Dozens of polar bears pictured eating whale carcass on Russian island

23 November 2017, 13:58

Experts are "gobsmacked" after dozens of polar bears were photographed eating the carcass of a bowhead whale which washed ashore on a Russian island in the Arctic.

Polar bears are often seen wandering alone and September's episode has been described as a "completely unique situation".

A group of tourists and scientists in a boat witnessed the mammals feasting on the Wrangel Island nature reserve.

:: Witness recalls 'stunning' sight

The animals were among 200 of the bears that gathered on the side of a mountain.

Experts say the ice, where the bears spend much of their time as they hunt on the surface, is melting earlier in the year due to climate change, so they have to spend longer on land.

This means more bears are packed together on coasts and islands and will face more competition from each other due to the lack of food on land.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature believes there are about 26,000 polar bears in the Arctic, with a long-term "potential for large reductions" due to ice loss.

Wrangel Island, off the coast of Russia's Chukotka region, is where polar bears rest after ice melts in early-August until November, when they can leave land to hunt for seals.

Compared with 20 years ago, they now spend on average a month longer on Wrangel Island, according to studies.

Scientist Eric Regehr, from the University of Washington, said "ice is melting earlier and the ice-free period is longer".

Changing ice conditions could be responsible for the increasing number of bears flocking there, Mr Regehr said.

He said the number of bears seen this autumn was 589, far more than previous estimates of 200-300, and he called the latest figure "anomalously high".