Face to facewith a walrus

Donate now Read the story
Read the story

The walrus mystery

Sea ice is melting, and industrial development is coming to the Arctic. What does it mean for the mighty tusked walrus?

You can help WWF better understand walruses and protect their icy home.

1 Climate refugees

35,000 walruses ashore

Haul out ! In Alaska, this enormous group of walruses were forced ashore by a lack of sea ice. In the past decade, other unprecedented crowds of Pacific walruses have been spotted on shore.

Normally, female walruses and their young prefer smaller crowds. They rest on floating sea ice, and dive to the sea floor for food. But this year, the ice was too far from shore in this region. Large haulouts can be deadly for walruses. The herds quickly run out of nearby food. And despite their size, walruses are easily frightened. A stampede can easily crush young walruses.

Haulouts also affect people. When haulouts occur near human communities, they can attract unwanted neighbours - polar bears looking for a meal. In Russia, WWF is working with communities near haulout sites to keep both polar bears and people safe.

A stampede on Russia’s Arctic coast killed walrus calves in 2009.

I have 40 years of Arctic experience, and the dramatic changes happening now are shocking.

WWF Polar biologist Tom Arnbom

Tom Arnbom

Walrus expert, WWF-Sweden

Walruses are one of the most vulnerable species. The only way to protect these unique animals is to study them.

Mikhail Stishov

Margarita Pukhova

Marine coordinator, WWF-Russia

Thanks to our close cooperation with indigenous peoples, we’re learning valuable information about the Atlantic walrus.

WWF conservationist Anatoliy Kochnev

Victor Nikiforov

Project leader, Umky Patrol

  • To find polar bears, the researchers survey from the air. From the helicopter, an anesthetic dart immobilizes the bear for up to an hour so  the researchers can safely assess it.

    Scientists and Russian Arctic communities have noticed larger Pacific walrus haulouts in recent years.

  • The Norwegian Polar Institute is pioneering work in the use of geo-location ear tags that store a surprising amount of data on a chip set the size of a small coin- including temperature and light. That information may help them identify when bears go into dens.

    Big haulouts near communities attract unwanted neighbours - polar bears looking for a meal.

  • Polar bear research isn’t all high-tech. Here, the researchers team up to weigh a polar bear the old-fashioned way – with scales and a sling. A female may weigh 150–250 kg, while a male could weigh up to 700 kg.

    The “Umky Patrol”, or Polar Bear Patrol, encourages the bears to stay away using harmless rubber bullets and long sticks.

  • In order to set camera traps, WWF biologists walk through the field looking for signs of tigers.

    Tatiana is a member of the Patrol in the village of Ryrkaypy, where she minimizes human disturbance to haulouts.

2 In the field with WWF

Collecting walrus DNA

Imagine crawling on the ground, high-tech crossbow in hand, silently stalking your quarry. Your goal: collect a small DNA sample from a hulking 1000 kg walrus.

It’s not easy - the endless summer sun in the Arctic means you have no cover of darkness. And despite their size, walruses are nervous animals. One wrong move, and the whole herd will go splashing into the water. Once you’re in position, you line up your shot. Bang! The crossbow captures a small plug of walrus skin. The walrus looks around, tusks his neighbour in retaliation, and goes back to sleep.

The goal: Find out if the walrus of the Laptev Sea are genetically unique from the Pacific walruses to the east, and the Atlantic walruses to the west. If they are, Russia will need to consider special protection for this population.

  • Night photo infrared light
  • Day night sensor
  • Menu Display
  • Motion sensor
Camera trap

WWF researchers collecting DNA samples from walruses.

  • The camera is attached to a collar placed on a polar bear's neck. The collar also sends a GPS signal, so it can be retrieved when it falls off.

    The WWF researchers were able to get close to a number of walruses.

  • In Indonesia, this young Sumatran tiger was wandering around with its mother (not shown).

    Walruses are nervous animals. A disturbance can send them waddling into the water for safety.

  • WWF cameras record anything that passes by, not just tigers. In this case, a leopard peering into the camera.

    Testing the crossbow that collects the DNA samples.

  • WWF cameras record anything that passes by, not just tigers. In this case, a leopard peering into the camera.

    Geoff and Anatoly collect samples.

  • WWF cameras record anything that passes by, not just tigers. In this case, a leopard peering into the camera.

    Tom preserves the samples.

3 On thin ice

The walrus’ world is changing fast

Climate change isn’t just melting the walrus’ home - it’s introducing new threats.

Industrial development is heating up in the Arctic. Ships can more easily navigate ice-free waters in Canada and Russia, and oil and gas projects are moving north all around the pole. Walruses face toxic spills and disturbances to haulouts.

You can support WWF’s work to keep Arctic development from endangering walruses. Your support also helps WWF study walrus populations, so we can advise governments on the best way to protect them.

Sea ice is getting thinner and disappearing, making life harder for walruses.
(Video source: NOAA)