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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Polar Bears Under Pressure

A firsthand account documents how rising temperatures in the Arctic are depleting food sources and putting the animals at risk

When we discovered the carcass, we were immediately aware of its implications. It was only a matter of time until the smell would attract scavengers, particularly bears. The small electric fence we used to create a “safe” perimeter around camp seemed pathetically inadequate. It may deter a curious bear, but not one looking for food.

polar bears
We expected to have some exciting days ahead of us. After all, summer is a time of hardship and acute food shortage for polar bears despite the fact that there’s a lot of wildlife around. Geese populate the coastal areas in the hundreds of thousands, but a bear would have to catch one within a few seconds. Otherwise, he’d spend more energy in the chase than he’d get out of the meal. Caribou and Arctic hare shared the small island with us, but not a single bear even attempted to hunt them, as they’re too fleet-footed. Our observations confirm that in summer, there’s almost no food source available to polar bears except for carrion, making them vulnerable when winters get shorter. Many bears haven’t eaten since they came off the ice two months ago. As hungry animals tend to be more short-tempered than the well-fed, this realization increased our apprehension. To make matters worse, polar bears are considered to be very aggressively disposed, by nature, and the only carnivore that will actually hunt men.

I was certain to witness strong competition among the bears for the carcass. My worry was that the aggression between the bears could jump the species barrier. A frustrated animal that was displaced from the whale may direct his anger at an innocent bystander. A beluga is only marginally larger than an adult bull moose, and I’ve watched grizzlies defend a moose carcass violently even at a time when other food sources were available in abundance. If the polar bears lived up to their reputation, the animals should fight for access to food more fiercely than grizzlies.

polar bears
It didn’t take long for the first one to arrive. For two hours, a young female fed nonstop, occasionally lifting her head to scan the area for other bears. Then to our amazement, after having her fill, she moved off, and we didn’t see her again for the rest of the day. In the next 24 hours, one by one, other polar bears showed up until we had 10 around camp. The animals were of all sizes. One huge, obese male could barely walk more than 50 yards without having to sit down to rest, panting heavily. None of the bears showed us any interest, nor was there any squabbling over the meal. Mostly, one bear ate while others waited their turn. At other times, even bears of different sizes would feed shoulder to shoulder. My preconceived image of the polar bear was turning out to be wrong. This wasn’t the animal I had expected to see. If anything, these polar bears were less aggressive than grizzlies.

By the second day, we left our compound to move among the bears. None of the animals showed any hostility or dominant behavior toward us. The only reaction we evoked was slight avoidance in a few of them. However, to take these animals for granted could quickly become a fatal mistake, a truth that’s driven home a little while later.

We’re now back at camp. The wind is blowing the scent of the dead whale down the coast. At regular intervals, I scan the horizon for new arrivals. I spot a bear when he’s still more than a mile away. His determined step and alert body posture make me uneasy. He’s also within the age group of animals that worries me most. Full adults usually show little interest in man. They know how to live in the Arctic environment. Very young animals in the first years on their own get pushed around by all bears and are usually easy to impress. It’s the nearly full-grown—the bear equivalent of a late teenager—that most often pose problems. They’re big enough to hold their own against other bears, with the exception of dominant males. They like to flex their muscles and, weighing around 700 to 800 pounds, they’re a formidable force. They’re still inquisitive, investigating everything unknown in search for food. They’re almost unstoppable if they have their mind set on something.

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