A Polar Bear Crime Scene

Our ship sailed gracefully past the edge of the ice demarcating the edge of the north pole. We spotted a group of seals, happily playing on the ice. Or so it seemed. As we got closer, a trail of blood appeared.

A trail of blood

A trail of blood


Off in the distance, we saw two polar bears with their heads down over something dark.

What's that I see?

What’s that I see?

Almost as if they didn’t want to be seen associating, one bear forced the other away.

The remaining bear and a trail of blood.

The remaining bear and a trail of blood.

The remaining bear turned to us, protecting the dark, bloody, and dead seal, as if to say “this is mine, not yours.”

This is mine.  I did this.  Not you.  Maybe.

This is mine. I did this. Not you. Maybe.

The second bear, perhaps the real killer, came close to our boat, looking like he wanted our help to get his victim back.

What are you?

What are you?

But we proved to be no help or threat, and the first bear, stuffed from a full meal, took a nice nap.

That was a nice meal!

That was a nice meal!

As the day wore on, the second bear would try to challenge the first bear.

I want food, too!

I want food, too!

But he’d lose and come back to our ship, continuing to seek aid.

What are you again?

What are you again?

Sometimes he’d even roll around, trying to show us that he’s a cute bear, worth helping.

Look at me!

Look at me!

When the sun set, the first bear had barely moved.

The bear with his kill at sunset.

The bear with his kill at sunset.

The second came to us for help.

The second bear kept checking us out.

The second bear kept checking us out.

And then he tried ambushing the first bear, slinking quietly into the water to come from behind.

The start of an ambush

The start of an ambush

But it didn’t work, and he settled down to go to bed.

Sleep time.

Sleep time.

The next morning, a third bear came from the ice.

The three bears

The three bears

For a while they shared.

There's enough to go around

There’s enough to go around

But bears aren’t good at sharing, and they began to fight over the victim.

Fighting over the seal

Fighting over the seal

After forcing everyone away, the big bear made sure to remind us the seal is his, not ours.

Try the ribs.

Try the ribs.

One bear came close, wanting to see what we’d do.

Do you have ribs?

Do you have ribs?

But the other settled down to watch for an opportunity.

Hello.

Hello.

Suddenly he found it, stealing the victim away!

It's all mine!

It’s all mine!

The big bear wasn’t very happy.

Where'd breakfast go?

Where’d breakfast go?

So he came and got it back.

Ah, so much better than pancakes.

Ah, so much better than pancakes.

Sadly the seal was almost gone, and as the sun rose, the bears left. Unfortunately we’ll never know who actually killed the seal, but we made sure the crime scene was well documented!

Backing away from the crime scene.

Backing away from the crime scene.

See more images from my trip here.

Thank you for reading this far! I wanted to share some interesting environmental information I learned on this trip. Despite what you read in the headlines that bear populations are stable/increasing, we don’t know how many bears are out there. There hasn’t been an accurate global polar bear census since the ‘90s or so, and if you look closely at reports saying the numbers are increasing, you’ll see over half the polar bear areas have “insufficient information” and many of the other areas are decreasing or at best stable. But bears are thinner and more frequently found starving, waiting for the ice to return so they can hunt than ever before. Bears are also long-lived and don’t reproduce frequently, making the count now not a great indicator of who will be there tomorrow.

One trend is clear: as the conditions change, the polar bear will leave many areas they’re in now and wind up in parts of Greenland and northeast Canada only. Because of that, the polar bear’s often used as a symbol of climate change, but we’re likely too late to prevent it from disappearing from these other places. Plus climate change is abstract: what actionable thing can we do right now to stop it?

On the other hand, hunting is concrete. We know polar bears are threatened yet hundreds of bears are legally killed each year. Three of the five polar bear countries (US, Canada, and Greenland) allow hunting. They claim the hunting is managed and the population stable. Plus a lot of the argument focuses on the “rights” of the native Inuit population, but I don’t think a “traditional” Inuit hunter 100 years ago used a high-powered weapon to slaughter a bear. Canada also allows trophy hunting by non-natives, and there are hunting tour operators. The Canadian government pays the hunters a lot for the polar bear hides, and there’s an unfortunate growing market in China for bear fur.

It just seems ridiculous that we allow the populations we think will survive climate change to be hunted so much right now. It’s like if we could go back to when the Dodo bird was alive, know the overall population was declining, but continue to kill them. Imagine the tourism impacts, too: if bears know to be afraid of humans, do you think you’ll be able to see them in the wild in 50 years or will they learn to hide and run away from humans? The most actionable thing you can do right now to help the bears survive is to help stop polar bear hunting.