lot less aggressive and even timid, compared to those living further west on the Franz Josef Land archipelago. 

‘My first trip inside a polar bear’s den felt very similar to diving, when a new world opens before your eyes. You don’t feel scared because the fascination from what you see overweighs the fear. Inside there snow is all pitted with snow, it actually looks quite incredible when you see it up close’, said Leonid. 

The scientists have a main base in the newly-built part of Ushakovskoye village, and several stationary posts around the island that they have to check during the year.

Food is delivered once a year by ship, the internet is bad, communication with the ‘outer world’ is limited. 

‘I am no introvert, in fact quite the opposite, so I miss talking to my family and friends quite badly. But living here taught me to concentrate on myself which would have been impossible to do in the city, and I would recommend it to anyone. I fell in love with the north, working and living here is just incredible, and watching people who spend lives in the Arctic doing their favourite jobs is priceless’, said Leonid, who is single and has no children. 

Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears
There are at least two ways to get to Wrangel Island: as a nature reserve’s volunteer (prepare to stay for at least one month, better two, be ready to live in severe climate and pretty spartan conditions), and as a tourist from June until the end of September. Pictures: Leonid Zaika


In autumn when the ice isn’t strong enough for bears to leave the island and start hunting, they call in human settlements and peek through windows. 

‘Every window in our village has a strong frame with spikes. Quite often bears will be over at breakfast when we are cooking porridge. For some reason they can’t resist its smell and sit under the kitchen window as if waiting for their share’, Leonid explains. 

Living so close to the large population of polar bears means that there is a strict set of safety rules, which are always to look around when leaving the house, always to keep flare gun and a pepper spray, and a gun if there is a permission to carry it. 

‘This was said a million times, but once again - never run and always remember that if a tiger starts an attack, it will always finish. A polar bear can be stopped: you can yell at it, or make some unexpected noise. 

‘They do in fact remind me of dogs. If they are at a distance and you jokingly say hello, some of them even wag their tails’, the researcher said.

Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears


Wrangel island bears
It was here on Wrangel Island that the world’s last woolly mammoth died some 4,000 years ago; now it has a nature reserve, a weather station, a Russian military base - and the largest number of polar bear maternity dens in the world. Pictures: Leonid Zaika


There are at least two ways to get to Wrangel Island: as a nature reserve’s volunteer (prepare to stay for at least one month, better two, be ready to live in severe climate and pretty spartan conditions), and as a tourist from June until the end of September. 

Usually a trip to the island costs about $12,000 USD. 

The reserve offers nine routes, with the most popular being a trip around the island with short stops. 

Other routes involve longer trips across the island, with nights spend in comfortable houses.

Travellers or volunteers are  guaranteed to see polar bears, grey whales, musk oxen, Arctic foxes and thousands of birds. 

Comments (15)

@Marc Seidenberg please can you write your polititical, historical and geographical knowledge in the WRANGELL island wikipedia, because it is lacking in information. It is totally out of context here and should be editored in the free Wikepedia. Wrangell island belongs to Alaska therefore it needs to be in that wikepedia.

Furthermore the WRANGELL ISLAND WIKIPEDIA clearly states NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH WRANGEL ISLAND, which is an island in the Artic ocean between Chucki sea and East Siberian sea.

WRANGEL island was declared a Zapovednik in 1976. This strictly controlled (and rightly so) nature reserve is one of Russia's most treasured wildlife sanctuaries... And must, at all costs, remain so...

Alors va faire cuire un oeuf s'il vous plait et arrête de casser mes couilles!!!
Anonymous, Switzerland
16/02/2021 01:45
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It has reached me that the Russian Arctic Project is rename places on Wrangell Island, Alaska as they did on Bennett Island, Alaska. I am informed they renamed Cape Emma on Bennett Island to Cape Sophia after the widow of A. V. Kolchak. Now the move is to rename Cape Blossom (Southern most point on Wrangell Island) . It was at Cape Emma on 29 July 1881 that Bennett Island was annexed to the United States.. The location of that annexation was at Cape Emma named after Emma DeLong (widow of George Washington DeLong USN).

Cape Blossom was name in 1881 after Blossom Drum of San Francisco, CA. She was the girl friend of one of the officer of the USS RODGERS which surveyed Wrangell Island in August = September 1881. It is a question as the new name planned for Cape Blossom by the RAP?
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
15/02/2021 12:00
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Martin Redding, France,

Spelling of geographic location is important, because a misspelling could lead to the wrong location. That is why the US Board of Geographic Names by resolution on 29 July 1901 set the spelling of all three Alaskan islands once know as Wrangel Island as "Wrangell Island".

In the memorandum from POTUS Andrew Johnson to Secretary of State William Seward dated 17 February 1868 about "Wrangell's" (sic.) Land it clearly showed the President wanted the land to be a possession of the United States, However, that did not happen until 12 August 1881. This shows that President Trump was not the first POTUS to want Greenland. That is because at the time Secretary of State Seward believed Greenland and Wrangell's Land was the same landmass.

It was Charles F. Hall that took formal possession of Greenland at Thank-God Harbor for the USA on 13 September 1871 at 11:00 am with a landing party from the USS POLARIS, as an insular possession of the United States. This year is the Sesquecentenial of Greenland becoming possession of the USA. Senator Benjamin Harrison directed Major Ezra W. Clark, Jr., ESQ. that he wanted to add six islands to Alaska on 17 December 1883 in room 41 at the US Capitol, viz., Bennett, Forrester, Henrietta, Herald, Jeannette and Wrangell.
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
15/02/2021 01:16
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The State of Alaska is going to determine its coasts for baselines of the Territorial Sea. Notice should be in the Federal Register this week. I hope finally the issues related to the Alaska Islands to the North of Siberia will be settled, viz., Bennett, Henrietta, Herald, Jeannette, and Wrangell.

I note in March - April 1930 at the League of Nations Conference for the Codification of International Law at The Haig, S, W, Boggs (Geographer of the US Department of State) offered as an Imperial Question an island exchange of Machias Seal Island in Washington County, Maine for the four Plover Islands to the North of Alaska.
It was on 1 August 1850 that Formal Possession of the Plover Islands were taken in the name of Queen Victoria to the North of Russian America with no objection from the Russian Imperial Government. The island exchange proposal was rejected by W. E. Beckett (Second Legal Adviser of the British Foreign Office) based on the flawed Biltmore Declaration of 1916.
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
14/02/2021 17:23
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@ Mark Seidenberg - you need to get a life outside academia & stop criticising minor spelling & grammatical errors published hereabouts. Story is great & extremely enlightening so why not appreciate it for what it is without being demeaning.
Martin Redding, France
13/02/2021 04:27
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I do not wish to be rude to you Mr Seidenberg; even though your political, geographical and historical knowledge and wisdom surrounding Wrangel island is fascinating and informative. Perhaps a separate press release covering that issue would be more appropriate, or even a documentry film would do it justice...

However you are distracting from the core message in this press release and not giving the rewarded justice to the correct target: Which is the outstandingly remarkable, courageous and pioneering work of Mr Leonid Zaika and the sacrificing of his own pleasure and luxury in his dedication to protecting endangered wildlife and our precious planet...

That is the feat of a hero and conservation legend...Would be amazing and valuable for the general public to have coverage of his work in a globally covered documentry or National Geographic film too.

The fact that Wrangel island is the largest Maternity den for the endangered polar bear species world wide is also an immensely valuable story pitch in itself. Because without Wrangel Islands maternity den's those majestic, powerful and exquisite creatures would face sure extinction; with no future generations to continue the incredible and miraculous circle of life...
Anonymous, Switzerland
13/02/2021 00:59
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I note spelling error in prior post. I showed be Queen Victoria and not Queen "Victoriam" (sic.).
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
12/02/2021 20:12
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I note that the approved spelling since 29 July 1901 to what was called "New Columbia Land" by the United States Board on Geographic Names is "Wrangell Island". That was 20 years to the day that Bennett Island at Cape Emma was taken formal possession of in the name of POTUS and the SecNav.

VOVA is a person that watched dates of events. It was on 20 August 2014 that Putin directed a Captain of the 3rd Rank to raise a Russian Flag over the spot where the US and Canadain Flags once flew until 20 August 1924 upon Wrangell Island, Alaska. Yes the Lomen Brothers owned flag pole was chopped down by Soviets on 20 August 1924 at Wrangell Island. The Lomen Brothers of Nome, Alaska went on title to the whole of Wrangell Island (known between 12 August 1881 through 29 July 1901 as New Columbia Land) on 1 April 1924.

Even the Swede name Raoul Wallenberg was in 1962 a prisoner in one of the five GULAG's forced labor camps that were located and open on Wrangell Island until 1988. It was on 1-2 February 1973 that the US Senate conducted hearings about these Wrangell Island GULAG's. Said GULAG was located on the Nasha River near Cape Hawai'i which had a cover story as being a "collective fox farm",
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
12/02/2021 20:03
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The closest land on Wrangell Island to Siberia is at Cape Blossom some 87 miles away, That cape was named for Blossom Drum of San Francisco, California. At Herald Island formal possession was taken in 1849 by the British Royal Navy in the name of Queen Victoria which was 43 miles away, That was the year prior to the British Royal Navy taking formal possession of the Plover Group of four islands to the North of Russian America on 1 August 1850 also in the name of Queen Victoriam viz., Cooper, Martin, and two unnamed island.



It was in March-April 1930 at The Haig that S. W. Boggs of the United States Department of State offered up Machias Seal Island of the Western Seal Islands, Washington County, Maine for a British Concession of the Plover Islands to the North of Alaska. That offer was rejected by W. E. Beckett, Second Legal Advisor of the British Foreign Office, becaue the Biltmore Declaration of 1916 was defective in legal form. In June 1938 Boggs raised these islands exchange with Dr. Lester Pearson in Ottawa. Pearson rejected the exchange also.



In 1958 W.A.C. Bennett the Premier of British Columbia informed Ike Eisenhower that he desired to place the Plover Islands to the North of Alaska in British Columbia so B.C. could be an Arctic Power. Russia made no objection to the British holding land to the North of what was then Russia America.
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
12/02/2021 13:08
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I note only five of the six islands added to Alaska on 17 May 1884 are listed in the last comment. The missing island was Jeannette Island. In August 1881 there were three American landing parties at Wrangell Island. The first was a landing part on 12 August 1881 from the USRM Thomas Corwin. The next was on 19 August 1881 from a none government ship. The third was from the USS Rodgers on 23 August 1881.

Prior to the landing of 12 August 1881 the prior Wrangell Island landing party was in August 1866 from the Hawaiian flagged ship from the Port of Honolulu named the "W. C. Talbot". A landing party came ashore to get drinking water at Cape Hawai'i from the Our (Nasha in Russian).River.
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
11/02/2021 21:49
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I note that July was missing from the last post. Aneguin the Yup'ik who discovered Bennett Land in what later became part of the DeLong Islands did so on 15 (16) July 1881. It was on 17 December 1883 that Senator Benjamin Harrison directed Ezra W. Clark, Jr. in room 41 at the US Capitol that he wanted six islands added to Alaska with an organic act covering Alaska, because the US Supreme Court that day came down with a 9-0 ruling in EX PARTE CROW DOG. The bill that Ezra W. Clark, Jr. drafted became the Harrison Alaska Organic Act. The six islands that were included in Alaska on 17 May 1884 were Bennett, Forrester, Henrietta, Herald, and Wrangell.
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
11/02/2021 15:07
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It was on 17 May 1884 that six islands were added to the District of Alaska which include Wrangell Island. The other islands were Bennett, Forrester, Henrietta, Herald, and Jeannette. Formal Possession of the Jeannette Islands, viz., Henrietta, Herald, and Jeannette, were taken at Cape Melville on Henrietta Island in the name of POTUS and the SecNav on 2(3) June 1881 under a 1879 order from the SecNav by a landing party headed by George Wallace Melville of the United States Navy. Melville later became a Rear Admiral in the US Navy.



Forrester Island is in the North Pacific Ocean and was subject of a territorial dispute between the United States and Imperial Russia for the year 1836.



Bennett Island was discovered by a Yup'ik on 15 (16) 1881 and formal possession was taken by a US Navy Landing Party on 29 July 1881 headed by George Washington DeLong, USN. The Yup'ik who discovered Bennett Island was name "Aneguin" and died in Siberia from smallpox circa 1882-1883.
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
11/02/2021 10:36
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@ Mark Seidenberg, we didn't change any word in you comment, can send screenshot of your message we get in our system to your email if you want ( send it as a comment - we wouldn't post it here )
Alexander, The Siberian Times, Novosibirsk
10/02/2021 17:34
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Who ever edited my above comment added the word "and" between "Uniform Service", therefore something got lost in the meaning when using English as a second language. I was trying to conform with 1,000 letter limit for comment. If I had two more letters, viz., 1,002 letters I would have stated "Uniformed Service of the United States" at the end of that sentence. In 1881 the United States Revenue Marine was a "Uniformed Service of the United States". It was a former agency to the United States Coast Guard of the United States Department of the Treasury.

When the Alaska Board of the United States Department of the Treasury added six islands to the District of Alaska on 17 May 1884 that was not included in the Treaty of Washington of 30 March 1867, Major Ezra W, Clark, Jr. was both the Chief of the USRM and the attorney of the Alaska Board. Clark drafted the "Harrison Alaska Organic Act" which was introduced on 18 December 1883. Clark River on Wrangell Island was named for him.
Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska.
10/02/2021 16:55
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it was on 17 May 1884 that the Alaska Board of the United States Department of the Treasury added Wrangell Island to the District of Alaska under the authority of Section 1 of the Harrison Alaska Organic Act as territory 'known as Alaska". Formal possession was taken of "New Columbia Land" by a landing party from the USRM steamer Thomas Corwin on 12 August 1881 under the command of 3rd Lt. William Edward Reynolds, USRM. John Muir was part of that landing party.

Reynolds later became the first Rear Admiral of the United States Coast Guard.

The sua sponte order to annex New Columbia Land came from Captain Calvin L. Hooper, USRM to 1st Lt. Michael Healy, USRM. Hooper later became the first Arctic Advisor of the US Department of State and on 30 December 1898 issued the sua sponte order to annex Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean which took place on 17 January 1899. Healy was the first African American to be commissioned as an officer in a Uniform and Service of the United States.

Mark Seidenberg, Anchorage, Alaska
10/02/2021 03:51
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