NEW YORK — In a devastating turn of events this week, a polar bear was killed by a cruise line employee, after the bear attacked a spotter looking for the predator in advance of a shore excursion in the Svalbard archipelago.
Although the cause of the attack in Svalbard is still under investigation, we already know human-polar bear conflict is on the rise. For instance, nine polar bear conflicts were registered in all of Greenland in 2007. Last year, there were 21 conflicts between August and December in the village of Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland, alone.
This will only increase as the changing climate shrinks polar bears’ sea-ice habitat, and as humans take advantage of that ice loss to put more vessels of all kinds (from tourism to natural resource development to shipping) in Arctic waters in pursuit of economic opportunity.
Governments and industry leaders in Arctic countries must take responsibility and support ways for their citizens and employees to live and work safely together with potentially dangerous animals like polar bears. People living and working in the region need education, training and the necessary tools to protect themselves when faced with a polar bear in their vicinity.
A marine mammal, polar bears’ beautiful white fur — the feature that draws tourists in the first place — allows them to blend into the sea ice, which they use as a platform to hunt for seals, their main source of food. But as ice diminishes, recent research has shown polar bears are exhibiting signs of stress, including decreases in body condition and declines in cub production, as they travel farther and work harder for nourishment.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature predicts the global polar bear population will decline by more than 30% by 2050 due to sea-ice habitat loss.
As climate change radically alters the north, and as hungry bears spend more time on land, the World Wildlife Fund has been working with local communities to establish polar bear patrols in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. Using bright lights, loud noises and sometimes even rubber bullets, patrollers help to safely scare away bears that may wander into their streets.
This fall, testing will get underway in Greenland on new camera technology that will provide early detection to warn people when polar bears enter their communities, and trials in Alaska have already begun on polar-bear-proof food storage containers. But governments need to make a more serious effort to assist Arctic communities with safe and clean waste disposal, which is often lacking in the Arctic.
But it’s not just about protecting human life; it’s also important to keep wildlife safe. Ecosystems only function naturally if the top predator is present in that ecosystem. Without polar bears hunting seals, there could be a chain reaction throughout the Arctic food web. That’s why WWF worked with the Arctic Expedition Cruise Organization, known as AECO, to create strict guidelines to ensure people who want to see polar bears in their natural habitat do so without putting Arctic wildlife in danger. For instance, if they spot a bear, they don’t go ashore, and they must not pursue, follow or lure polar bears.
But more ships and private yachts are visiting the region than ever — cruise traffic in Svalbard went up 20% between 2016 and 2017 — and it is inexperienced and unguided visitors on land that end up in most deadly conflicts with polar bears. Authorities have their work cut out for them ensuring that all ship- and land-based visitors abide by guidelines as stringent as those followed by the AECO, and in educating visitors on how to behave in polar bear habitats in a way that’s safe for people and thus for polar bears.
There’s more to be done on the national level as well. The five states with polar bear populations — the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark/Greenland — have renewed their commitment to work together on a 10-year plan to manage all aspects of polar-bear conservation, including protecting critical habitats. Development of a network of specially managed areas, which WWF works toward in all Arctic nations, is fundamental to safeguarding the survival of Arctic ecosystems for people and wildlife to enjoy.
Still, solutions must involve ordinary people outside the Arctic, too. And not just tourists. We all have a role to play.
By actively supporting the shift to a low-carbon economy, by embracing renewable energy and by reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions to slow planetary warming, we are each helping protect the sea ice habitat that polar bears and other magnificent marine mammals like narwhal, bowhead and beluga whales all depend on. As individuals, most of us will never get to see a polar bear in its natural habitat. But we can do our part to ensure their habitat continues to exist.
That’s something the cruise industry and the rest of us can get on board with.