Polar bear conflicts in Svalbard – how dangerous are our Arctic icons?  

Polar bear with a seal carcass on the sea ice, accompanied by an Ivory gull. Photo: Lauritz Schönfeld/UNIS.

Top image: A polar bear with a seal carcass on the sea ice, accompanied by an Ivory gull. Photo: Lauritz Schönfeld/UNIS. 

Can we understand the relationships between polar bears and humans in a way that reduces conflicts in Svalbard? Do we often meet polar bears on trips? When is it dangerous? Should we change the routines to scare off polar bears we come in close contact with? These were key issues in the CONBEAR project, led by UNIS professor Børge Damsgård.

23 April 2021
Press release from the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS)

The number of conflicts between polar bears and humans is expected to increase in Svalbard. This is due to more human activities in areas with polar bears, and that polar bears spend more time on land and end up changing behaviour as a result of climate changes and less sea ice.

The project Polar bear – human conflicts in Svalbard (CONBEAR) aimed to gain a better understanding of interactions and conflicts between polar bears and humans, by gaining knowledge and experiences that can help reduce the number of interactions, and reduce the effects of conflicts when they happen. The project has been led by UNIS professor Børge Damsgård, together with polar bear researchers Jon Aars, Magnus Andersen and Dag Vongraven from the Norwegian Polar Institute, and partners from the Norwegian Environment Agency. The 3-year project was funded by the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund and internal funding.

During more than 18 thousand person-days and over two thousand field-days for two years, there was an approximately 4% daily probability to observe polar bears. The result varied between almost zero and more than 50% in different areas on Svalbard, with the highest numbers in June to August. A quarter of the observations were defined as interactions, corresponding to <1% of the field-days, and four of these were classified as conflict and polar bear attacks.

“Spending the nights in tent camps seems to be the most vulnerable situation”, project leader Damsgård says.

The study shows that there is a relatively small chance of interactions with polar bears in Svalbard, and the figures are in line with international experience. If the interactions take place, few of them develop into a conflict with danger to humans or animals, but the consequences of such conflict may be severe.

During the project, several methods for detecting or scaring polar bears were tested, including the use of thermal cameras, rubber bullets and electric fences.

“A further development of knowledge about polar bear protection is the key to reducing the number of interactions and preventing fear or injuries”, Damsgård concludes.

The report (in Norwegian) is available at https://www.miljovernfondet.no/

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