Today we heard the tragic news that a British tourist had been killed and 4 others injured during a polar bear attack on Svalbard. Details at this time are still sketchy but it looks as if they were camping about 20 miles south of the capital Longyearbyen. As an expedition leader to Svalbard, and one who is about to take two groups of tourists on expedition cruises around Svalbard, I wanted to write this short BLOG article.
Polar bears are unpredictable animals, very dangerous and very cunning. On the southern part of the main island of Svalbard, Polar Bears are devoid of any ice for several months and are therefore trapped on the mainland. They are desperate for food and have a tough time finding anything, this makes them exceptionally dangerous during this period. We have no idea yet if this was an old bear, perhaps with bad teeth and incapable of hunting anymore, or if it were a youngster.
I have camped on Svalbard several times and each time we went armed to the teeth, with flare pistols, bear bangers and with bear alarms a good distance around our tent. It was so scarey to be inside the tent but we took enough precautions to deal with it and my guide was a real polar bear expert, born and bred with them. To be fair most of the natives on Svalbard I have met are experts on polar bears and I would trust any of them to keep me safe. The governor issues very strict rules on safety which are designed to keep conflicts from happening, but polar bears are totally unpredictable animals.
Polar Bears will always be dangerous, they are meat eating predators and as such will search for easy food. At this stage we have no details of the attack, they will come later, but the bear must have either been surprised or just an opportunist that saw a chance. The polar bear was shot and killed, unfortunately too late, and this was the right thing to do. I have already seen two camps forming from comments on websites, one saying that the polar bear was only behaving naturally and should have not been shot and the other calling for "management" of polar bears.
Let’s deal with the first one. It was 100% right to kill the bear. If they hadn’t the tragedy might have been far worse and the bear would have attacked others again and again. That bear had to be shot. To take it and out it into a zoo, as has been suggested, would have been the worst punishment possible for an animal that is born to wander. Born wild die wild. To kill such an animal to protect imminent danger to human life is a no brainer.
The second point about "managing" polar bears gets me really annoyed!! The people of Svalbard have lived alongside polar bears ever since they stepped foot on the island, they are used to it and know how to deal with the dangers. When we go ashore on our trips we are accompanied by trained, armed professionals and at all times consider our client’s safety. If sensible precautions are taken then the chance of an encounter is virtually nil, and even if one happens, the bear is normally more scared of us.
Finally remember that it is climate change that has driven away the pack ice early, leaving the bears a much longer period in which to survive until it returns. As we lose more ice then the chance of encounters with humans is only going to increase as desperate polar bears are forced into human areas in search of food. It’s not that they are deliberately coming to predate us, more that smell of food is everywhere in the settlements where we live.
So please let us not use this as an excuse to berate the already highly endangered and disappearing polar bear, and certainly not an excuse to control its dwindling numbers. What happened today is a tragedy of the highest order and our thoughts must go out to the families of all those concerned. If the tragedy had happened on our roads then it would not have made headline news, it is only because it involves a polar bear that the media have made it into a big story. Just my views anyway....like I said before our thoughts must be with the families at this time and not looking for retribution on all polar bears.