Polar Bear Attacks Surprisingly Rare

A fatal polar bear attack remains a relatively rare event, at least for now.

A polar bear killed a 17-year-old British tourist and injured four others on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard on Friday. The tourists were members of a group of around 80 camped on the Van Postbreen Glacier, about 25 miles from the archipelago's administrative center, Longyearbyen.

It is the second year in a row that a visitor to Svalbard has been attacked by a polar bear. Last year kayaker Sebastian Plur Nilssen was attacked while asleep in his tent; the bear grabbed him by his head, dragged him 45 yards along the ground, and then stood on its hind legs and lifted him in the air. Fortunately for him, his expedition partner Ludvig Fjeld grabbed their rifle, firing several times and killing the bear.

For the people involved, and for their family and friends, a polar bear attack is of course an unspeakable horror, and one's heart goes out to those involved. Of course, given that polar bears are immense carnivores, the notion that they might on occasion attack humans is not exactly shocking. The surprise, perhaps, is that such attacks are relatively rare.

"People talk about polar bears stalking and hunting humans," polar bear expert Tom Smith of Brigham Young University told me once, as we looked out at a bear sleeping on the tundra. "If that's the case, they're doing a pretty poor job of it." In the 125 years prior to our 2008 conversation, he noted, polar bears had killed just eight people in Canada and two in Alaska.

There are reasons such attacks are relatively uncommon. One is that, for a polar bear, the risk from attacking humans is higher, and the reward much lower, than patiently waiting to clobber a fat, unsuspecting seal. Another is that the number of humans who venture into polar bear territory remains somewhat low.

An encounter with an aggressive polar bear need not be fatal, of course. In 2005, my friends Eric Larsen and Lonnie Dupre attempted to become the first people to reach the North Pole across the Arctic Ocean sea ice in summer; several times while camped, they had to fend off predatory bears. On one occasion, Dupre looked up to see a bear, flat on its stomach, inching its way toward an oblivious Larsen; on another, a bear leaped on to their tent. Both times, they were able to chase the bear away with flares.

The legendary polar explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole and to traverse the Northwest Passage, once found himself flat on his back on the ice as a polar bear moved in for what he felt sure would be the kill, only to be saved when one of his dogs ran at the bear, barking and running off and drawing its attention. (Amundsen later wrote that, to his surprise, instead of seeing his life flash before him as he awaited his final breath, "I lay there wondering how many hairpins were swept up on the sidewalks of regent street in London on a Monday morning! The significance of this foolish thought at one of the most serious moments of my life I shall have to leave to a psychologist.")

Often, although not always, particular circumstances combine to make polar bear attacks more likely. A mother may be protecting her cubs (as was the case with Amundsen; the dog that saved him had also initially provoked the situation). The bears may be emboldened by being around food dumps, which is a principal reason Churchill, Manitoba, the "polar bear capital of the world," now sends all its waste to the provincial capital of Winnipeg instead of burning it in the open air, a practice that attracted the area's bears into the heart of the community.

Bear and human may simply surprise each other, as happened in the Alaska village of Point Lay in 1990, when Carl Stalker and his wife, Rhoda Long, rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a bear. Stalker pulled out a knife and led the bear away from his wife, who ran to get help; villagers found the bear two hours later, feasting on the remains of Stalker's carcass, and shot it.

That bear was described as having "only a few ounces of fat" on its body, and that is perhaps the most consistent feature in polar bears that attack humans for predatory reasons: they are often, although by no means always, skinny - either because they are young, and so have not yet learned to hunt properly, or because the environment has conspired against them.

Last month, wildlife officials in Churchill, Manitoba, shot and killed an unusually aggressive bear that, at approximately 600 pounds, was at least 400 pounds lighter than should have been the case for a male of its age. The sea ice near Churchill formed late in the season last year and broke up early in the season this year, prompting Dr. Andrew Derocher of Polar Bears International to note that the bear's "poor condition is a concern. As our studies have shown, it doesn't take much of a shift in the break-up dates to have serious consequences for the western Hudson Bay polar bears."

Bears will be bears; but as sea ice forms later and melts earlier, hungry polar bears will be forced to spend more time ashore and may be more likely to encounter humans, with potentially disastrous consequences. Starving or not, polar bears are extremely effective predators, whatever prey they choose.

As Ian Stirling, perhaps the world's greatest authority on polar bears, once recalled his Inuk guide Jimmy Memorana telling him: "If the bear is hunting, you won't see him until he comes for you."

--------- Discovery News' Kieran Mulvaney writes about human encounters with polar bears in his book, "The Great White Bear: A Natural & Unnatural History of Polar Bears," published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It's available at Polar Bears International.

Photograph by Steven Amstrup/USGS.