The polar bear, the King of the Arctic, is one of the world’s largest carnivores. The polar bear population in the Svalbard archipelago and Barents Sea is around 3,000, which exceeds the human population. I learnt from my visit to the polar museum in Longyearbyen that «In August 2015, a survey of the Norwegian subpopulation estimated almost 1000 polar bears. Of these a little less than 300 were located in Svalbard – most of them close to the ice edge.
Pictured: Polar Bear hunting grounds - East coast sea ice
The polar bear has been protected by international law since 1973 and it is considered a criminal act to hunt, lure, pursue, feed or disturb a polar bear. Polar bears spend most of their time hunting on the sea ice. They are fast animals with an incredible sense of smell, and are likely to be hungry. You can encounter polar bears anywhere in Svalbard all year round. Despite reaching the sea ice on the east coast, which is a popular seal hunting ground for polar bears, during a recent polar expedition I completed across Spitsbergen, we did not spot a polar bear.
I should state that, it is at our own risk that we willingly decide to walk amongst the polar bear territory and ultimately in the event of an encounter, it is our priority to do everything in our power to preserve the life of the bear.
If there were a bear encounter during this expedition we had a series of safety protocols that we would take to assess the situation. It sounds rather obvious but, firstly, if we see a bear or signs of a bear, we avoid it. We move away in a different direction.
If however, a polar bear spots us, it’s likely it will take interest by sniffing the air, moving down wind, standing on its hind legs and making sound.
The government of Svalbard advises the following in the case of encountering a polar bear:
POLAR BEARS ATTACK EXTREMELY QUICKLY WITHOUT WARNING. BE ACCOMPANIED BY A LOCAL GUIDE WITH A FIREARM WHEN LEAVING THE SETTLEMENTS.
Anyone travelling beyond the marked safety zone of Longyearbyen should carry a rifle (and be licensed to do so), but it should only be used as a method scaring the animal away.
1. If you see a polar bear, you must not under any circumstances approach the animal. 2. If the polar bear follows you and you have no way of escaping, you need to try to scare it off. Keep the group together and make as much noise as possible. Act confident, and use the intimidation measures you have. Start using intimidation measurges from a distance of at least 200 meters. Make sure you place flares in front of a polar bear that is heading towards you. 3. If the polar bear is not frightened off, and the situation escalates in such a way that it may be fatal, you need to prepare for putting the animal down. 4. Select a point or line in the terrain and decide to fire if the bear crosses this point. You should aim for vital areas such as the heart or lungs (shoulder) if possible. Keep firing until you are certain that the animal is dead.
Another important factor to consider amongst the team on a polar expedition is to assist the individual operating the rifle by ensuring that person is kept warm whilst lying still in extremely cold conditions.
Choosing an appropriate area to pitch camp each night depended on many safety factors. To reduce the risk involved with polar bears in the area, it is important to choose an area that is open, with open visibility rather than an area amongst moraine or rocks where our camp may startle the bear. When we pitch camp each evening, we would set bear protection parameters surrounding the tent area. This set up acts as a warning device. Fishing wire links each post together in a large rectangular shape and is attached to a pin-release, cartridge trigger system at each corner -a cartridge that will fire a blanc round with a load sound. In addition, a bear night watch system would be established if we suspected bear activity in the area.
Incident Case Study - Polar Bear Attack Studying this report taught me a lot.
I studied the Inquiry on behalf of the British Schools Exploring Society into an attack by a polar bear on the Chanzin Fire in August 2011 and wrote the document (attached below) in 2018 as part of from my studies to qualify as a Wilderness Guide.
This was part of a module that was focused on duty of care as a Wilderness Guide, accidents, policy's, procedures and guidelines, risk and emergency management. Studying this story had a big impact on me and I felt I learnt a great deal from reading about the details of the tragic incident.
I wrote my opinion on why I believed this incident occurred in the way that they did and what I have learnt from the report in terms of minimising the risk of such an event happening, when working as a Guide.
I have attached the assessment here:
and the report written by Sir David Steel here:
I would love to also go on about what makes these incredible polar mammals so well designed for survival in this harsh and unforgiving environment…but I will save that for another post!
I love to hear from you! Let me know what you think by contacting me through my social channels.