Safety issues on the land of the polar bear

Safety issues on the land of the polar bear

19 January 2015

The Arctic is the land of the polar bear. Encounters with polar bears date back to the early days of Arctic exploration and colonisation. According to modern ethnological research, that’s more than 20,000 years ago. Indigenous Arctic ethnic groups lived side by side with polar bears for thousands of years. They were part of their habitat, and people were able to coexist with them and treated bears with respect. People of modern European civilisation have known of the polar bear since at least the 16th century. Tales of polar explorers having to fend off attacks by polar bears were brought to Europe by surviving members of the expedition of Willem Barents, who spent the winter of November 1596-May 1597 on the northern island of Novaya Zemlya.


Since then, dramatic stories about a white monster who suddenly appears from the snowy darkness with one desire – to kill and eat a polar explorer – have recurred in many accounts of the Arctic pioneers and their followers. Fear of the animal was the main driver of the behavior of civilised humans when they encountered polar bears.


There are many objective descriptions of encounters with polar bears, where information is given without exaggerated drama. However, both in the early and later stories, the travellers often use the image of this impressive animal to create a good story about their respective Arctic experiences. As a result, the image of a polar bear is shrouded in a huge number of myths and tales that greatly distort the facts. This doesn’t make the task of avoiding encounters in an effective and harmless way for both sides any easier. In order to cope with this task, one must embark on an unbiased study of polar bear behavior during encounters with the humans, and of the factors that may lead to the escalation of a regular encounter into a conflict. Lack of knowledge or incompetent recommendations can be dangerous for people and can lead to unnecessary killings of bears.


Under normal ice conditions, polar bears live on sea ice, where they hunt for Arctic seals, their staple diet. They seldom come ashore, and encounters with people are also rare. The frequency of encounters is increasing dramatically amid global warming as the Arctic sea ice melts, especially in the modern world, with its unusually high density of human presence and activity in the Arctic. The polar bear coming ashore in a certain area for extended periods of time is a clear sign that the habitat of a particular geographical population has deteriorated, and the bears are under stress. If this is happening across the Arctic, it means that the entire species is under threat, which is exactly what’s happening on our planet.


When on land, polar bears sleep a lot to save energy, or they move slowly in search of replacement food. Anything that can be associated with food gets their attention. Therefore, polar bears showing up outside man-made infrastructure in the Arctic during such periods is quite natural. In such circumstances, preventing conflict-prone encounters with polar bears without harming either side is becoming an important task. This is not only about the safety of the humans, but also the protection of an endangered animal, because a conflict encounter can be fatal to humans, but it is almost always fatal to the polar bear. Without a systemic approach to resolving this issue, people in the Arctic will be at risk, and polar bears will continue to die.


Studying the behavior of the polar bear during encounters with humans was part of a long-term study of its behavioral ecology, which I have been conducting on Wrangel Island from 1990 until now. One of its results was the development of a safety technique to be used in the land of the polar bear.


This technique has been improved over the course of 24 years and is based on personal experience, including over 2,000 interactions with polar bears and dozens of encounters that my correspondents have shared with me, including video footage and/or photographs. This technique was tested and used by researchers and rangers, men and women working at the Wrangel Island Reserve.


This technique is based on a set of rules of behavior and use of exclusively non-lethal deterrents. The technique consists of two primary parts:

1. Individual safety: safe behavior (what to do and what not to do).

2. Safe infrastructure in the Arctic: principles and practical development and maintenance of infrastructure in the polar bear land.


In turn, individual safety includes: 

1. A theoretical course explaining the factors that affect the likelihood and the nature of encounters with polar bears, and the appropriate rules of behaviour.

2. A practical course explaining the rules and practical staff orientation/training.


Safe infrastructure includes:

1. The basic principles underlying safe infrastructure, including things that should be taken into account and implemented.

2. Applying the principles in a particular location (landscape, environmental conditions, a spot in the polar bear area, predators’ activity in the area, etc).


The key factors that must be known for safe coexistence with polar bears in the Arctic include:

1. The nature of the polar bear, that is, the things that one needs to know about the animal and its behavior in order to correctly understand and apply the rules of safe behavior when on its territory (only relevant information is provided. An extensive lecture on the polar bear biology is not needed here. Unnecessary information interferes with proper understanding and memorising the rules).

2. The nature of the conflicts. What you need to know about the causes of dangerous interactions, the situations in which they occur and how they can be provoked.


The polar bear is a special kind of a predator. This means that it has the tools, the strength and the ability to kill large and strong prey, such as walruses and white wales. But this is just one side of the coin. The other side is that, just like any other large predator, polar bears are very cautious, skittish and are a far cry from Schwarzenegger’s character in the Terminator. Attacking unknown and potentially dangerous prey may cause injuries, which can be fatal for the bear, since it won’t be able to hunt effectively. Large predators take good care of themselves, and survival is their main concern. They never attack an unusual object as prey without first getting used to it and understanding its properties. Humans don’t look like the polar bears’ staple menu. If a polar bear is approaching something, it does so primarily in order to examine and get an idea about what it is. Further developments depend on the nuances of human behavior.


An assessment of numerous encounters reveals that all conflicts and accidents are, in one way or another, provoked by humans. These provocations are the result of a failure to comprehend the factors that cause conflicts, or the rules of safe conduct.


The behavior of polar bears is guided by certain rules and is quite predictable, depending on the situation. We are responsible for the safety of humans in the Arctic, but we also have to ensure the safety of polar bears.


The survey shows three types of situations that may provoke polar bears to attack humans. The first type consists of deliberate provocations. These provocations include deliberately feeding the bears, and creating appealing sites, such as setting up waste dumps and scattering food leftovers. This first type of situation also includes the creation of conditions in which polar bears get used to humans. This happens when humans allow bears to roam freely near their homes, without resolutely and consistently chasing them off at first sight. Polar bears are intelligent, they quickly realise when humans do not pose a threat, and they lose their natural fear of humans.


The second type of situation includes encounters in which polar bears mistake any specific object for prey. This is quite understandable because any slow-moving and low-lying (mostly horizontal) object resembles a seal on ice or ashore, and polar bears usually prey on seals. This object attracts bears and, most likely, will activate their hunting reflexes. On the contrary, a tall living object actively walking upright without signs of uncertainty or fear will make the predators apprehensive and will scare them as being potentially dangerous.


The third type of situation includes unexpected short-distance encounters caused by absent-mindedness, imprudent behaviour and lack of common sense. Understandably, a polar bear encountering a human face to face is highly likely to display defensive aggression, deciding to defend its life.


The rules of safe conduct in the land of the polar bear are determined by knowledge of the predator’s nature and its behavioural patterns, as well by factors that provoke conflict-prone encounters. They contain a set of mandatory dos and don’ts, making it possible to avoid provoking conflicts or to defuse any such conflicts by non-lethal methods. These rules are no less complicated than traffic regulations, and it is easy to learn and follow them. All it takes is self-discipline, concentration and a strong mental attitude. Anyone failing to cultivate these qualities will find the Arctic a dangerous place, and not just because of the presence of polar bears. The Arctic is a harsh environment comfortable only for well-trained people. Those arriving to work, live or travel here should have knowledge of safety techniques in the land of the polar bear for their own safety and that of the bears.


The rules of safe conduct include the three main rules and a number of special rules ensuring compliance with each main rule. Those living in the Arctic must unfailingly abide by these rules, which are just as mandatory as traffic regulations.


The rules provide step-by-step instructions on how to act in the following circumstances:

  1. How to avoid an encounter
  2. How to prevent the encounter from escalating into a conflict after it has become impossible to avoid an encounter
  3. How to defuse an impending conflict.
  4. How to stop a conflict by non-lethal means in case of emergency.


These rules have been used by field workers of our reserve, its visitors and by me on Wrangel Island for 24 years during encounters with hundreds upon hundreds of polar bears. I have also verified these rules in various Arctic regions besides Wrangel Island, including Herald Island, Franz Josef Land, the Svalbard archipelago and the Hudson Bay coast (Cape Churchill). On the Hudson Bay coast, polar bears have grown accustomed to the presence of humans and are not afraid of them. I have also checked these rules on the continental Chukotka coast and in various sea ice sectors. People I have trained utilise this technique in various Arctic regions.


The safety technique also includes a list of effective non-lethal methods for defusing aggression and deterring polar bears from humans, together with explanations on how to use them.


It is important to understand that factors leading to accidents are essentially psychological. They are motivated by ignorance and by an incorrect perception of animals and the situation. Here is a short list of risk factors that may provoke accidents:

  1. Fear instead of knowledge and training. Fear of polar bears, bred by myths, provides absolutely incorrect motives and compels humans to make mistakes that may prove fatal. This situation resembles that of a neurotic driver who has a morbid fear of all other drivers. In this case, a road accident will be guaranteed.
  2. False safety techniques implying that humans should carry firearms and use them if necessary. Without going into details here, I would only like to say that carbines lull humans into a false sense of security, they distract them from unfailingly abiding by the rules of safe conduct and provoke ill-conceived and truly dangerous actions and mistakes. Not to speak of the fact that weapons often become a source of mortal danger in a critical situation, and they may even prove much more dangerous than any predator. As I have already noted, polar bears have become accustomed to gunfire, and this usually does not scare them.


It's possible to mention many examples when firearms are ineffective in deterring polar bears. This has been proved convincingly by the concept for ensuring safety in Svalbard. The concept holds that all field teams be armed with carbines there. Until recently, carbines were issued to everyone arriving in Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, without exception. Even those who did not know how to use firearms received them. In the past few years, local authorities have at least started requiring licenses. As a result, several polar bears are being killed in Svalbard each year, and people are also killed there on a regular basis. On the contrary, our safety technique, based on a system of rules of conduct and the use of non-lethal deterrents alone, has been introduced on Wrangel Island, and this technique has made it possible to prevent death and injury to humans and the shooting of polar bears. 


  1. People leaving for the Arctic lack the required knowledge, and they are not instructed on safety techniques in the land of the polar bear.
  2. A lack of non-lethal deterrents for use against polar bears. For example, special bear pepper sprays are sold freely at North American retail outlets in Canada and the United States. These sprays are not manufactured in Russia and are only sold in small cans for use against dogs and street hoodlums. Although it is possible to use small cans against bears, they have a shorter range and inadequate spraying power. As a rule, people in Russia do not receive deterrents, and they are not instructed on how to use them.

It is important to ensure the safety of humans and to protect polar bears in the Russian Arctic. Therefore the safety techniques must be applied systematically whenever and wherever humans live and work in the Arctic, and also during the creation of working and residential infrastructure in polar bear habitats (depending on the specific conditions and objectives of a facility). Otherwise people will continue to face risks, and polar bears will continue to be killed as a result of unjustified and needless shooting.


I am confident that a similar approach – developing a safety technique through specialised surveys that assess the behavior of large predators – should be used to prevent and regulate potential conflicts between humans and every large species of predator inhabiting Russia. 


Nikita Ovsyanikov, Doctor of Science (Biology), Independent Expert on Polar Bears, Honorary Polar Explorer of Russia  


(Photo © Ruslan Sleptsov)

1 video