Truth or Fic­tion?

Two peo­ple in Canada’s Nu­navut ter­ri­tory were killed by po­lar bears in 2018 – the re­gional gov­ern­ment says there are too many bears.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - James Fair DR AN­DREW DEROCHER has been study­ing po­lar bears for more than 30 years. WANT TO COM­MENT? Email wildlifelet­[email protected]­me­di­ate.co.uk

Are po­lar bears a grow­ing threat?

THE FIRST THING YOU need to re­alise, says Prof An­drew Derocher, of the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta and one of the world’s lead­ing po­lar bear sci­en­tists, is that you can’t draw any con­clu­sions from the at­tacks that took place in Nu­navut.

“At­tacks by po­lar bears on peo­ple are in­cred­i­bly rare, there’s not even enough [at­tacks] to start analysing whether they are in­creas­ing or not,” he points out. But he adds: “We are see­ing more in­ci­dents of hu­man-bear con­flict right across the Arc­tic. Bears are turn­ing up in places, such as parts of south­ern Green­land, where we wouldn’t ex­pect them.”

This is not down to a grow­ing po­lar bear pop­u­la­tion, how­ever, but longer pe­ri­ods dur­ing the year when bears are un­able to hunt seals on the sea ice, ei­ther be­cause it has bro­ken up ear­lier in the spring or failed to form in the au­tumn due to cli­mate change.

As a re­sult, bears are both spend­ing more time on land and are also more “nu­tri­tion­ally stressed” – hun­gry – be­cause they are catch­ing fewer seals, their main food source.

Com­mu­ni­ties in vul­ner­a­ble areas need to be bet­ter ed­u­cated and equipped to deal with bear en­coun­ters, Derocher ar­gues. Pep­per

spray should be rou­tinely avail­able to peo­ple liv­ing any­where bears may show up, while ‘bear bangers’ – sim­i­lar to de­vices used to pro­tect crops from birds on farms in Bri­tain – are also ef­fec­tive. “WWF is putting a lot of ef­fort into test­ing early warn­ing radar sys­tems,” Derocher says. “That could work for some set­tle­ments.”

But for Inuit hunters who hunt wildlife, whether it’s whales, cari­bou, seals or even bears, it is much harder to be safe. “Peo­ple who live along­side po­lar bears used to know what to ex­pect, but some el­ders have told me they can’t pre­dict where [the bears] are go­ing to be, be­cause of the changes in the sea ice.”

Culling bears as a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure won’t nec­es­sar­ily stop hu­man-wildlife con­flict, but Derocher says he would never crit­i­cise some­one for shoot­ing a bear to save their or an­other per­son’s life.

Po­lar bears are turn­ing up in places where we wouldn’t ex­pect them.

Above: a po­lar bear on thin ice. Left: Inuit hunters in cari­bou cloth­ing.

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