Nesting of the extremely endangered Saimaa ringed seal was saved with man-made snow banks

Humans are helping the extremely endangered Saimaa ringed seals, found only in the Saimaa water system in Finland, in their struggle to find suitable places to nest by piling up snow on lake Saimaa’s ice to form man-made snow banks for nesting. This makes it considerably easier for the Saimaa ringed seal’s pups to survive the low-snow winters that are becoming more common due to climate change. Out of the 81 pups born this year, 90 percent were born in man-made snow banks made by WWF and volunteer workers.

Winters have become warmer due to climate change, which makes nesting more difficult for the extremely endangered Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis). This ringed seal gives birth to its pups in a cave-like nest that it builds inside a snow bank on top of the lake’s ice. In recent years, there has not been enough snow for the seals to build nests and they have had to give birth to their pups on bare ice, where they have no shelter against predators, the cold and other disturbances.

WWF Finland has been involved in the effort to help the Saimaa ringed seal by piling up snow on lake Saimaa’s ice to form man-made snow banks, where the seals can build nests and give birth. The operation is coordinated by the Finnish Metsähallitus (Parks & Wildlife Finland) and a large group of volunteer workers take part in it every year. This past winter, nearly 280 artificial snow banks were made, which saved the nesting season of the Saimaa ringed seal. The seals gave birth to 81 pups this year and 90 percent of them were born in man-made snow banks.

During low-snow winters, in worst cases, as many as half of the pups die. This year, the proportion of pups that died in their nests was 18 percent. The figure is high, but thanks to the man-made snow banks, it is still half the proportion of pups lost during low-snow winters when no snow banks were made by humans.

“Making these snow banks is a prime example of concrete and productive nature conservation. The volunteers who helped to build the snow banks have once again done a great and worthwhile job to help the Saimaa ringed seal. Without this large group of volunteers, the operation could not have been completed all throughout the Saimaa region”, says Petteri Tolvanen, WWF Finland’s Head of programme.

The Saimaa ringed seal lives only in Finland

The Saimaa ringed seal is one of the rarest seals in the world and can only be found in the Saimaa water system in Finland. WWF Finland has worked in many ways to protect the Saimaa ringed seal since 1979 and thanks to these efforts, the population of the Saimaa ringed seal, previously facing extinction, has been preserved and even increased. These days, the population of Saimaa ringed seals is estimated to be around 360 individuals. The seal is still extremely endangered and will need protection for years to come. In addition to climate change, the Saimaa ringed seal is threatened by fishing nets and disturbance. WWF aims to get the Saimaa ringed seal population up to 400, which is considered the level at which a population is deemed to be safe.

Today, thanks to WWF’s live stream, the Saimaa ringed seal is known and loved by nearly everyone in Finland. Viewers were able to follow the life of a seal named Pullervo for a few weeks in last May through a live video stream on WWF’s webpage. In total, the stream collected over 3 million views.

The Saimaa ringed seal is closely related to the Baltic ringed seal, but they are two different species. If the seal disappears from Saimaa, it disappears from the entire world.