Humans and polar bears in Svalbard

Humans and polar bears in Svalbard

Top image: Human–polar bear encounters in Svalbard are not unusual, but fortunately the number of confrontations are decreasing. Photo: Stian Soltvedt/UNIS. 

As long as humans have been present in Svalbard, encounters with polar bears have occurred. In a finished master project, Margrete Keyser has analyzed the human–polar bear relationship in Svalbard, with a focus on tourists. She reports findings that indicate a decrease in human–polar bear confrontations.

28 April 2010
Text: Margrete Nilsdatter Skaktavl Keyser

As long as humans have been present in Svalbard, encounters with polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have occurred. Sometimes these encounters end by people and polar bear leaving each other unharmed, and sometimes they end with either party injuring or killing the other.

The significant growth in the tourism industry in Svalbard the last 20 years, has led to the assumption that the number of confrontations between humans and polar bears will increase. An increase in meetings between humans and for example black bears in North America creates concern. One of the suggested reasons is the increasing size of the nature areas used for recreation and development.

The project “Polar bears and humans in Svalbard – A survey among tourists in Longyearbyen” was seeking to analyze the human – polar bear relationship in Svalbard, and focused on tourism as a potential problem. The opening of Svalbard to tourism may have given more serious tour operators the opportunity to arrange trips for tourists. Today most tourists travel in a guided group with experienced and safety-minded guides. There seems to be less of the tourists in the field that should not be there alone.

Scientists more exposed than tourists
The study revealed that there are more research personnel that end up in encounters than tourists, especially in the last few years. This can be seen in context with the increasing research activities in Svalbard, which is an excellent locality for Arctic related research. A clear strategy might be needed to reduce the risk of researchers getting into a confrontation without compromising the research itself. It is important to note that the label “researcher” in the registrations should be reconsidered. A differentiation in the registrations between resident researchers and visiting researchers would help to analyze the situation even better. It is likely to believe that a high proportion of the researchers that got involved in a confrontation with a polar bear were non-resident researchers and presumably not very experienced.

Decrease in confrontations
However, the questionnaire filled out by snowmobile tourists during spring 2009 showed that some groups of tourists could be more exposed than others, elevating the risk of an encounter with a polar bear. Some of the tourists were more interested in seeing a polar bear than others. For example those going to the remote areas in the north or to the East coast, just as those in the 55–66 age group. Tourists interested in photography were also more interested in seeing polar bears and getting good photos than others. Oddly, tourists with a certificate of completed apprenticeship as education seemed more exposed to end up in an encounter. This seemed to be caused by an insecurity regarding what are good security routines.

Nevertheless, there is a decrease in the number of tourists involved in confrontations between polar bears and humans in Svalbard. Similarly, there also seems to be a decrease in the overall number of confrontations. Still, many of them might have been avoided if the involved people had better knowledge of polar bears and how to scare them off, and more importantly how to avoid the confrontation in the first place.

Unfortunately there is a lack of data, and because of an incomplete database it is difficult to say something definite. Information regarding the course of the incident, how the bear responded to scaring, if it was skinny, with cubs, sex and approximate age is important to include in the report.

Increased awareness needed
To lower the number of confrontations, there are various tools available. Examples are information films placed in hotel lobbies and at the airport, brochures enclosed with e-mails confirming booking, regulations, safety courses. The study confirmed a clear potential for increasing the knowledge in this field. Still, passive information alone has limitations because all travelers do not have the possibility or will to seek up and read it. It is also limited when it comes to people with illegal or careless behavior. It is thus necessary to use more measures than information alone. There should be systematic work on more and better information, regulations and safety training.

Keyser, Margrete Nilsdatter Skaktavl: ”Polar bears and humans in Svalbard. A survey among tourists in Longyearbyen”. M.Sc. thesis 2009. Norwegian University of Life Sciences and UNIS.

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