In pursuit of adventure, travel and the natural world...

Friday, 11 July 2014

A polar bear is for life, not just for Christmas

Polar bears have been getting quite a lot of bad press lately, which has pushed me to write this blog post. 

First of all, I love polar bears, otherwise known as ursus maritimus (sea bear). It’s high on my bucket list to see one in its natural habitat, albeit from a distance.

I’m sure lots of people were distressed by the recent report detailing the events that took place in Svalbard in 2011. It was tragic that it resulted in two deaths, both student and animal. I just hope that this rare attack hasn't influenced the public opinion into thinking that polar bears are to blame for these kind of accidents.

For those who want to learn a bit more about these beautiful animals, the good and the dangerous, please carry on reading.

Polar bear attacks

  • Polar bear attacks on humans are rare. In almost all cases, the polar bear in question was undernourished, frightened, or provoked. Scientists expect human polar bear-encounters to increase as the sea ice continues to melt and hungry bears are driven ashore.
  • Over the past few years, sea ice losses have led to more polar bear sightings in northern coastal communities and an increase in human-polar bear encounters. Some of these have had tragic endings, for both humans and the bears.
  • Can a community learn to live with polar bears? Hundreds of polar bears gather near Churchill, Manitoba, every autumn to wait for the sea ice to form on Hudson Bay. Yet since 1717, only two townspeople have ever been killed by polar bears.

Climate change is the biggest threat to polar bears and if people don't change their daily habits and lower their carbon footprint, unfortunately polar bear encounters are likely to become more common. And worse than that, once the ice disappears the polar bear numbers will greatly reduce. Oil and gas exploration in the Arctic are deteriorating the bears fragile habitat.

Polar bear deaths
In 1968, local teenagers followed tracks through fresh snow, found a polar bear, and threw rocks at him. The bear attacked and killed one of them. The bear was shot. What can we learn from this? Some humans are plain stupid.

In 1983, a local man scavenging in the recently burned ruins of the Churchill Hotel found meat in the freezer and stuffed his pockets full. A polar bear, attracted by the smell, killed the man. The bear was shot. What can we learn from this? Don’t walk around polar bear territory with pockets full of raw meat!!

One study, a review of bear-inflicted injuries and fatalities published in 1999 in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, documents the number of incidents involving polar bears up until that time:

  • Between 1980 and 1985 in Alaska, there was only one recorded injury caused by a polar bear, and no deaths.
  • Over a 15-year period in Svalbard, Norway, other researchers documented polar bears killing one person and injuring three others. At least 46 polar bears were killed by people in the same time frame.
  • In a 20-year period in Canada, six human deaths and 14 injuries were attributed to polar bears. During the same period, 251 bears were killed by people.
  • Of the six deaths and 14 injuries in Canada, 15 were considered to be acts of predation by the bear, and one by a polar bear defending her cubs. One was attributed to both, while the other was unresolved.
  • Until 1999, two deaths and two injuries had occurred in the town of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, a seaport inhabited by around 1,000 people and a similar number of bears. One death was a sudden encounter between a bird hunter and the bear. The hunter approached the bear, was killed and eaten. The other involved a man who walked down the high street in the middle of the night carrying cooked meat. He too was killed and partially consumed by the bear.

Polar bear mischief

  • When a bear ambled into the Royal Canadian Legion hall, the club steward shouted, "You're not a member! Get out!" The bear did.
  • While attending a school concert, one Churchill family lost some leftover chicken. A bear broke into their trailer, gobbled up the leftovers, and beat a retreat before the family returned.
  • At Churchill's Harbour Board kitchen, a polar bear made off with a bag of garbage, completely ignoring the pork chops on the counter.
  • A trapper shooed a bear from his porch—attracted by the smell of fish stew—by banging pie plates together.
  • A tiny woman chased a bear from her porch with a whack on its rear from a broom. The bear fled, never to return.

How to survive a polar bear encounter

  • In the early days of the north, the natives of Alaska and the Yukon believed that bears were another species of man. They also knew that they could be dangerous. So, if they came upon a bear, they would stop and hold their hands over their heads and say “Hello brother bear, I did not mean to disturb you. I will leave your territory now and let you in peace.” Then they would back away, unharmed. While this is only legend, it does work, at times.
  • A bear will attack a man if they are surprised, feel they are in danger, wish to protect territory or if they have cubs. The best way to avoid danger is to avoid the bear.
  • If you do encounter a polar bear, try to make yourself big (spread your arms high), be loud and intimidating, while you slowly back away. Make it clear that you're not an easy meal.
  • The one thing you should NEVER do is turn and run. Running is an invitation to chase. Prey runs, and the bear is faster than you. Don't be prey.
  • Reduce your carbon footprint. If climate change continues and the sea ice retreats, it will also mean that more polar bears will be forced to hunt further inland. And that means more polar bears roaming around parts of the Arctic and sub-Arctic that people call home.


  • Polar bears live in the arctic and can be found in Alaska, Canada (home to 60% of the world’s bears), Russia, Greenland, and Norway (the Svalbard archipelago).
  • There are currently between 20-25,000 polar bears in the arctic.
  • They are top of the food chain in the wild and mainly feed on seals.
  • The word Arctic comes from the Greek word for bear, and Antarctic comes from the Greek meaning the opposite, without bear. You will never find a bear in Antarctica.

This astonishing photo, taken in the late 70s, shows a man feeding a polar bear and his cubs with milk in the north Russia border. Don't try this at home.

Save the Arctic!

  • Today, polar bears are among the few large carnivores that are still found in roughly their original habitat and range, and in some places, in roughly their natural numbers.
  • Although most populations have returned to healthy numbers, there are differences between the populations. Some are stable, some seem to be increasing, and some are decreasing due to various pressures. As of 2013, 5 of 19 populations were in decline.
  • By 2040, scientists predict that only a fringe of ice will remain in Northeast Canada and Northern Greenland when all other large areas of summer ice are gone. This is known as the Last Ice Area.

And last but not least…
This is a video from the WWF website about seeing the Arctic from the polar bears point of view.

If you care about protecting the polar bears home then check out this Greenpeace video and sign the petition to end Lego's partnership with Shell who are drilling oil in the Arctic!

I hope you have a new found appreciation and respect for polar bears. I invite you all to go and make your own polar bear t-shirts...