Polar bears do not outnumber people in Svalbard and the backlash against ecotourism over a justified defensive kill

It is often said that there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard, Norway (see BBC, “Polar bear shot dead after attacking cruise ship guard29 July 2018). But that isn’t true now and probably hasn’t been for a very long time. This pseudo-fact (a misunderstanding made by tourism promoters) continues to be quoted as the story about the Svalbard polar bear shot by a cruise ship bear guard last week evolves in the online and print media. The media continue to focus on social media backlash against ecotourism, which is nothing like the pushback about the starving polar video from last year.

Svalbard dead bear_Gustav Busch Arntsen_Governor of Svalbard_NTB Scanpix via AP 28 July 2018

More bears than people in Svalbard

This false fact is based on a misinterpretation by tourism promoters perpetuated by the media: the population estimate for the Barents Sea subpopulation of bears is not the same as the number of bears in the Svalbard area. There are currently only about 250 bears that are loyal to the coast of Svalbard (see discussion below).

Here’s the apparent source of the “more polar bears than people” claim to fame for Svalbard (from the website run by the Svalbard tourism board called Visit Svalbard):

“The polar bear population in the Svalbard archipelago is around 3,000, which exceeds the human population.” 

The “Source” for this information is given as the Governor of Svalbard website but that website says nothing of the kind: it accurately states the estimated population of the Barents Sea subpopulation. As the map below shows, the Barents Sea region encompasses a huge area that includes Svalbard:

Barents Sea split by country

Currently, only about 250 bears are loyal to the coastal region around Svalbard (Aars et al. 2017; Tartu et al. 2018). There may have been more bears than people in the distance past, when very few people lived on Svalbard year round (Larsen 1972), but it certainly is not true any longer. Due to recent changes in seasonal sea ice cover, many Svalbard-loyal bears now hang out on the sea ice year-round or have shifted their base of operations to the archipelago of Franz Josef Land in the Russian sector (see previous posts here and here, with references).

During 2004 population survey, Aars and colleagues (2009) found about three times more bears in the Russian sector of the Barents Sea than around Svalbard (for a total estimate of about 3,000 bears). This fact is the basis of my suggestion that the 2015 survey that was limited to Svalbard (Aars et al. 2017) could plausibly be extrapolated to a population estimate of the entire Barents Sea of about 3,750 (Crockford 2017, 2018), not a statistically significant increase given the methods used.

These are the recent and not-so-recent news stories I saw that are perpetuating the myth that Svalbard has more polar bears than people:

Polar bear shot dead after attacking cruise ship guard (BBC, 29 July 2018)

Cruise line faces backlash over shooting of polar bear (CNN, 29 July 2018)

Killing of polar bear that attacked cruise employee on remote Arctic island sparks debate (Washington Post, 30 July 2018).

“Currently, about 3,000 polar bears call the islands home. For scale, Svalbard’s human population is around 2,400.”

A cruise line is facing public fury after one of its guards shot and killed a polar bear (UK BusinessInsider, 30 July 2018) – this report also quite wrongly states that polar bears are among the “most endangered species in the world” [they are listed everywhere except Canada as “threatened” based on predictions of future declines, not documented ones]

Polar bear’s death raises questions about sustainable tourism in the Arctic (ABC News, 31 July 2018)

Cruise ship crew members killed a polar bear on a remote island in Norway (VICE, 31 July 2018)

Welcome to Svalbard: next stop North Pole (The Times UK, 24 December 2016)

The science of Svalbard (Norwegian Magazine, January 2013)

Uninformed outrage over polar bear shooting

Virtually hours after the first reports on the incident were published, animal rights activists took to social media to display their uninformed outrage over death of the Svalbard polar bear who mauled an armed bear guard. It stems from a brief tweet sent by the Joint Rescue Centre of Northern Norway early on Saturday 28 July that gave few and somewhat misleading details:

“A person is injured by polar bears in Sjuøyane, north of Svalbard. The incident occurred when tourists landed on one of the islands from a cruise ship. The condition of the injured person must be stable. The polar bears were shot and killed. Rescue helicopter has been sent from Longyearbyen.” Google Translate

[However, it turns out that tourists had not gone onshore: it was a group of polar bear guards sent ashore ahead of the tourists, to check for the presence of bears.]

The briefness of the report was a heads-up for me to wait for more details: I posted a brief announcement that I updated twice as more details came in.

But the animal rights activist did not care to wait for details or firm facts. The backlash seems to have begun on that twitter thread (a number are in English, if you care to check it out) and gathered steam quickly, well before the photo was released and thus before anyone knew the bear involved was desperately thin and highly motivated to attack (and would have died regardless).

The statement released by the cruise ship company on 30 July, which revealed details not previously available, drew nothing but additional scorn. The company stated that the plan to take a group of tourists ashore was not to view or photograph polar bears, as most of the commenters had assumed (and why the polar bear guards went ashore first, to make sure there were no bears) was dismissed as an attempt at “justification.”

The vitriol being spewed on Facebook and Twitter over the shooting is really quite astonishing. It’s the first example of out-of-control social media outrage that I’ve personally witnessed: it’s an awesome display of activist impatience, a preference for assumptions over facts, and strident calls for vigilante justice. Five days later, all the facts are still not known (such as the age and body condition of the bear, more specifics of the attack, which sound like it was an ambush) but their minds are made up.

Although obviously some people care what comedian Ricky Gervais (vehemently against trophy hunting) thinks about this incident, his was not any kind of informed opinion (“Let’s get too close to a polar bear in its natural environment and then kill it if it gets too close, Morons.“). He made his comments in the early hours of 29 July, less than 24 hours after the attack and before any of the details of the incident were known.

Yet virtually every media report since yesterday included the text of his tweet (or included a copy). Now thousands of people have piled on, no more informed than he and the message retweeted more than 10,000 times so far. A similar senseless diatribe is going on over at the Facebook page of the cruise company.

The gist of the commentary is that people should not have “encroached” on the polar bear’s habitat in the first place: that people have no business setting foot in polar bear territory. Try telling that to Canadian Inuit, who have coexisted with roughly 2/3 of the world’s polar bears for thousands of years: see if they don’t object to the characterization of the Arctic as “polar bear territory” where people don’t belong. Ditto for the aboriginal people of Russia, Alaska, and Greenland.

The other interesting aspect is that the people denouncing ecotourism as unjustifiable encroachment on polar bear territory sound just like the people who spent years promoting ecotourism over trophy and subsistence hunting (“shoot with a camera”). One justifiable killing of a polar bear, in defense of a human life, is all it took for these folks to turn their activism 180 degrees.

My preferred tweets on the topic are these two, from scientists:


Aars, J. 2015. Research on polar bears at Norwegian Polar Institute. Online seminar (‘webinar”), January 14. pdf here.

Aars, J., Marques, T.A., Buckland, S.T., Andersen, M., Belikov, S., Boltunov, A., et al. 2009. Estimating the Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation. Marine Mammal Science 25: 35-52.

Aars, J., Marques,T.A, Lone, K., Anderson, M., Wiig, Ø., Fløystad, I.M.B., Hagen, S.B. and Buckland, S.T. 2017. The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Polar Research 36:1. 1374125. doi:10.1080/17518369.2017.1374125

Crockford, S. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3

Crockford, S.J. 2018. State of the Polar Bear Report 2017. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report #29. London. pdf here.

Larsen, T. 1972. Norwegian Polar Bear Hunt, Management,and Research. Bears Their Biology and Management 2: 159-164.

Tartu, S., Aars, J., Andersen, M., Polder,A., Bourgeon, S., Merkel, B., Lowther,A.D., Bytingsvik,J., Welker, J.M., Derocher, A.E., Jenssen, B.M. and Routti, H. 2018. Choose your poison — Space-use strategy influences pollutant exposure in Barents Sea polar bears. Environmental Science and Technology DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b06137

Comments are closed.