A decision to kill a polar bear at 4 a.m. New Year’s Day because it kept venturing into Longyearbyen, even though it has been chased some distance away and didn’t post an immediate danger to humans, is triggering a familiar and fierce debate about the decision – as well as the mere presence of humans/tourists in the inhospitable landscape of Svalbard.
The bear, a seven-year-old male, was killed because it was impossible for officials to be fully aware of the bear’s location due to the 24-hour dark of polar night and the personnel able to tranquilize it so it could be flown by helicopter to remote area were away for the Christmas holidays, Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said in a prepared statement. But as with other bear killings by officials and civilians – which have included instances such a cub being killed after the mother was shot, and bears wounded in encounters/attacks being tracked and killed – the outrage was immediate and plentiful in comments posted on social media.
“Don’t talk about Svalbard anymore as a sustainable destination, please,” wrote Stéphanie Unterthiner, a Longyearbyen resident who moved from France, on a community “praise and information” Facebook page where numerous alerts about the bear’s presence were posted. “It’s ALL FAKE. It’s just a big business tourism area, where people can do almost anything and the governor is always over their law. Killing a bear here, not because of an emergency situation, is simply unacceptable! Happy New Year Svalbard??”
Askholt said there aren’t enough officials for a continuing 24-hour watch and even with one the dark meant the bear couldn’t be reliably tracked, putting people in danger because of the bear’s clear inclination to keep returning to town even after being chased away several times. That argument carried the most weight among commenters supporting her decision.
“I think it is sad too, but it would be more sad if one human had been eaten by the bear,” wrote Heidi Roland in a response to Unterthiner.
The lack of qualified personnel to tranquilize and transport the bear was among the most frequent criticisms of the government’s policies and reactions when the predators are near humans and/or settlements.
“There should always be someone with competence on Svalbard ALL YEAR ROUND no matter what,” opined Bee Nord, another local resident. “This was a disgusting loss of life which was unnecessary had our tax money been used correctly to support training for the governor’s unit in better dealing with this ‘type’ of persistent bear. Disgusting decision to shoot him.”
Some argued holidays for such personnel are inevitable, sometimes to locations where a quick return isn’t possible, and even their presence isn’t a guarantee a persistent bear can be transported safely.
“It’s not like the polar bear is just waiting to be found and darted,” wrote Sophie Cordon, a photographer who posted photos online of the early morning helicopter chase online. “Sunday they had no control where the bear was after he was seen in Bjørndalen. I guess we have only two competent people to do the job and they could be anywhere on the planet. After the first visit, people couldn’t know this bear will just keep coming back.”
The argument failed to persuade.
“Bears don’t celebrate Christmas,” Nord replied.
As it turns out, the bear had already been tranquillized and flown to the northeast corner of Svalbard after approaching Longyearbyen in April of 2016. That visit, in addition to drawing the usual spectators to the edge of town where they could observe the helicopter pursuit at a safe distance, was seen worldwide in the debut episode of a BBC reality TV series that aired several months later.
But, as has been the case with others bears seen near town, the bear’s return to town three year later may have been part of an annual migration pattern that tends to cover large areas of Svalbard and the Barents Sea region to the north and east.
Locations bear tracks were found included hotels and pubs such as Basecamp Spitsbergen and Kroa in the center of town, and a few meters from the recreation area at Longyearbyen School. The bear’s visits mostly occurred in the early morning hours, so a person outdoors at the time might well have been alone without others awake and nearby to help or report if an encounter occurred.
Discussions following previous polar bear killings have ranged from scholarly to bewildering, such as the latter occurring following the shooting of a bear that attacked a cruise ship employee in northern Svalbard during the summer of 2018. Opinions largely offered by outsiders called it a tragedy of climate, weather, selfie tourism, sustainable tourism, food choices, liberals, racism and other factors.
Public opinion has overwhelmingly sided with the bear and against humans during such attacks, blaming people for failing to take proper precautions. Among those critical after the cruise ship incident was the captain of another boat in the area who said bear tracks and a whale carcass were clearly visible on the beach from the water, meaning cruise ship crew members should have known a bear was likely nearby.
Also receiving harsh criticism – and a subsequent 10,000.kroner fine from the governor for negligence, was the leader of a Czech expedition whose campsite was attacked by a polar bear in the spring of 2015, resulting in moderate injury to one man. The group wounded the bear with a shot, resulting in officials tracking it down and killing it. An investigation found the group did not set up a tripwire alarm properly, did not have anyone on watch when the attack occurred, and they failed to promptly and accurately report the encounter. Observers also noted frequent sightings and photos of the bear, its sibling and mother were posted on media and Facebook pages, yet the group camped near where the sightings occurred.
A rapid rise in Svalbard’s tourism industry in recent years has also resulted in frequent reports of groups and people approaching polar bears and committing other violations of the Svalbard Protection Act that prohibits the disturbing of wildlife. The governor has closed some of the most popular tour areas during the past two springs due to the multitude of reports of people disturbing polar bears and seals during their peak hunting and birthing seasons.
The governor’s decision-making has also been frequently called into question, although officials there generally rely on advice from experts such as those at the Norwegian Polar Institute before acting. Among the most controversial in recent years was the killing of a cub because it had “no chance of surviving without its mother” when she was shot by a trapper at Austfjordneset in north Spitsbergen in June of 2016.
“This is terribly sad,” Askholt said afterward. “We do everything we can to avoid putting bears to to death due to confrontations with people. Of course, it is especially bad when a young cub must be killed, but we saw no other option.”
Even non-lethal actions by the governor have provoked criticism, such as when a whale carcass on a beach near a cabin area just west of Longyearbyen was towed out to sea to stop bears from feasting on it.
Morten Jørgensen, a Copenhagen native who called the New Year’s Day shooting “nothing less than sanctioned state murder out of complacency, arrogance and stupidity,” noted another outcome likely to be criticized by some.
“What next – sell this skin too, to the highest bidder?” he wrote, referring to the governor’s tradition of donating one polar bear pelt a year to an annual charity auction where bids can hover in the 100,000 kroner range.
Criticism isn’t limited to encounters – many objections have been raised over the years about humans invading the bears’ territory, whether as residents of tourists.
“”It is always dispiriting to read of wild places that have been developed to entertain tourists,” wrote a commenter in the U.S. with the username of Burton, in an article published Monday by The New York Times about New Year’s tourism in Longyearbyen. “But, I guess this place is not that wild because it was a coal mining camp since the 1890s, long before the tourist trade. I do not like the idea of killing polar bears to protect tourists.”
Another frequent complaint is bears are under threat due to climate change, and human activity in Svalbard adds to both the causes and impact of those changes.
A few commenters after Wednesday’s killing expressed hope that, while New Year’s in Longyearbyen quickly turned from celebration to mourning as a result, the incident will offer lessons officials can use for similar incidents in the future.
“Hopefully there has finally been a lesson learned here & that this polar bear has not died in vain: to always have at least a few personnel on hand ready to tranqualize & transfer these bears, even during any holiday,” wrote Arzu Altuntur Samur, a native of Canada living in Turkey, responding to a post about the shooting on this writer’s Facebook page. “It is, after all, their land which all Svalbard residents are inhabiting.”