No criminal charges are being sought against cruise ship employees who fatally shot a polar bear that attempted an attack during a shore excursion in north Svalbard in July of 2018, resulting in a heated debate about large-scale tourism in remote Arctic areas, because it was a legitimate case of self defense, The Governor of Svalbard announced Friday.
The shooting occurred when four polar bear guards, an expedition leader, a photographer and eight other crew members – from the Bremen cruise ship set out in two zodiac boats for Phippsøya on July 28 to prepare for a shore excursion by passengers. The polar bear guards went ashore first to secure the area and two who encountered a bear in the uneven territory not visible from the water were attacked, with the other guard killing the bear after non-lethal projectiles to scare it away were unsuccessful.
Researchers on other ships in the area shortly before the attack said bear footprints along the beach and a whale carcass that were visible from the water should have been obvious indicators a bear was likely present. But prosecutors with the Troms/Finnmark district, after reviewing evidence including photos of the incident taken by the photographer, opted not to pursue the case.
“The case against the polar bear guards who shot and killed the polar bear have been dropped due to the emergency law,” Lt. Sølvi Elvedahl said in a prepared statement. “This means that the act is punishable, but is considered legal because it was taken to save the life of the man who was attacked by the bear.”
The German cruise line company, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises GmbH, is also not considered criminally negligent in its policies and situational conditions present during the attack, she said.
The polar bear guard attacked sustained moderate non-lethal head injuries. The bear, while having dined well recently on the whale carcass, appeared “quite emaciated” and that may been a factor in the attack, said Jon Aars, a polar bear expert with the Norwegian Polar Institute, after examining photos shortly after the attack.
The shooting generated global news coverage and debate, which is common following adverse encounters between humans and polar bears in Svalbard, about the rapid increase in remote wilderness tourism in Svalbard in recent years. Much of the debate was based on incorrect information or speculation about the fatal incident, but there was widespread agreement the bears and not the humans attacked are the victims.
“What humans are doing there anyway?” wrote one of numerous reader commenters in a South China Morning Post article immediately after the attack. “Stupidity is unbeatable. Watch the bears from the ship. Leave the bears alone.”