Sci­en­tists and bears make for un­easy Arc­tic neigh­bors


Res­i­dents of the re­mote Arc­tic set­tle­ment of Ny-Ale­sund never lock their homes — happy to sac­ri­fice pri­vacy for the op­tion of barg­ing through the near­est door if a po­lar bear at­tacks.

The re­search cen­ter, for­merly a coal min­ing town, is perched on the Nor­we­gian is­land of Spits­ber­gen, which is also home to a size­able po­lar bear com­mu­nity in one of the most ex­treme land­scapes on Earth.

The north­ern­most per­ma­nent hu­man set­tle­ment, Ny-Ale­sund hosts about 150 sci­en­tists, re­searchers and tech­ni­cians dur­ing the Arc­tic sum­mer, dwin­dling to a hand­ful of care­tak­ers in the colder months.

New ar­rivals are swiftly ini­ti­ated into the dos and don’ts of life in close quar­ters with a for­mi­da­ble preda­tor.

“If you see a bear, just en­ter any build­ing and call the care­taker. His num­ber is marked on ev­ery tele­phone,” Katherin Lang, head of the Franco-Ger­man Awipev in­sti­tute — one of sev­eral re­search bases — tells new­com­ers.

Two days ear­lier, two fe­male bears and their two cubs were spot­ted just four kilo­me­ters from the base, feed­ing on a stranded wal­rus.

“It is for­bid­den to go in that di­rec­tion, even if you have a gun,” said Lang — a warn­ing that is echoed in

no­tices put up in the cafe­te­ria.

Al­ways Take a Gun

En­coun­ters be­tween hu­mans and po­lar bears on Nor­way’s stun­ning Sval­bard ar­chi­pel­ago, of which Spits­ber­gen is the largest is­land, are rare.

In March this year, one at­tacked a sleep­ing Czech tourist, caus­ing in­juries to his face and arm be­fore fel- low campers shot the an­i­mal dead.

Ev­ery new ar­rival at Ny-Ale­sund must learn to shoot if they wish to leave the base.

The most im­por­tant mes­sage: “al­ways be vig­i­lant; bears could be any­where and they are un­pre­dictable,” Se­bastien Bar­rault, the sci­en­tific ad­vi­sor of a Nor­we­gian com­pany run­ning lo­gis­tics at the site.

“A gun is your pass­port for leav­ing the town,” he said.

Sval­bard is roughly one-anda-half times the size of Switzer­land, and home to some 3,000 po­lar bears — out­num­ber­ing the 2,500-odd hu­man in­hab­i­tants.

There are some 20,000 to 25,000 po­lar bears left on Earth, and the species is listed by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture as “vul­ner­a­ble” — mean­ing it faces a high risk of ex­tinc­tion in the wild.

Po­lar bears have been hunted to ex­cess, and are at fur­ther risk from melt­ing sea ice, their prin­ci­pal hunt­ing ground, due to global warm­ing.

Shoot­ing a bear, said Bar­rault, must al­ways be “the last re­sort” — used only to pro­tect hu­man life.

Adult male po­lar bears males can weigh any­thing from 350 to over 600 kilo­grams and run at speeds of up to 40 kilo­me­ters per hour over short dis­tances.

Bears Out­run Hu­mans

“Never run,” when con­fronted by a bear, ad­vises Bar­rault. Rather, one should “make lots of noise” us­ing some­thing like a starter gun to try and scare the an­i­mal away.

“Of­ten, they will turn away, but a hun­gry bear or a mother with her cub are more dan­ger­ous,” he said.

Po­lar bears are a “night­mare” for Dutch or­nithol­o­gist Maarten Loo­nen, who has been work­ing at Ny-Ale­sund for more than two decades, study­ing mi­gra­tory geese and Arc­tic sterns.

“As far as pos­si­ble, we travel in pairs,” he told AFP, freely ad­mit­ting his fear of the an­i­mals. “I tell my stu­dents: ‘the po­lar bear views you as po­ten­tial prey.’”

Ac­cord­ing to Loo­nen, there were far fewer bears in this western part of Spits­ber­gen when he first started vis­it­ing.

“In 1988, there weren’t even any (po­lar bear) guide­lines and I would camp alone and with­out a gun,” he re­counted.

Bears mainly oc­cupy the eastern, colder part of Spits­ber­gen, where there is more ice.

“In re­cent years, the bears have been ex­plor­ing new ter­ri­tory,” said Bar­rault, and are “com­ing closer to Ny-Ale­sund.”

There has never been an at­tack on a res­i­dent of Ny-Ale­sund, and only five fa­tal con­fronta­tions in Sval­bard in the past 40 years.


A pic­ture taken on July 23 shows a warn­ing sign read­ing “stop, po­lar bear dan­ger, do not walk be­yond this sign with­out your firearm,” at the en­trance of the sci­en­tific base of Ny Ale­sund in the Sval­bard ar­chi­pel­ago.

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