A man from The Netherlands who was an employee at Longyearbyen Camping was fatally attacked in his tent by a polar bear shortly before 4 a.m. Friday, according to The Governor of Svalbard. The bear was immediately shot by people at the campsite as it wandered away and found dead in the parking lot of Svalbard Airport a short distance away.
The governor’s office was notified of the attack at 3:50 a.m., according to a statement.
“A police patrol rushed to the scene and secured the area,” the statement notes. “Longyearbyen Hospital was notified. The person who was attacked by the bear was confirmed dead by a doctor from the hospital.”
Johan (“Job”) Jacobus Kootte, 38, of Amsterdam, was an employee at the campsite who also worked there in 2018. His injuries were not immediately specified and an autopsy of him will be conducted at the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø.
Michelle van Dijk, general manager of the campsite who is currently in the Netherlands, told NRK some of the other people living at the campsite were also experienced tour guides. In an e-mail interview, she noted the campsite was scheduled to close for the season after this weekend.
“We extend our sincere condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased,” she wrote in a post on the campsite’s official Facebook page. “In the 44 years that Longyearbyen Camping has existed we have never experienced anything like this and we are ourselves in a state of shock. As of now we do not know the details of what happened.”
The other people staying at the campsite – three Germans, a Norwegian, a Finn and an Italian – wrote in a statement to the Norwegian News Agency “we, the survivors of today’s accident, are all deeply affected by the incident that happened this morning at the campsite.”
“Our thoughts go to the family and friends of the deceased.we ask the press to respect our need for privacy and our need to provide for our friend who just passed away. We want to thank the inhabitants of Longyearbyen and the governor of Svalbard for great efforts and support through this difficult day.”
There have been at least four polar bears seen near Longyearbyen during the past week. The bear that killed Kootte is a three-year-old male that was chased away from Hiorthhamn, a cabin across the bay from Longyearbyen, earlier this week, the governor announced Friday evening. It is also the son of a female bear that was tranquilize, along with her newest cub, and flown by helicopter to the northern part of Isfjorden after also making multiple visits the same location. The mother bear may be the same one that has made annual visits to the area in late summer and early fall, often with cubs, as part of her annual migration.
No other people at the campsite, who were all staying in tents, were physically injured by the polar bear, according to the governor. But six people were taken to the hospital in Longyearbyen and are being cared for by health personnel and city crisis managers.
An autopsy of the bear at a facility used by the governor is scheduled today. Because the fatality of a person was involved, the governor is requesting no photos of the bear be published by the media at this time.
The people at the campsite will be interviewed throughout the day as part of the investigation. The governor is asking people to avoid the area.
The campsite, typically open through early- to mid-September, was closed during the first half of the summer due to the COVID-19 crisis. While it is staffed during that period, and a building with kitchen and other facilities available, the campsite’s policy states guests are responsible for their own safety.
Although the campsite’s website states no bears have been at the site since the service building opened in 1985, a bear visited the designated bird sanctuary on the opposite side of the entrance road literally meters away (see YouTube video of visit at right) on July 29, 2011, only days after a fatal bear attack at a camp site about 40 kilometers away that was the most recent involving a person’s death in Svalbard.
Campsite policy states guests are not allowed to have loaded firearms there.
“Due to fairly open terrain, permanent light, occasional traffic on the nearby coastal road at any time of the day and also almost always some activity on the camping site itself, an undetected approach of a polar bear is very unlikely during most of the summer season,” the campsite’s website states.
Trip-wire alarm systems around tents are permitted if they do not pose a threat to other people, dogs or others.
Nearly 40 comments were posted on the governor’s Facebook page during the hours following the attack, many of them expressing sympathy for the bear as well as the victim and other people there. At the top of those considered “most relevant,” Arek Stryjski, an experienced marine expeditioner in Svalbard, responded to someone upset about the lack of flare-alarm system by noting the risks it might pose in an area where large numbers of people might be present nearby.
“The camping in Longyearbyen is 500 meters from the airport terminal, (and) 100 meters from the parking and bus station,” he wrote. “Putting any flare alarms there will be dangerous for humans. It is miracle someone had loaded gun and more people where not hurt. What if it had attacked people who were leaving airport building?”
Van Dijk told Svalbardposten an electric fence was scheduled to be built around the campsite this year, and supplies arrived in March, but it was delayed when the COVID-19 crisis resulted in the shutdown of all visitors to Svalbard that same month.
“I was going to set up a three-wire electric fence with 200 poles around the entire campsite,” she told the newspaper.
Jan Jacops, a science journalist whose camped at the site three times, wrote on his Facebook page she never felt in danger there.
“The campsite was considered safe and I must admit that we did not kept guard during the nights we stayed at the campsite,” he wrote. “We did, though, when we where out hiking for several days. My sincere condolences goes to all the families involved. This is a very sad day for the families and the acquaintances of the people involved in this incident, but also for the already heavy tampered tourist season on Svalbard. I had to cancel my plans for the Arctic as well due to COVID-19, as did most of us. Let’s hope for better times, for ourselves, but also for our wildlife. Polar bears in particular. They do not deserve to suffer from climate change induced by us.”
Friday’s attack quickly made headlines worldwide, and readers outside Svalbard responding in comments and on social media – as with previous polar bear attacks on humans – largely focused on the presence of people where bears reside.
“A bear shot for being a ‘bear,’” wrote a Twitter user named Roy Watson in response to an article at UK’s Sky News. “Don’t (expletive) camp in the bear’s natural habitat and expect it to think ‘oh, look a campsite I’m not allowed over there.’ It’s gonna be attracted and curious…you know the risks.”
Terje Carlsen, a spokesman for the governor, told Svalbardposten there have been numerous inquiries from international media organizations during the hours after the attack. But details about the victim, and the investigation the actions of those there which is standard for any attack resulting in a response, cannot be shared immediately.
“This is a dramatic event that fortunately does not happen so often,” he told the newspaper. “It is clear that the interest is great. But we must first and foremost take into account the privacy and the relatives in our communication. The accident is also a reminder that we are in polar bear country and that people must take their precautions.”
Six people have been killed by polar bears in Svalbard since 1971. The most recent was in July of 2011 when 17-year-old Horatio Chapple was killed while camping with a student group from the United Kingdom on Von Postbreen about 40 kilometers from Longyearbyen. An official British inquiry determined, controversially, the group was negligent in not having a fully working alarm system and no guard on duty, but those were not responsible for the fatality.
A more recent attack involving injury occurred in March of 2015 when a polar bear dragged a Czech tourist out of his tent as he and others were camping north of Longyearbyen. The bear was driven away by others who shot the bear, which eventually died of its injuries after wandering off. The leader of the group was later fined 10,000 kroner for negligence in setting up proper protection and having a person guard the site at all times while the campers were there.
Another high-profile and controversial attack resulting in injury occurred in July of 2018 when a German crew member on a cruise ship received moderate injuries when he was attacked by a polar bear at Sjuøyane in northern Svalbard. The man was one of two polar bear guards scouting the beach before a planned shore expedition and some observers on other vessels said tracks and other obvious signs of a recent visit by a bear – visible from the water – were overlooked. It also triggered a widespread debate about the appropriateness of bringing cruise ships to polar bear habitats.
Svalbard has strict policies for safeguarding against polar bear encounters, especially when anybody is outside settled areas.
“Polar bears are found all over Svalbard and can be found anywhere throughout the year,” Lt. Gov Sølvi Elvedahl said in a prepared statement. “When moving outside settled areas it is mandatory to bring suitable intimidation protection. In addition, one should have firearms. It is also, of course, important that you can use both the means of intimidation and the firearm.”
Jon Aars, a polar bear expert with the Norwegian Polar Institute who frequently conducts research and advises the governor on polar bear incidents near settlements, told NRK the most recent incident most likely is part of a long-term trend of increasing bear activity near settlements due to vanishing sea ice elsewhere keeping them from tradition hunting sources.
“At this time of year, polar bears have extra challenges in obtaining food,” he said. “It has been a long time since there has been ice in the main hunting area, so there is less access to seals. So, the polar bear spends more time on land to find alternative food.”
Aars said while humans can be prey for polar bears, we are far from “top of the wish list.”
Other polar bear attacks resulting in fatalities since 1971 include:
• A meteorologist’s assistant was killed in 1971 at Bjørnøya.
• An Austrian student was killed in 1972 while climbing Magdalenefjord in northwestern Spitsbergen. A memorial was established at the site in 1977.
• Two people died in separate attacks in 1995. Nina Jeanette Olaussen, 22, of Oslo, was attacked on Platåfjellet near Longyearbyen and Helmer Kristensen, 58, of Tromsø, was killed at Kiepertøya in Hinlopenstredet on the east side of Svalbard.