Barneo, expeditions on high alert after polar bear shot by expedition; leader disputes accusation he failed to report incident

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The leader of a group that shot and wounded a polar bear during a ski expedition from the Barneo ice camp to the North Pole is being accused of handling the encounter negligently and failing to report the incident to camp officials, therefore putting other expeditions in danger.

He is denying the accusations and offering a much different narrative of the encounter, which was also initially detailed in a post on his company’s website April 11, the date it occurred.

An investigation of the incident is planned by the International Polar Guides Association, which could affect the guide’s accreditation, but because it took place in international waters it’s unclear who – if anyone – is authorized to conduct a criminal investigation.

The accusations against Dixie “Dirk” Dansercoer include a women in the expedition claiming he handled the bear encounter (and other parts of the trip) poorly, and Irina Orlova, chief operations officer of the Barneo camp at about 89 degrees latitude north, stating in a post on the camp’s official Facebook page at about midnight Wednesday he failed to notify camp officials.

“The group’s leader, Dirk Dansercoer, did not inform the chief expedition leader at the Barneo station about the incident,” Orlova wrote. “He did not inform the person responsible for the safety of all of us. It means that people who wounded a dangerous creature concealed the fact that all groups following the same course are in danger from now on.”

Dansercoer, a veteran Flemish polar explorer, said in an interview Wednesday he notified Victor Serov, Barneo’s chief expedition leader, during a prescheduled daily radio update about seven hours after the midday shooting.

“I clearly mentioned the situation and how it all happened,” he said.

In a response to Dansercoer’s comments, Barneo posted a statement on its official Facebook page stating “as we just learned, the case is more complicated than it appears to be.”

“Mr. Dansercoer misinformed us,” the comment asserts. “Now the incident is exploring by Norwegian Police; as far as we know, they have a footage and witness testimony. We’ll inform our readers as soon as we get exact knowledge.”

In a separate private message exchange, camp officials stated Serov is now on the expedition route and won’t be available for comment until April 23.

All expeditions and the ice camp are now keeping 24-hour watches for bears, according to the page.

The incident blemishes what until now has been a mostly smooth season for the ice camp after the past two seasons experienced severe political and weather disruptions. The encounter occurred at roughly the midpoint of the three- to four-week season announced Tuesday it has started dismantling some of the tents since the final expeditions to the Pole have already arrived and departed.

Dansercoer’s expedition first reported seeing polar bear tracks leading from an open-water crack on the ice from two polar bears about N 89° 38′49 near the end of their travels April 10. He said he had also been notified another expedition had seen two bears and had to scare them off, so extra precautions were taken when his expedition set up camp.

“We had, of course, a restless night, but nothing happened,” he said.

The group, consisting at that of four people after two were forced to drop out, was crossing a pressure zone the next day when one of the skiers experienced a problem with his harness, Dansercoer said. He stopped to help, but two women ahead of him continued on until he signaled for them to stop.

A short time later one of them “came back yelling ‘Dixie Dixie there’s a polar bear!'” he said.

The other woman initially remained where she was and filmed the bear, believing the animal posed no imminent danger, Dansercoer said. Once he got all members of the group back together, he saw the bear for the first time.

“The bear took (a) woman’s sled, dragging it about 40 to 50 meters, and started rummaging through it and eating it,” he said.

“I knew this bear was not going to stop eating until he found all of the food on the sled,” he added, noting he was concerned by both the loss of supplies and damage to the gear and sled.

As the bear approached the second sled, Dansercoer said the group unsuccessfully tried intimidating the animal.

“The polar bear went to the second sled and then caught our scent and walked straight toward us,” he said, estimating the bear was 30 to 35 meters away at that point.

Dansercoer, armed with a rifle loaded with four bullets, said asked the expedition’s lone male guest, armed with a handgun loaded with ten bullets, to fire a warning shot at the bear. He said this was his 14th polar bear encounter and in his experience “very few polar bears will run at the sound of a gun,” but the handgun’s extra ammunition made the attempt worthwhile.

“It did not stop,” Dansercoer said. “It didn’t charge – I have rarely seen a polar bear charge an enemy – but it was not going to stop.”

The man with the handgun asked Dansercoer multiple times for permission to shoot the bear before getting permission to do so.

“We still don’t know (at that point) if that hurt or killed it,” he said. “It ran away. Nobody saw any blood.”

Dansercoer said he followed the animal’s movements for more than a kilometer and returning to his group to continue the expedition, which reached the North Pole on April 12.

His account of the expedition is being challenged by Evelyne Binsack, one of the women in the group, who stated in an e-mail interview numerous statements are inaccurate.

“Dixie Dansercoer was putting out many false statements regarding the issue with the bear and he continued to tell false statements after he knew that the bear shot was hitting the bear into head or shoulder,” she wrote. “I didn’t share the tent with Dixie, and I cannot answer your question if he reported the bear incident or not to Barneo. But if I personally had to choose whom I do believe and whom not, then I definitively would trust into what Victor Serov says.”

In an lengthy and emotional account of the encounter at her website,Binsack offers an alternative narrative that portrays Dansercoer as inept and insensitive. Among her many questions is why he didn’t fire the shot at the polar bear since he was presumably the most qualified to handle the situation.

“I understand that Dixie wanted to protect us from the bear,” she wrote in a blog post (Google Translate of German original). “But at the same time he was not up to the situation.”

The initial narrative at Dansercoer’s company website states the man fired ” a second shot at the ground near the bear’s paw. Thankfully, that explosion near its foot alarmed the bear and it took off running away from the group.” But a post-expedition post April 18, acknowledged “confusion in the moment of the adrenaline-filled encounter.”

“It is now abundantly clear, especially upon review of images taken by the participants, that the bear was indeed most likely hit and apparently wounded before it ran away from our team,” the post states. “That realization has left everyone involved with various confused feelings, understandable emotions that are inherent to an Arctic expedition. The desire to mitigate any potentially dangerous bear encounters lies in the DNA of a polar guide like Dixie.”

But the accusation he failed to report the encounter to the proper authorities set off a furious reaction when Orlova stated on Barneo’s official Facebook another group encountered the bear with no knowledge of what had happened.

“When alarming reports began to arrive from the route that one of the groups was being pursued by a predator leaving bloody tracks on the snow, it was possible to find out from Dirk Dansercoer, who had already returned to Longyearbyen, the details of the incident a few days ago,” Orlova wrote.

Although evidence beyond Orlova’s claim and Dansercoer’s remains anecdotal.

Thomas Nilsen – a Longyearbyen resident visting Barneo from April 10-15 to perform a rock concert at the camp, stated in a private social media message he “didn’t hear anything about” the incident during his time there.

The injury would likely make the bear’s behavior more unpredictable, increasing the danger to those in the area, Orlova wrote. There were still about 25 skiers on the trail early Tuesday morning.

“The community of polar guides after the end of the season will have to ‘debrief’ and there will be additional rules developed in the event of such force majeure situations,” she wrote.

The investigation by the International Polar Guides Association, scheduled soon after the season at Barneo ends, could affect Dansercoer’s ability to lead future expeditions if his actions are deemed irresponsible. But addressing legal questions may prove more complex.

Among the potential dilemmas is who, if anybody, is responsible for the bear’s welfare since it is outside any country’s national boundaries. Another who might be authorized to investigate the incident as a criminal matter.

Terje Carlsen, a spokesman for The Governor of Svalbard, stated in an e-mail interview a polar bear shooting north of Svalbard would be evaluated by Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment. Kristin Heggelund, acting deputy director general of the ministry, said in statement issued through a spokesman there appears to be no basis to open an inquiry.

This incident occurred in international waters,” she said. “As far as we know, there were no Norwegian citizens involved. On the basis of this, we do not see any reason for Norwegian authorities to pursue this matter at this stage.”

Typically in Svalbard a seriously wounded bear is tracked down and killed by the governor’s office, and parties found to have acted negligently have been fined in recent years. Carlsen stated a violation of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act can result in a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

“I do not know examples of anyone being prosecuted solely because they have failed to report that they have shot polar bears,” he wrote.

Dansercoer said he has already spoken with other polar guides about the incident and agrees more discussions are needed.

“Yes, this will be a matter of discussion in the months to come in the circles of (the association),” he said.

Dansercoer’s company biography states he has about 20 years experience that includes more than 30 trips to the North and South Poles. In addition to his companies Polar Circles and Polar Experience, he co-founded the Expeditions Unlimited consortium in 2011 with several other explorers including Gilles Elkaïm, a Frenchman convicted of violating environmental and access laws during a sailboat expedition in Svalbard last fall that was supposed to be part of an attempt to reach the North Pole.

Dansercoer said he knows Elkaïm and is aware of the case, but he disagrees with the Frenchman’s actions and doesn’t feel the bear incident should be regarded in a similar manner.

“I am very critical of what he did with his boat,” he said.

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