Polar bears are not bloodthirsty killers, says biologist [just don’t forget your gun]

According to records compiled by James Wilder, a US Forest Service biologist, there were only 20 fatal polar bear attacks (out of 73 total attacks) between 1870 and 2014.

That’s what the 14 June 2016 account in the Anchorage Daily News says (“Sea ice has been keeping polar bears and humans apart — until now”). But I think it’s kind of delusional to suggest that a list of recorded attacks, spanning 145 years throughout the Arctic (including Russia), have captured more than a fraction of all actual polar bear attacks – given that many Arctic communities didn’t have reliable communications in the 1970s (let alone the 1870s). How about all the Inuit and Siberian hunters over the years who failed to return home because they were killed and eaten by a polar bear – unbeknownst to anyone?

Alaska PB USGS_marked

Wilder presents these numbers as a basis for saying how concerned he is that a longer open-water season in the Arctic could increase the number of attacks by polar bears – and he’s right, that’s a valid concern now that the global population of bears is so high. Many polar bears plus people in a confined area is never a comfortable situation, as the people of Churchill, Manitoba have learned.

But declining sea ice is not the only scenario that could lead to an onslaught of hungry bears and a slew of fatal attacks, as my new science-based novel EATEN highlights. The truth is that if polar bears don’t get enough food in the spring – for any reason – the ice off the beaches of Arctic communities gives polar bears easy access to human prey. If that happens, people had better be prepared – because doors and windows won’t necessarily stop a determined polar bear.

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Wilder is quoted by the ADN as saying:

“The point is that if polar bears were really the man-eating beasts they have been made out to be, we’d have a lot more mayhem to report here today,” he said.”

I’d say the point is that attack records since guns became readily available in the Arctic may not really reflect the true deadliness of polar bears to humans in the Arctic. In Svalbard, it’s against the law to leave the Longyearbyen city limits without a high-powered rifle – is that because polar bears aren’t really dangerous? Guns have leveled the playing field between humans and attacking polar bears – and now it’s the bears that are more often the losers when we come face to face.

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There is no doubt that a bear that has not fed sufficiently over the spring months will be in poor condition come September, when many bears are onshore and close to humans, and thus more likely to attack.

However, this is a situation that has occurred as far back as we have records (as the anecdote Wilder relates from William Barents’ second Arctic expedition in 1595 shows – more on that below). Subadult bears are especially vulnerable to starvation in the summer (as are old or injured ones), and a hungry subadult bear can still kill a human with ease.

The fact is that most polar bears that humans come into contact with over the summer are not desperately hungry, although they may always be looking for something to eat. Virtually all polar bears are at their lowest body weight (and thus, their hungriest) during the winter, especially in late winter before the first seal pups are born (see previous posts here and here, with references). That means the greatest threat of a fatal polar bear attack comes in late winter, even if (as Wilder’s research suggests) 64% of all attacks take place in summer. [Wilder apparently didn’t tell the reporter how many fatal attacks took place in winter over the 145 years of his study but I bet he knows]

Polar bear feeding by season simple_Nov 29 2015

Wilder told the ADN reporter a fatal polar bear attack story from the translated journal of one of William Barents crew, which was related this way:

“One of the earliest recorded fatal polar bear attack describes a gruesome scene in which a skinny bear approached a group of mariners in 1595 “and caught one of them fast by the necke,” biting the man’s head. The bear kept up the attack, according to the account by Garrit de Veer, a member of Arctic explorer Willem Barents’ crew. It “fiercely and cruelly ran at them, and gat another … which she tare in peeces.”

I’ve discussed De Veer’s journal previously (link to the pdf of it there) and this story is from page 62. The attack took place during Barents’ second voyage, on 6 September 1595 at States Island (somewhere in the south Kara Sea).

The animal was described as “a great lean white beare” and after killing one of the crewmen, it proceeded to devour him – taking a break to defend itself from an assault by the remaining men, killing another man in the process. None of the men onshore facing the bear had a gun. The ship’s purser, backed up by dozens of crew members, later returned to the island with a musket and shot the offending bear – but not before it had consumed parts of the two bodies.

That’s two fatalities not counted by Wilder – two men who were not just killed, but eaten. And what does this account actually tell us?

First, the fact that that a bear could be so lean and hungry that it would attack and eat two people – in 1595 – means that low summer sea ice is not the strong correlate to fatal attacks that Wilder suggests. Some bears are always starving in summer – that’s just a fact of polar bear life.

Second, it tells us that before there were guns – or where guns were not available – men in the Arctic were at the mercy of an attacking polar bear. And if a bear was truly hungry (in summer or winter), an attack was likely fatal.

De Veer’s journal shows that Barents’ men learned to be wary of polar bears after that fatal attack, and afterward were seldom without a musket at hand. Considering the amount of contact they had with polar bears from fall 1596 through summer 1597 (when they were trapped in the Barents Sea), if they hadn’t had muskets it’s likely more of them would have been killed by bears.

I would not call a polar bear a bloodthirsty killer but it’s certainly a lightning-quick predator big enough to overpower a human with ease. And if it’s really hungry for whatever reason, at any time of year, it eats what it kills – including people.

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