RANT: Rumor persists the bear killed on New Year’s isn’t the one that visited in 2016. It’s utterly absurd, unless it’s the biggest and stupidest conspiracy by officials in modern times

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First, to the naysayers: yes, the lip tattoo and ear marker on the bear are a match. Unless two different official agencies are telling an easily-discoverable lie for reasons beyond comprehension.

Unlike certain parts of the world where leaders are spouting non-stop “alternative facts,” claims of “fake news” and – in a new classic uttered just yesterday – “no one said this wasn’t photoshopped,” even nonconformists at this newspaper tend to trust public officials are truthful about facts regarding major incidents such as the highly controversial killing of a polar bear on New Year’s Day.

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A polar bear seen near Longyearbyen last spring, who has appeared with his mother and sibling before, may be getting mistaken for an older and larger bear killed by officials near town on New Year’s Day. Photo by Sophie Cordon.

That’s not to say matters of policy and judgement – most notably in this case whether there really was no practical alternative to killing the bear – can’t be legitimately questioned. But when we’re told the bear is a seven-year-old male that also happened to visit Longyearbyen in 2016, when it was drugged and flown to the far northern corner of Svalbard, it seems reasonable to assume it’s a legitimate fact – barring some serious and inadvertent screwup that will be corrected in reasonably short order.

Still, we got a follow-up message from an alert reader who originally tipped us off to the bear’s post-midnight visit very shortly after it was spotted that the bear was a three-old male weighing about 200 kilograms. That made it into a draft of a follow-up story that lasted about 90 seconds because by happenstance the governor issued a statement almost at the same time about the animal being the older male that was prowling at the edge of town a few years ago.

We didn’t give it further thought, even when a scattering of messages questioned this, since the overwhelming barrage of comments to us and elsewhere focused on the justifications (or lack thereof) for killing the animal because the governor felt there were no other practical options to protect the community.

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Male polar bears in Svalbard are fitted with an ear tag when caught by researchers because collars will slip off. Photo by Andrew Derocher / WWF.

But those ID doubts persisted, including claims the dead bear didn’t have an inner lip tattoo like the captured one and the ear tag – if it had one – didn’t match. There were calls for us to do some “real investigative journalism” and, while it probably doesn’t qualify for those skeptical of the Official Story – we did get in touch with the governor’s office and foremost polar bear expert at the Norwegian Polar Institute with a pretty obvious question: can you provide photos or some other definitive proof it is indeed the same bear?

The answer: no, at least not immediately. But we’re taking their explanations about how they verified the bear’s identity at face value because…well, above all, what on Earth would be the purpose in lying – especially about something so easily disprovable if there was legitimate cause to doubt the claim?

The governor’s spokesperson (“mouthpiece” to you skeptics) reaffirmed it’s officially the same bear based on data from the Norwegian Polar Institute, which is where were figured the definitive proof did/didn’t exist. Jon Aars, the longtime institute expert who’s the most noted and quoted about all things polars bears in Svalbard, responded to our email by explaining “I can say for sure that the bear killed was the seven-year old male reported and that it is the same one that was moved in 2016.”

The lip tattoo is on the inside of the lip, so you need to lift the lip to actually see it. The bear was identified both by an ear mark, and the tattoo.”

We asked Aars if he had any photos or other definitive proof we could show readers inclined to ask “you’re just taking his word for it?”

“No, I do not have pictures for the tattoos, but they should still be visible when Martin Munch and Rupert Krapp will skin the bear later (and it will be obvious that it is an adult male bear, from length and weight),” he wrote. (We’ll skip who those guys are now, although supposedly they’d become important if a true scandal somehow became suspected.)

“What I can assure you is that I was told the number and color of the ear tag, but I asked the one that called me for the tattoo number,” Aars added. “Then he was able to read it, without me having told him, and the tattoo matched the ear tag.”

Either that convinces the skeptics or it doesn’t.

As for the claims a younger and lighter bear was killed, Aars noted more than one bear has been lingering near Longyearbyen recently.

“Likely the story about the three-year-old/200kg bear is partly based on my guess that it was not unlikely that the bear seen was a male with that age that has been frequently around cabins in Longyearbyen this year (he was with his mother/sister until at least March last year, before the family split up). While we knew bears from that family was around in the area until recently, we did not know the bear that was killed was (but in hindsight, I guess it is likely he may have been one of the bears breaking into cabins).”

So while we’re not being complacent about other aspects of the shooting such as whether there were alternatives – nor do we intend to beat it to death, so speak, as some of the more prolific posters of online comments seem to be doing – it’s hard to envision why “real investigative reporting” on the ID thing is worth our limited time. Of course, we’re going to look pretty stupid if this ends up being true like the conspiracists who claimed the government was trying to control our minds and the weather but, hey, that’s what obscure one-line corrections are for.

 

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