Does a Spray-Painted Polar Bear Face a Survival Threat?

Someone thought spray painting a white polar bear with graffiti would be a cool idea, and now the animal could die, conservationists say.

The incident occurred in Chukotka, a Far East region of Russia, apparently sometime last week.  A video showing the spray-painted polar bear was posted on You Tune by Sergei an employee of the World Wildlife Fund.  So far it’s received more than 150,000 views.

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The video shows the bear ambling through the Russian wilderness with the insignia “T-34” painted in large black lettering on one side of its torso.  The T-34 was a state-of-the-art Russian tank that saw heavy action during World War II.

The T-34 was eventually phased out, and replaced by the T-44.  But hundreds of T-34s still exist, in diminished numbers, many on display in war museums worldwide.

It could be that the spray painter was trying to make a statement about the likely fate of the white polar bear, an amphibious animal whose habitat has been shrinking.  Some say the bear faces the threat of extinction.

But the spay-painter may have made this bear’s life chances even more precarious.

The main danger, apparently, is the threat of exposure to poachers.  The bear relies on its all-white coat in snowy climes as a form of natural camouflage.

In addition, the toxic black paint used in the attack could seep into the bear’s skin and pores, and eventually its bloodstream, leaving it poisoned.

Climate change activists have highlighted perceived threats to polar bear habitats – and access to seals and other food sources — as part of their movement propaganda.

In the United States, the polar bear formally declared an “endangered species” in 2008.

A 2018 study published in the journal Science argued that the melting of the polar ice cap

was forcing the bears to travel further and use more energy to catch their prey.  As a result a growing number were also starving to death, the study suggested

However, the three-year study, conducted jointly by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of California at Santa Cruz, was based solely on the activities of eight polar bears that researchers tracked using special electronic collars.

Some USGS researchers estimate that the polar bear population – currently estimate at no more than 25,000 — has declined by 40% over the past decade.

But researchers admit that studying polar bear behavior in harsh Arctic environments is inherently difficult and their estimates may not be completely reliable.

The spay-painted bear appeared to be wandering far from its natural habitat, perhaps in search of food.  There have been similar reports of bears wandering not only across the countryside but also entering Russian cities and small towns.

One Russian city that faced a spate of polar bear sightings even declared a state of emergency last year.  Videos showed the bears walking down streets, raiding garbage dumpsters, and even trying to enter homes.

How the spay-painter got close enough to the polar bear to mark it remains a mystery.  While enjoying a popular even iconic image based on their ubiquitous presence in zoos, the bears are hunters and have been known to attack humans, especially when hungry.

In the past 20 years, at least six people in Canada and one in Norway have been killed by polar bears.  Environmentalists predict that these attacks will increase.  Some analysts speculate that the spray painter probably lured its victim closer by offering it food.

Not everyone agrees that the polar bear attack is cause for alarm.

One analyst dismissed it as a “prank” and said that the bear likely faces no increased danger, especially now that the media has taken up its cause.

One analyst has even speculated that the bear had been specifically marked as part of an environmental research study.

Geoff York, the senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit conservation organization headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, said he’s spoken with Russian scientists who’ve suggested this possibility.

“Polar bears are routinely marked by research teams in order to remotely identify them individually and as previously captured,” he said, adding that this is required by regulation in the United States.

Others scoff at that claim, saying Russian scientists are likely embarrassed by the incident and seeking to deflect possible criticism.

While officially banned in Russia since 1960, polar bear poaching is openly practiced in the country, especially in the Far East region where the spray-painted bear was spotted.

About 200 polar bears are captured and killed annually there, experts say.


  1. Robert Ricewasser

    Polar bears should not be spray painted with graffiti or otherwise marked in a way that can cause them harm or make them a target, especially for poachers.

  2. Jennifer Bove

    “Scientists said the wild animal was marked in a good cause, and say T-34 was a grid reference relating to this area of the Arctic archipelago. The polar bear visited a village rubbish dump worrying residents, said Andrey Umnikov, director of the Russian Centre for Arctic Exploration. A team of specialists from Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution was sent to the site to assess the potential threat posed to villagers. The bear was sedated and examined, said senior researcher Ilya Mordvintsev. The check showed that the male predator was well-fed which meant that he would likely not attack. The animal was marked with ‘safe paint’ which wears off over two weeks, and moved away to discourage him from coming back. The mark was made to allow both the locals and experts recognise the beast in case he returned, and to distinguish it from any other polar bear scavenging at the site.”

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