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.
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.