Svalbard is the northernmost part of Norway. This archipelago lies midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. About 60% of the area is glacier. The only permanently populated island on the archipelago is Spitsbergen.
Polar bears are a symbol of Svalbard. They are one of the main tourist attractions, in fact. Anyone traveling outside the settlements is required to carry a rifle at all times. Tourists are warned about the danger and unpredictability of these animals. You can forget about outrunning a polar bear.
A 17-year-old British boy is dead this weekend after a group he was camping with on Spitsbergen Island was attacked by a polar bear. He was part of an expedition run by the British Schools Exploring Society.
The group, most of them between the ages of 16 and 23, were hunting for fossils, taking part in environmental experiments, and clearing beaches of debris. They split into smaller groups to head out to more remote areas. The boy was in a group of 13 people who were attacked. Others were lucky enough to survive it, at least so far. Some of them are in the hospital with severe injuries.
The polar bear is dead, too. One of the campers shot it. There are people just as outraged over the death of the bear as they are over the death of the boy. They point out that the polar bear is endangered. People shouldn’t be invading this animal’s habitat and then killing it when it acts on instinct. These expeditions need to stop.
I don’t know if the expeditions will stop. They are clearly of value to many people. But I do know that conservationists around the world, including here in the U.S., are acting to protect the habitat of polar bears, filing lawsuits when they deem it necessary, to stop any kind of interference with the habitat of polar bears.
The polar bears will go on doing whatever polar bears do to survive, including killing humans who come into their habitat when the bears are looking for food – and those humans are the only food available.
Is there any such thing as peaceful coexistence when polar bears and humans are in the same space? Something or someone is probably going to die. If people die, as this 17-year-old did, it’s a tragedy. It’s no less a tragedy if bears die, some insist.
It’s only humans that can care either way. The bears are indifferent to human suffering. They don’t care much about the survival of their species, either.