Remarks: Due to the ongoing investigation, in order to avoid sensational isting and out of consideration for the feelings of the persons concerned, we have refrained from publishing pictures of the accident site or the polar bear and people involved in any way. All images are archival material.
Last Friday morning’s tragic accident at the campsite near Longyearbyen, in which a man was fatally injured and a polar bear shot, has caused great consternation in the community and around the world. The investigation into the case is still ongoing, but more details have emerged about the incident and the polar bear. In addition, questions are already circulating online about how the accident occurred. That is why we are once again publishing the current state of information here.
The polar bear, which intruded the campsite near Longyearbyen last Friday morning, was a 3-year-old male who had been spotted and expelled on the other side of the Adventfjord near Hiorthhamn a few days earlier. According to experts, the animal was the son of a bear, who had also appeared on the opposite side of Longyearbyen with her new cub on Monday. The two were anesthetized by the authorities and flown to the north of Isfjorden under strict controls. The 15-year-old female polar bear was no stranger, according to a source in Longyearbyen. She was the “lead actress” in “Queen without Land” by Asgeir Helgestad from 2018, a multi-award winning documentary.
The offspring of the bear seems to have had little luck with humans in the past. In 2014, a cub died after being anesthetized and examined along with his mother. The second animal from this litter was the young bear, which was shot by a Czech tourist in 2015 after it had broken into their poorly secured camp in the Tempelfjord and had injured a man in his tent. Authorities then had to shoot the badly injured animal.
COVID-19 lockdown prevented planned electric fence
The Longyearbyen campsite is located about 1 kilometre from the outskirts of Longyearbyen, just below the airport car park. From which side the bear had come to the place is currently being clarified. However, the campsite is actually only accessible from three sides. The coal loading station is located in the immediate vicinity of the site and from the main road to the airport a path leads to the site. The site itself is a large open area with a large house and with a direct view of the fjord and further to the exit of the Adventfjord. The danger posed by polar bears was not taken lightly. But de facto in the summer, the campsite was considered a safe place due to its location. Nevertheless, all guests of the site were made aware of certain measures and, for example, not to leave any food leftovers lying around (a kitchen and dining places are in the house of the camping site). However, carrying firearms and setting up protective fences were too great a risk due to the risk of self-harm. Polar bear guards and dogs had been monitoring instead. But due to the increasing number of polar bear visits around Longyearbyen, the owner had also planned to build an electric fence around the square, as she told Svalbardposten in an interview. But the lockdown of Svalbard prevented the construction and until July the site was completely empty. The material was there, but the hands were missing due to the COVID-19 measures to carry out the construction.
Short-term commitment of the place manager after lockdown
After Johan Kotte, called “Job” by all, made himself available as manager again at short notice after 2018, one could at least ensure the basic functions of the place, including dogs and guard material. “Job” had the full confidence of the owner and approached his job with enthusiasm. He was appreciated by the guests for his quiet and friendly manner. From July 20, the first guests arrived. Compared to other years, the number of guests remained modest, but nevertheless the operation was managed with the same care as usual. At the time of the incident, 6 other people from different countries were on site in addition to Job. None of these people were injured, but the shock goes deep. Experts take care of them and help to process what has been happening.
No 3,000 bears on Svalbard
After the incident, the Sysselmannen again pointed out that Svalbard is a polar bear country and that safety is being top priority. “Polar bears can be found all over Svalbard and throughout the year,” says Sølvi Elvedahl, Assistant Governor. But contrary to popular belief, it is not thousands of polar bears that live on Svalbard. The number of approximately 3,000 animals covers the entire Barents population and is spread over an area from Svalbard to Novaya Semlja. On Svalbard itself, according to the expert’s findings, there are only about 270 – 300 animals, another almost 750 in the north of the archipelago on the ice and the rest on the Russian side. But polar bears wander long distances in summer in search of food. And this year, the ice has retreated particularly far to the north, which leads to a problem especially for the polar bear mothers with their young. Even young animals, which have been weaned and have look after themselves, are often still on land. And during their migrations, they almost inevitably come close to the few settlements on Svalbard and thus to a potential conflict zone.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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