As climate change causes summer sea ice to dwindle in the Arctic, hungry polar bears increasingly come into conflict with local people. Here's how we’re helping them to live side by side more safely.
It’s April in Ittoqqortoormiit, an Inuit settlement of about 450 people on the east coast of Greenland. Basalt cliffs rise from the edge of a vast fjord, but with the mercury nudging -10°C, there’s no time to gaze at its raw beauty. A man walks briskly from one of the cabins studding the rocky shore, jumps on a snowmobile and heads along the coast.
Suddenly, a polar bear appears, charging straight at him. The animal is quick – polar bears can sprint faster than Usain Bolt – and with little time to react, the man defends himself the only way he can: with his bare hands, boxing the huge predator in the head.
The bear is young – a full grown adult male can be as much as 2.5m long and weigh 680kg – but it’s still many times bigger than the man. Finally, after fending off the bear with his blows, the man manages to start his snowmobile and escape. Hands swollen, jacket soaked with the bear’s saliva, he’s shaken but safe.
It’s an incredible story, but one WWF’s Kaare Winther Hansen knows is all too real. The incident this April was the closest polar bear encounter in the region for seven or eight years, but it’s far from the only one. Incidents are rising at an alarming rate.
In 2007, nine polar bear conflicts were registered in Greenland. Between August and December 2017, there were 21 close calls in Ittoqqortoormiit alone. This pattern is repeated across the species’ range in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia.
The primary cause is climate change. Since the 1980s, the Arctic has been warming at about twice the global rate. Though polar bears are strong swimmers, they depend on sea ice to hunt – mostly ringed and bearded seals – and to travel to their winter denning sites. As climate change bites, sea ice melts earlier in the year and freezes later, and its extent and thickness is reduced; scientific models predict that most of the Arctic will be largely free of sea ice during the summer months by 2040.
1. Always on the lookout
The effects of sea ice reduction on polar bear movements are felt acutely in communities such as Ittoqqortoormiit.
"Polar bears follow the edge of the sea ice as it retreats north in spring," says Kaare. "In the past five or six years, the edge has been closer to the shore, so the bears can smell the settlement, particularly the dog food and dump site." The chance to scavenge easy pickings is tempting, particularly to hungry young bears (typically around three years old) that recently left their mothers and have yet to hone hunting skills – "angry teenagers", as one local calls them.
Even in Greenland, where communities have lived alongside polar bears for centuries, this increase in incursions by huge predators is alarming. "We’re always on the lookout for bears," explains an Ittoqqortoormiit resident. "We dare not send our children out on their own." There have been no reported human deaths or serious injuries from polar bear attacks in Greenland in the past century, but the risks to people and property are growing.
When I was a kid, we never saw polar bears in this area. Now we have to polar bear proof our cabins. Last spring, a bear smashed all our windows.
- 64-year-old resident
One drastic solution to ‘problem’ bears is to shoot them, which is legal when in defence of life or property. But given the pressures that polar bears are facing, it’s vital to have non-lethal options in the conflict toolbox. Though accurate figures across the Arctic are wanting, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group estimates a global population of 22,000–31,000 – and predicts that this could decline by more than 30% by 2050.
2. On patrol for polar bears
We’ve worked with governments and Arctic communities for over a decade to mitigate the risks to both bears and people. We launched the first polar bear patrol in 2006 in Chukotka, northeast Russia, where umky (polar bear) patrols drive away problem animals, rather than having to shoot them. Today, we support patrols across Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia.
In 2015, Ittoqqortoormiit’s community led patrol was established amid concerns about the safety of schoolchildren. WWF provided an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and fund a patrol each weekday morning before school, during periods of peak bear activity. Typically, the patrol is needed from August, though this year, because more bears were seen in earlier months, we also ran a patrol in spring. And it’s been busy: "So far, 65 polar bear incidents have been recorded,” reports Kaare.
When the patrol encounters a polar bear near a community, it tries first to drive it away. "The noise of the ATV’s engine is usually enough to scare off bears," says Kaare. "If this doesn’t work, the noise from a powerful rifle is often effective. We’re testing a loud signal gun."
3. Safe bears, safe people
We’re working to make the settlement less attractive to bears. Though bears are attracted to dog food (mostly walrus and seal meat stored outside in wooden boxes) and areas where hunters process their catches, their main fast food joint is the town dump. "Polar bears follow the smell of rotting meat – it’s a feast for a starving bear,” observes one local. The town has an incinerator, but it’s ineffective, so Kaare is working with the government to introduce a system for packaging and shipping out bear enticing waste.
Such combinations of tactics have proved effective elsewhere. In 2010, we introduced polar bear patrols and bear-resistant steel food-storage bins to the Inuit community of Arviat in Nunavut, Canada. As a result, on average seven fewer bears are shot each year in defence of life and property.
We’re testing infrared and thermic sensors at Ittoqqortoormiit’s dump. The cost effective system can detect and identify different species (distinguishing between dogs and bears, say) and send alerts to a patroller’s mobile phone. "It’s exciting," says Kaare. "If it accurately identifies bears, and the range is long enough, this early warning detection system could keep the settlement and the bears safe."
But local incidents reveal just part of a much bigger picture. To help understand and manage human-polar bear conflicts we encourage the logging of encounters in the Polar Bear Human Interaction Management System, a pan-Arctic database mapping hotspots for conflict.
Our overall understanding of polar bear ecology is still inadequate. Not only is the estimate of the total population fuzzy, but nine of the world’s 19 subpopulations are 'data deficient’, including those of east Greenland. Obtaining accurate information about bear populations, movements, diet and other details is crucial– and tech advances will again play a key role.
In Nunavut, we helped obtain tiny samples of hair, skin and fat from individual polar bears, providing genetic 'fingerprints’ and information on their diet and health. In Alaska and in Svalbard, Norway, we’re working to secure these same 'fingerprints’ from bear pawprints left in the snow. With local community involvement, we hope that this will contribute towards polar bear population data across the Arctic.
We’ve contributed to an aerial census of polar bears and ringed and bearded seals in the Chukchi Sea, which uses thermal imaging to survey vast areas quickly and accurately. And we’re working with experts and native peoples in Alaska to develop new tracking technology to replace unwieldy collars that have barely evolved since the 1980s.
Written by Paul Bloomfield