News, Culture & Society

Why all you’ve been told about these polar bears could be WRONG: Inuits have a very different story 

On the afternoon of July 3, Aaron Gibbons, a hunter from the Inuit hamlet of Arviat on the north-west shore of Hudson Bay, took his three children on a boat trip. 

Gibbons, 31, had a well-paid job at Meadowbank, a gold mine deep in the Arctic tundra, which took him away for weeks at a time. 

But when he was home, he loved to deploy the inherited skills of his ancestors. 

‘He was an experienced provider of country food for his family,’ says his uncle, Gordy Kidlapik, 60, a hunting veteran. ‘His father had brought him up that way, and he was good at it.’

Aaron Gibbons, a hunter from the Inuit hamlet of Arviat on the north-west shore of Hudson Bay, was mauled to death by a polar bear on July 3. Gibbons, 31, had a well-paid job at Meadowbank, a gold mine deep in the Arctic tundra, which took him away for weeks at a time

Aaron and his children were headed for Sentry Island – seven miles across the bay from Arviat – a popular spot for picnics, hunting and fishing, where they planned to harvest some of its abundant supply of Arctic tern eggs. 

In dappled summer sunshine, the island is idyllic – a place of rugged moorland, shingly beaches, and brilliant green shrubs.

Unfortunately, polar bears like tern eggs, too, and the family hadn’t been there long when Gibbons realised that a mature male, 9ft in length from jaws to rump, was stalking them. 

He yelled at the children to get back in the boat, and as they scrambled to escape, he stood his ground on the beach. For reasons that remain unknown, he was without his rifle. 

According to scientists, three of Canada’s 13 bear sub-populations are in decline, including West Hudson Bay. However, a new Nunavut government bear management plan cites TEK from Inuit communities that contradict this: they say none of the bear populations are shrinking, while nine are increasing

According to scientists, three of Canada’s 13 bear sub-populations are in decline, including West Hudson Bay. However, a new Nunavut government bear management plan cites TEK from Inuit communities that contradict this: they say none of the bear populations are shrinking, while nine are increasing

The bear pounced, and while his 12-year-old daughter desperately radioed for help, Aaron was mauled to death.

His friend William Tiktaq, 32, told me: ‘That evening, I was in the party that recovered his body. I put a tarp on top of him in the boat, so the salt water wouldn’t get to him. He was badly mauled. There were bites everywhere. It’s not a sight you want to see.’

Six months later Aaron’s death, the first fatal attack by a polar bear in the Hudson Bay area for 19 years, is still a raw and emotional wound, described with sadness and horror by everyone I met. 

Its impact was intensified by a second mauling in August, when a mother bear and a cub attacked a group of three Inuit hunters near Naujaat, 500 miles to the north, killing Darryl Kaunak.

‘These deaths have been a blow to the whole community – all of us are in shock,’ Evelyn Qasuk, 43, a mother of four children, told me. ‘It makes me nervous about my kids walking around outside the house. 

Climate change – cited as the reason for their imminent demise, due to rising temperatures shrinking the ice essential to their survival – may be altering their behaviour, but the Inuit say they are adapting, and remain fat and healthy, and perfectly able to breed [File photo]

Climate change – cited as the reason for their imminent demise, due to rising temperatures shrinking the ice essential to their survival – may be altering their behaviour, but the Inuit say they are adapting, and remain fat and healthy, and perfectly able to breed [File photo]

Everyone says there are more polar bears, and they’re not scared of us. Ten years ago, they’d run when they saw a human. Now they’re no longer shy. They keep on coming.’

Part of a chain of coastal settlements in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory, 

Arviat, population 2,800, is a snowy huddle of low, well-insulated buildings and very remote. The nearest road connected to the rest of Canada is at Winnipeg, 800 miles away. 

For six days before my arrival, blizzards and ice on the runways had forced the Arctic carrier Calm Air to cancel its Arviat flights. 

Last week, Arviat’s minimum temperature hit minus 36C. However, as I rapidly discovered, its people – who are almost all Inuit – are as warm as its weather is brutal.

They also turned a conventional wisdom on its head, saying that polar bears are not in crisis, nor even in decline: the main problem, according to the people who know them best, is that there are too many of them. 

Climate change – cited as the reason for their imminent demise, due to rising temperatures shrinking the ice essential to their survival – may be altering their behaviour, but the Inuit say they are adapting, and remain fat and healthy, and perfectly able to breed. 

‘These deaths have been a blow to the whole community – all of us are in shock,’ Evelyn Qasuk, 43, a mother of four children, told me. ‘It makes me nervous about my kids walking around outside the house' [File photo]

‘These deaths have been a blow to the whole community – all of us are in shock,’ Evelyn Qasuk, 43, a mother of four children, told me. ‘It makes me nervous about my kids walking around outside the house’ [File photo]

Scared and exasperated by the threat the bears pose, some Inuit leaders are voicing a demand which, if granted, may trigger a global furore akin to Japan’s decision to resume commercial whaling. 

They want to be allowed to increase their permitted polar bear hunting quota to reduce numbers.

Like almost any story about polar bears, the summer maulings were soon slotted into a familiar narrative. They were, it was claimed, one more symptom of climate change caused by humans, which is said to be rapidly driving the bears towards extinction.

‘Without action on climate change, we could see dramatic declines in polar bear numbers by mid-century,’ says campaign group Polar Bears International (PBI). The reason: ‘Loss of their sea-ice habitat and reduced access to their seal prey.’

According to PBI’s conservation director, Geoff York, ‘what we’re seeing across the Arctic as sea ice recedes is that more polar bears are spending time on shore… It is creating that perfect storm of potential for human-bear conflict’.

In places such as Arviat, adds Professor Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta, there might appear to be more bears, ‘but you can’t equate seeing more bears with there being more bears’. 

All that was happening was that the bears were spending more time near humans, and hence becoming more visible.

Around the Arctic, polar bears – estimated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to number in total about 26,000 – are divided into 19 ‘sub-population’ groups.

Prof Derocher said he had ‘no hesitation’ in saying that the sub-population in the Arviat region, known as West Hudson Bay, has ‘declined from historic levels’. Eventually, the level would become ‘unsustainable’. Already, he says, the bears have become skinnier and less able to reproduce, while fewer cubs grow to adulthood.

The people of Arviat vehemently disagree, their knowledge derived from centuries of survival in the harshest environment imaginable and co-existence with bears and other wildlife.

Around the Arctic, polar bears – estimated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to number in total about 26,000 – are divided into 19 ‘sub-population’ groups [File photo]

Around the Arctic, polar bears – estimated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to number in total about 26,000 – are divided into 19 ‘sub-population’ groups [File photo]

Inuit elder David Alagalak, 74, spent his early years living in a traditional stone hut, and shot his first adult bear in 1952, when he was nine. 

He says: ‘The population in this area has increased by 300 to 400 per cent. Everywhere the hunters go, they see polar bears. There are a lot more than in the past.’ 

William Tiktaq adds: ‘When I was a kid, I didn’t worry about bears. Now you have to keep your eyes open and your ears clean. I wish the scientists from down south who say they’re dying out would come and spend a year, or even five years, and they would know about this increase. If we had scientists living here, they would have a different perspective.’

Mayor Bob Leonard, originally a southerner who has lived in Arviat for 45 years, agrees: ‘Something has happened in the past six or seven years. We never used to see bears, even if we went camping somewhere like Sentry Island. People are angry and afraid. 

And because of the claims scientists have made in the past, which turned out not to be true, they don’t care much for what scientists say. You get the sense the world looks on this place as a large zoo, and has to have an opinion on it. That can get irritating.’

Since polar bear sightings began to increase, Arviat has employed bear ‘monitors’ who patrol its perimeter and unpaved streets on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs, a type of quadbike) or, when it’s snowy, on skidoos. Their job: to ‘deter’ bears who pose a threat and chase them away.

One of them is Gordy Kidlapik’s friend Leo Ikhakik, 56. He’s had many close calls – such as the time his ATV’s wheels got snared in a fishing net at a former whaling spot jutting out into the bay: ‘I couldn’t move forwards or backwards.’ He radioed for help, but by the time it came, ‘there were five polar bears coming towards me, real close’.

On another occasion, the main fuse on his ATV blew when he was at the village dump – ‘the polar bears’ restaurant’, where they find lots of goodies. Fumbling with the electrics, he managed to get it going, once again encircled by five bears.

Moreover, if the West Hudson bears have declined recently, this may have nothing to do with sea ice. Since 1979, the long-term trend in ice across the Arctic is down [File photo]

Moreover, if the West Hudson bears have declined recently, this may have nothing to do with sea ice. Since 1979, the long-term trend in ice across the Arctic is down [File photo]

The first stage in deterring a bear is to fire a blank, ‘crackshot’. The problem, Ikhakik says, is you’re ‘training a bear not to be scared of it, because it knows it won’t get hurt’. Next he will try a rubber bullet, aiming at the rump. 

But if even that doesn’t work, rather than kill a charging bear with a high-velocity rifle round, he will try to hit it with another rubber bullet on the nose.

‘I’ve lost count of the times I’ve stopped a bear like that. They really protect their noses. They find food with them, and that’s how they sense danger.’

Ikhakik and his fellow monitors have become very necessary. In mid-winter, with pregnant bears hibernating and males far out on the sea ice, the danger seems remote – though a huge male was seen at the Arviat dump the night before I arrived. But in warmer seasons, bears have become a constant presence. On some days, Ikhakik has had to deter up to 20. The record is 26.

One day, Kidlapik says: ‘I saw a bear that popped out between two buildings, right after school ended – the children were just going home.’

It chased two girls who, thankfully, managed to get inside their house and shut the door in time.

On other occasions, ‘bears have come right up to local hunters,’ says Kidlapik. ‘They’d be butchering an animal they’d just harvested and it would take it away. One guy had just harpooned a beluga whale, and was getting ready to tow it back in his boat. He ended up having a tug-of-war on the beach.

‘Bears get close to fishermen’s nets, then start chasing them, to protect the catch they now see as theirs. It used to be normal to camp out. Today you can’t, because there are too many bears. You might travel 40 miles out in an ATV, but you make sure you get back home, even if it’s the middle of the night.’

In Hudson Bay, a paper by Prof Derocher and others suggests that although the sea is frozen for three weeks less than in the 1980s, this has not got worse since 2001 [File photo]

In Hudson Bay, a paper by Prof Derocher and others suggests that although the sea is frozen for three weeks less than in the 1980s, this has not got worse since 2001 [File photo]

Halloween, says Ikhakik, was especially challenging – because ‘there were so many bears around and so many kids on the streets’. They put on extra patrols, but many families decided it was too dangerous for their children to go out. Trick or treating mostly happened within the confines of the community centre sports hall.

Many people in Arviat have encountered mortal peril. Tiktaq told me: ‘One time there were three of us, driving in a line on ATVs. My friend was leading and he thought he’d passed a rock. I was in the middle and the rock got up. It was a big, lone male and he started running towards my brother, who was at the back. If he hadn’t swerved, the bear would have got him.’

And, say the Inuit, the bears are not ailing. According to Kidlapik: ‘They’re not coming here because they’re starving. And they’re still mating, still having cubs.’ 

He illustrates his point with a series of photographs he has taken in and around Arviat in all seasons over the past two years. They show bears of both genders at every stage of life – and all nourished and healthy.

Part of Ikhakik’s job is to record details of every bear he sees, and to estimate its weight. He says: ‘You often hear that the lack of ice is killing the bears but it’s not true. The bears are healthy. Once in a while with any species you’re going to come across sick animals: you’ll find skinny, limping caribou. But 95 per cent of the time, these are healthy, big, fat bears.

‘I respect people who say there’s a crisis. But when you’re doing bear work, as I do, you’re going to have a better side of the story. They wouldn’t hire me to protect the townspeople if they didn’t need me, and I’m not seeing them dying out.’

Climate change – cited as the reason for their imminent demise, due to rising temperatures shrinking the ice essential to their survival – may be altering their behaviour, but the Inuit say they are adapting, and remain fat and healthy, and perfectly able to breed [File photo]

Climate change – cited as the reason for their imminent demise, due to rising temperatures shrinking the ice essential to their survival – may be altering their behaviour, but the Inuit say they are adapting, and remain fat and healthy, and perfectly able to breed [File photo]

So who is right – the scientists and campaigners or what the Nunavut government calls Inuit ‘TEK’ – traditional ecological knowledge? Despite the bears’ iconic status, it is impossible to give a definitive answer.

Scientists use two main methods to estimate the changing size of polar bear sub-populations: ‘mark and recapture’, which requires bears to be tranquillised and tagged, and aerial surveys. But both have huge margins of error.

According to scientists, three of Canada’s 13 bear sub-populations are in decline, including West Hudson Bay. 

However, a new Nunavut government bear management plan cites TEK from Inuit communities that contradict this: they say none of the bear populations are shrinking, while nine are increasing. 

Meanwhile, a study published in 2016 revealed past cases where TEK and scientists disagreed about bear sub-populations – and claimed the Inuit were eventually proven right.

Moreover, if the West Hudson bears have declined recently, this may have nothing to do with sea ice. Since 1979, the long-term trend in ice across the Arctic is down.

But in Hudson Bay, a paper by Prof Derocher and others suggests that although the sea is frozen for three weeks less than in the 1980s, this has not got worse since 2001. 

Meanwhile, the latest survey of the Chukchi Sea, between Russia and Alaska, where there has been a marked decline in sea ice recently, says it has a stable and healthy sub-population of bears.

This year, the sea froze around Arviat unusually early: the bay was covered by mid-October. But Ikhakik says: ‘I saw bears out on the ice, hunting for seals one day – and then at the dump round here the next.’ 

This may be the key to their survival. The Inuit say they have seen bears catching Arctic char, the large local fish, while swimming in open water, and even seals. There is also food on land – including the tern eggs.

‘South of Arviat there is a lot of geese, for miles and miles – one big food source for bears,’ says Kidlapik. ‘They are very smart animals. As the seasons change, bears change their habits, just like people do.’

Moreover, the Inuit say the bears’ status as climate change pin-ups helps explain why they have lost their fear of humans.

Churchill, in Manitoba, 200 miles to the south, is the world’s most accessible polar bear viewing spot. Served by jets from Winnipeg, it has become the focus of a lucrative bear tourist industry, with ‘tundra buggies’ taking thousands of visitors annually to see the ‘threatened’ bears. 

Sometimes, they are even allowed to touch them through steel fences. Many in Arviat are marked with green or purple paint spots, which means they have migrated from Churchill.

Joe Savikataaq, the Nunavut territory premier and its environment minister, happens to live in Arviat. 

‘Polar bear tourism is contributing to our problem,’ he said. ‘Because the media and other organisations are convinced there will soon be no more bears because of climate change, these are the most studied bears in the world. Yet traditional Inuit knowledge says they are becoming more numerous and more aggressive.’

One solution, he has said, may be to increase the quota of permitted kills – which at present, for the West Hudson Bay, is just 28. This, a demand being voiced by several Inuit communities, would be controversial: ‘The government of Nunavut feels so much outside pressure because of climate change, when the world seems to think the bears are about to die out.’

Drikus Gissing, director of Wildlife Management for Nunavut’s environment department for the past 14 years, said: ‘We have exceeded the human/bear tolerance level. It has become a public safety issue. 

Mail on Sunday reporter David Rose in Hudson Bay, Canada. He wrote: 'Last week, Arviat’s minimum temperature hit minus 36C. However, as I rapidly discovered, its people – who are almost all Inuit – are as warm as its weather is brutal'

Mail on Sunday reporter David Rose in Hudson Bay, Canada. He wrote: ‘Last week, Arviat’s minimum temperature hit minus 36C. However, as I rapidly discovered, its people – who are almost all Inuit – are as warm as its weather is brutal’

In other countries, they would be hunted. But people argue the Inuit should be willing to live with these animals. The communities are very upset. At every meeting we’ve been to this year, people said it’s not true they’re declining, they’re increasing, as at Arviat.’

Gissing adds: ‘These bears are in good condition. Our biologists say they are doing fine. I’ve heard of reporters trying to film skinny bears and they can’t find them. You will always find skinny animals in any population. 

But when you look at the teeth of the bears that are skinny, they are usually very worn, from old age. That’s a good sign: it means the animals can die naturally.

‘I don’t think that climate change is the main factor determining polar bear health and population size. I feel a lot of biologists are scared to say this because they are frightened of being labelled deniers.’

Even Prof Derocher, who is convinced the bears’ long-term future is bleak, accepts that ‘the wheels are not coming off yet’, while ‘some bear populations are doing fine’.

In West Hudson Bay, there has been ‘a recent period of stability’, he says, and though ‘we were seeing starving bears, starving cubs on land, that seems to have slowed down’. 

Then again, the computer models ‘are not great on the five to ten year time-frame’, and it was possible that, although the Arviat bears might look healthy now, they may be about to ‘fall off a cliff’.

As my plane took off from Arviat just before ten in the morning, the sun was a pale red semi-circle piercing the icy horizon. A thought struck me.

Climate computer models say sea ice will continue to decline. Yet polar bears have been around for some 400,000 years, some of them warmer than today: about 100,000 years ago birch trees grew on Baffin Island, and summer temperatures, scientists say, were 4C to 5C warmer than at present. 

Activists claim that polar bears are ‘the canary in the coalmine’ that proves how dangerous climate change is, not only to bears but humans. But what if they chose the wrong species? 

And if the scientists are wrong about the bears, will it be only the Inuit who become more sceptical?

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


Comments are closed.