Saturday, 19 November 2011

Churchill Polar Bears 9th November 2011: Exhilaration and Sadness

An unnatural scene: a polar bear eating a banana

Today saw a combination of exhilaration and deep sadness. On one level, we had amazing bear viewing at close quarters, as witnessed by my photographs (one bear actually put its front paws on the top edge of one of our bus windows). However it’s extremely important not to take these pictures out of context. These aren’t bears in their natural habitat: they have been attracted to the town’s old dump by grain tailings dumped by the port. The Manitoba Conservation officer in town claimed to only have found out about it this week, but local reports state that it’s been happening all summer, or perhaps even for several years. Polar bears have a remarkable sense of smell, and powerful front limbs, and we observed 12-13 bears digging up buried grain. The grain has fermented in the ground, leading to the surreal sight of bears sleeping off their intoxication.

Bears at the dump on a pile of grain

I want to summarise why this dumping of grain is a problem and why urgent action is needed to stop it:
  • It leads to food conditioning: bears come to associate people with food, leading to conflict, and often ultimately the bear is considered a nuisance, and possibly killed.
  • The sight of a bear eating a banana next to a pile of grain, at a time when they should be out on the ice hunting seals was heart breaking to our group: this was almost certainly the result of a tourist bating a bear.
  • This unregulated, unsupervised wildlife tourism may lead to injury or death of a person, which would lead to a backlash against the bears.
  • Visitors do not have wherewithal to interpret what is really going on: they can step off a flight or the train, and head straight to the dump, with no knowledge of how to protect themselves and the bears.
  • Unfortunately public resources in Manitoba are concentrated on Winnipeg, and Churchill does not appear to have finance the to address this situation.

Tourists viewing bears at the dump

We saw people filming from the back of pickup trucks, bears approaching open windows, and numerous instances where bears were being distressed by the close proximity of people. This is serious, since the grain itself is a poor quality food source for bears, and whenever they are placed in under stress, these starving creatures expend additional precious energy.

An intoxicated bear

On a more positive note, in the evening, we saw a bear in a beautiful natural setting as the sun went down over Hudson Bay (see pictures below), and we were treated to a lecture on Arctic Peoples. It would be wrong to characterise this trip as a sobering, depressing experience, despite the disturbing things we learn, as the interaction with people in the group leads to many lighter moments.

Next post: Magical sighting of Mother and Cubs
Previous post: Arrival in Churchill

The first bear we saw today

A bear approaching the bus near sunset

One bear at the dump came very close to our bus, as seen by the inside and outside pictures (the latter courtesy of a Japanese person we met on the train who was watching us)

Below are further pictures of bears at the dump:

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