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Walking with polar bears – a dangerous trend

Over the course of less than half a year, I have been contacted by three persons, completely independently of each other, who have asked me what I thought of three different, apparently unrelated situations. On closer scrutiny, they are perhaps not so unrelated after all. Maybe they are part of a trend? Walking among polar bears! I feel a strong need to bring this issue to the attention of as many as possible. Before it escalates, and before we see serious accidents. Maybe I should say before we see even more serious accidents.

In August 2018, I was alerted to the image aboe, which was circulating on the internet.

This is a photo from Wrangel Island, In the Russian Arctic. It shows a group of tourists standing close to a polar bear that is walking past them. Whether this was a private tour or an organised tour is not clear to me. One of the persons in the photo is the founder and then owner of an expedition tour company. In the group is also a local scientist, and the photographer – I am told – was another such. The people are just watching, or taking photographs, they are spread out, they are relaxed, and they do not in any way demonstrate alertness. There are no rifles on the scene.

Around the same time, another friend and colleague asked me my opinion on the various doings of the guides in the video here: https://cooksonadventures.com/where-weve-been/svalbard/. Not least the images and text bragging about being able to walk on foot up to within 50 meters on polar bears had caught his attention, and they certainly caught mine as well. These scenes are from Svalbard. We see an armed guide, with a rifle over his shoulder and a group of tourists on tow, sneaking up across fjord ice towards a polar bear family at a kill. Later he is sitting on the ice with the rifle laid out in front of him, the photographers spread out alongside him.

Now, in January 2019, another colleague asked me what I think of the activities described here: https://www.churchillwild.com/adventures/polar-bear-safari/ **. This company not only directly talks about walking among polar bears, but they also amply illustrate that with photographs, showing groups of photographers walking by or standing next to polar bears, armed guides among them. In some of the images, the scenario is slightly different: The tourists are behind a fence, and the bear walks by immediately outside, merely meters away.

To make a potentially long argument short, this is my take: Even before this new “trend” of walking with polar bears, the polar bear watching tourist industry already has a problem. The fact that in most places we walk about in polar country armed with lethal weaponry, prepared to shoot to kill, is offensive in itself. It is a disrespectful approach. But never-the-less, this is a behaviour which is expected of us by local authorities, and many tour and ship operators require it of their guides. Self-protection through guns is the widely accepted and expected approach to Arctic tourism, even though it occasionally leads to deaths. However, the trade-off for carrying guns has so far been, and is also generally required by law to be, that polar bears are not sought out. If we venture on foot into polar bear country with a lethal weapon for our protection, the understanding has been that we do our utmost to avoid any behaviour that could lead to a dangerous situation. Meaning among other things that we do not seek our bears and we do not approach bears, and if we know there are bears in a particular spot, we avoid going there.

When we start seeing the opposite situation happening, that the guides, still carrying guns, seek out polar bears on purpose, approach them, and bring groups of tourists within close proximity of them, the moral corruption is evident. When this behaviour is sanctioned and even promoted by the operators, the moral corruption is complete. To walk onto the tundra or the ice, in search of polar bears, and still be bringing a loaded rifle with you ‘just in case’ – is despicable.

I have asked the authorities in Svalbard (Sysselmannen) several times, what they think of that website and that video from their area, and whether the activities demonstrated are legal and/or acceptable – but five months later, Sysselmannen has not replied.

The situation in Canada seems as disrespectful and as despicable as the one seen in Svalbard. And there is a further complication which is more urgent in Canada than in Svalbard. The habituation of the bears to being close to humans, the teaching of the bears that they need not fear man or human structures, is a recipe for disaster – and it is more so when there is more human habitation in the vicinity. The Canadian operator offers walking with polar bears, and watching them from up close from behind a wire fence only, on the shores of Hudson Bay – not many miles from settlements where locals live – and hunt. There is no polar bear hunting in Manitoba, but there is in Nunavut, a few miles to the north along the same shoreline. Not only are those operators potentially contributing to the bears more easily getting themselves shot when they next time walk close to humans, but they are also potentially endangering the humans who share the habitat with polar bears; bears now accustomed to human structures, smells, voices and activities. There were in 2018 lethal accidents just to the north of where these walks take place, and locals have already voiced their opinion, that tourism is causing bears to become customized to people. Whether that is the reality or not, it certainly is fuelling conflict between man and bear. And it is providing hunters with an excuse to shoot more bears.

The Wrangel Island scenario is very problematic as well. Initially, the lack of lethal weaponry may seem like a redeeming factor. And perhaps this group was not seeking out the bear, but the bear walked into the scene? Regardless, when the group of people so disrespectfully allow the bear to walk by them at such close distance, without in any way configuring the group or individually displaying the body language of alertness, and without in any way being de facto ready for a sudden change in the bear’s behaviour, it is ultimately as despicable as the other two situations. Any escalation of the situation will result in casualty, whether it be human or bear, or both. The only right behaviour prior to the moment the image was snapped would have been to avoid getting into that situation in the first place, if possible, and if that was never possible, then at least to be alert and prepared.

So are we seeing a trend? Is walking among polar bears the new cool must-do in Arctic tourism? And if so, what can we do about this?

It seems to me that this is indeed a new trend. The insatiable desire for new and different approaches, and new and different photographs, lead operators to seek new ways of satisfying the demand. Out the window go ethics, and “walking armed among polar bears” comes in – with a cynical disregard for the potential for negative consequences for the animals.

It is rather obvious that carrying lethal weaponry leads to carelessness, less respect, and accidents. The risks that guides would take would be drastically different if they were not carrying guns. We would immediately see a lot more respectful and humble behaviour and approach in polar bear country, if the main risk lay on the human side and not the animal side. The obvious step is to implement everywhere a methodology of guiding in polar bear country without carrying lethal weaponry. The change from a gun- based security philosophy to a non-lethal one is slow to manifest, but it is happening. A powerful, efficient, elaborate and professional non-lethal safety technology for meetings between humans and polar bears already exists. Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov has developed a methodology which has been taught widely to professionals all over the Arctic for years. Its implementation must continue and must spread.

According to Dr. Ovsyanikov, one of the three main and clearly identified situations causing serious human-bear conflicts is habituation. This “walking among polar bears” trend is a new and very real threat to polar bears. In all three cases mentioned here, the basic rules of guiding based on non-lethal safety technologies were violated, and in the two cases, the basic rules of guiding while carrying lethal weaponry were violated as well. Authorities need to respond to this, and stop it. Be they national or local legal authorities, or conservation and management authorities, they need to step up to the plate and stop this nonsense, before more bears and people die. In the Svalbard case, the authorities have so far failed to respond. In the Wrangel case, local authorities were represented, but did not intervene. Additionally, industry organizations and tourism operators themselves should intervene, not only when local and legal authorities fail, but actually in any case.

** Initial reactions to post ….. One of the operators that was mentioned in my original post has written me, defending and standing by their actions, while at the same time telling me that they have removed the reference to that particular activity on their website. So you will find no rifle-bearing guide on foot with polar bears any longer on that link. Another operator that walks with polar bears in Canada has written me in anger and claims that my post is hurting polar bears and sides with the hunters, and that the activity is entirely safe and ethical.