To ask questions such as why a polar bear in the act of fatally attacking a camper has to be shot instead of, say, subdued and kept alive for breeding/zoo purposes may seem like an insanely ignorant and insensitive question for those with “common knowledge” about bears in Svalbard.
But since everybody needs to learn the answers for the first time, including the best experts and longest-residing locals, here’s a FAQ for the most common things being asked following Friday’s polar bear attack at Longyearbyen Camping that resulted in the death of the campsite’s manager as he lay in his tent shortly before 4 a.m.
Q: Why is camping allowed in Longyearbyen (or anywhere in Svalbard), given the risk of polar bears?
A: For starters, staying in a tent at Longyearbyen Camping and in one in the remote wilderness areas of Svalbard are two entirely different things. For the purposes of answering questions about the attack, this reply will focus on the campsite (see next question for a more areawide response). The campsite is not located in what’s considered a “risky” area since it’s about 100 meters from the town’s airport. It’s also near an industrial area to the east where a pier is used to load coal ships and berth other vessels, and to the west there are numerous cabins along the coast occupied by residents that a bear must pass first if wandering along the shoreline or from the mountains toward town. The campsite’s website notes “as a principle, each user of Longyearbyen Camping is responsible for his or her own safety.” However it then immediately addresses the issue of polar bears at length, noting “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.”
Q: But the area is the natural home of polar bears, and campers are encroaching/invading on a protected species – so why put the bears at risk of being shot for simply obeying their natural hunting instincts?
A: Without meaning to sound crass, the most primitive and simplest answer is the same reasons a high percentage of human activity is allowed despite its risks and impacts to the natural environment. As for Svalbard and bears specifically, humans have have been camping and otherwise encroaching on the archipelago’s natural life/environment for centuries, primarily for the purpose of killing, mining or otherwise taking natural resources for profit. By almost any measure the impacts and risks of modern-day camping and tourism (while highly controversial after human/bear incidents) are comparatively minimal due to rules and restrictions heavily slanted toward environmental protection. Polar bears have been a protected species in Svalbard since 1973 and the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act prohibits any human activity that disrupts the behavior of bears and other wildlife. Also, new regulations enacted several years ago make it a criminal offense for those traveling in wild areas to fail to take proper protection and precaution to prevent encounters/attacks, such as flare/sound shots for intimidation, weapons, trip-wire alarm systems and 24-hour polar bear guards. Since Longyearbyen Camping is considered a de facto part of the city (even though it’s about a kilometer past one of the famous “polar bear alert” signs at the edges of town) such requirements were not mandatory.
Q: Why wasn’t there a fence around the campsite?
A: Although historically the campsite didn’t consider polar bears a significant risk to campers, an increasing number of bears observed near town in recent years plus a large increase in tourism resulted in plans to install an electric three-wire fence around the perimeter in March of this year. However according to Michelle van Dijk, the campsite’s general manager, the on-site manger hired for this summer (and subsequent victim) “would have traveled up north (in March) to built the fence. But because of closed borders (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) he was not allowed to. Once the borders opened the soil had thawed, therefore the machine for putting the poles cannot drive over it.”
Q: Why were campers prohibited from having loaded firearms?
A: To quote directly from the campsite’s website: “Firearms on the campsite: all over Spitsbergen, firearm owners are expected to have their weapons and ammunition safely locked away when not using or carrying them. This can be difficult for campsite guests. A minimum measure is to remove the bolt and ammunition and take them with you to make the rifle unusable (precaution against playing children, curious other persons, etc.!). Firearms are not to be taken into the public areas of the service building. No loaded guns anywhere on the campsite.”
Q: Why were campers discouraged from setting up trip-wire alarms?
A: Again from the website: “Camp alarm systems (are) more an issue from end of summer to late spring…Again, you have to make sure that your alarm system cannot cause damage or injury to others – including unattentive or curious persons (also children), dogs, etc., triggering your alarm unintentionally or playfully.”
Q: Why didn’t the campground have a polar bear guard on duty, since one is required by law when camping elsewhere in Svalbard?
A: As stated above, the campsite is considered part of a “settlement” and therefore the full-time guard requirement does not apply. And as the campsite notes, due to near-constant human activity at the site and near the vicinity the undetected approach of a bear was considered highly unlikely.
Q: Were any other safeguards possible and/or taken?
A: While there were no human guards on 24-hour duty there were dogs at the campsite, with usually at least one trained to respond if a polar bear was detected in the vicinity. As for “possible” beyond the planned electric fence, suggestions by outsiders the town construct a fence/barrier/warning system around the entire settlement are practically speaking impossible from a logistics and cost standpoint – plus its existence might have significant adverse impacts on other wildlife and natural elements.
Q: Is it true there has never been a polar bear during the campsite’s 35-year history prior to the attack?
A: Technically, yes, but a polar bear was observed literally a few meters away in late July of 2011 when it visited a designated bird sanctuary by the shore across the road from the campsite. Staff at the campsite with weapons and officials with the governor’s office immediately responded to scare the bear away from the area. The incident happened only days after the last fatal polar bear attack in Svalbard, on a 17-year-old boy on a student expedition with UK group camping 40 kilometers away from Longyearbyen, so there was a heightened sense of alarm among many about the dangers bears posed.
Q: Ultimately was the campsite and/or others negligent in allowing the attack to happen?
A: The Governor of Svalbard is investing the attack now, as is standard for all human/bear encounters resulting in injury or death. A preliminary finding may be offered within days, but a formal criminal investigation if warranted is likely to take months.
Q: What happens to the bear’s carcass now?
A: After an autopsy, the carcass was destroyed, according to Terje Carlsen, a spokesperson for The Governor of Svalbard. While pelts from dead polar bears are sometimes preserved and donated by the governor for an annual charity auction, that was not done in this case. “The pelts from bears that have killed or injured people are destroyed,” he notes.
Q: Why did they have to kill the bear instead of subduing it, and perhaps keeping it for breeding or relocating it?
A: While intimidation measures such as flare/noise shots are the foremost directive of the governor if a bear approaches humans (and those have proven ineffective at times in recent years), when a bear is actually attacking a person there is obviously no alternative from the humans’ perspective excepting shooting to kill. Merely wounding a bear, intentionally or not, is a far worse alternative for both the bear and humans since the animal with either 1) become enraged and more aggressive or 2) flee and pose a completely unknown risk to all other forms of life in the area. As such officials will be required to track down and kill the bear regardless. And obviously a tranquilizer or other means of “subduing” (bear spray is illegal in Norway) is neither immediate or reliable enough if an attack is occurring.
Q: Are policies changes at the campsite and/or for Svalbard likely as a result of this attack?
A: The Governor of Svalbard will evaluate its current policy for Longyearbyen, as it has with other incidents involving bears near/in town recent years. When asked by NRK if one change might be lowering the threshhold for shooting polar bears that are persistent visitors, Lt. Gov. Sølvi Elvedahl said “it will probably be a topic. We have not quite gotten to the point where we know exactly what to do. It is not certain that this is the solution. There may be other solutions that may be relevant.” It should be noted there was considerable outrage locally and globally in January of this year when the governor shot and killed a polar bear making repeated visits to town, prompting widespread calls for officials to boost its means for non-lethal alternatives.
Q: Is climate change responsible for the attack?
A: There is a strong likelihood it is a factor, although of course a definite answer is not known. Overwhelming scientific evidence shows polar bears in Svalbard (and many other Arctic areas) are being forced to seek alternative food sources due to the rapid loss of sea ice, which means the traditional hunting of prey such as seals is either shortened or not possible. During summer and fall in particular bears are forced to seek land-based food sources such as animal carcasses, bird eggs – and human-related items ranging from foods to garbage not sufficiently protected. While humans themselves can be prey for polar bears, they are far from “top of the wish list,” according to Jon Aars, a polar bear expert at the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Q: Are there really more polar bears (3,000) than people roaming Svalbard ready to prey on any invasive humans?
A: No, not even close – it’s one of the biggest myths/fibs about Svalbard. There are, scientifically speaking, about 270 bears according to the last census, compared to about 2,700 people. The 3,000 figure (closer to 2,700 in reality) is for the entire Barents Sea region, which includes the ice sheet north of Svalbard and a large amount of territory in western Russia. But the “best estimate” for Svalbard is a middling figure – and that range is itself subject to significant variability depending on the migration of bears between different areas in the Barents region.