Polar bear hunting has an ancient traditional history – and a modern brutal one. For many millennia, the powerful, strong animal played an important role in the survival of the prehistoric peoples of the Arctic. To the Eskimos of the Siberian Arctic Ocean, as well as to the many prehistoric Eskimo cultures in the far north of North America and in Greenland, the polar bear provided food and materials with which to make clothing, weapons, and tools.
This early hunting was solely for self-sufficiency (subsistence hunting). But as soon as the Europeans appeared in the Arctic, the polar bear received another predicate: threatening. – Because European whalers and explorers had felt at the mercy of the king of the Arctic on their tours along the unknown coasts, the polar bear was shot in the High Arctic from the early 17th century onwards, mostly out of sheer fear or threat.
From about the middle of the 19th century, demand for polar bear pelts increased, spurring hunters to shoot even more bears. For the Norwegian archipelago Spitsbergen / Svalbard in the European Arctic, hunting statistics therefore record a sharp increase in the number of polar bears killed between 1871 and 1910.
From commercial to fun
Not only the greed for the white furs let the numbers rise, also the intensity of the hunt increased, and the applied killing-methods became more expedient from year to year. More and more trappers on Svalbard swore by self-firing systems: a rifle was built into an oblong wooden box, which stood on wooden legs a little over a metre above the ground. The muzzle of the rifle was pointed at one open side of the box – and to the string leading to the trigger the trappers attached a bait. The smell of the bait attracted the polar bear. By sticking his head into the box to pull out the newly discovered treat, the bear inadvertently activated the trigger mechanism by pulling and tugging on the string – and shot himself in the forehead. Hundreds of polar bears killed themselves this way. In winter, trappers used their dog sled teams – and later snowmobiles – to efficiently and time-efficiently rattle off their wooden crates to haul away the loot and freshly prepare the self-shooting equipment.
Today, numerous old, decaying self-shooting traps can still be found on the Svalbard tundra – as historical relics of a fortunately bygone era, they are now protected by law.
But polar bears were also killed in summer at that time, even on the pack ice. Orphaned young were captured and brought to the mainland to be sold to zoos. Already in the 1870-er years, people began to catch living cubs in Spitzbergen, however only in small numbers (up to 2 animals per year). An exception was the year 1909, when 31 young bears were caught. This practice was discontinued on Svalbard after 1967, when 4 juveniles were still caught.
Some trappers and fur trappers achieved honour and popularity within their profession thanks to outstanding efforts, for example the Norwegian Henry Rudi. His countrymen referred to him as the “Polar Bear King.” His fame was based not only on the fact that Rudi had wintered 27 times in Spitsbergen, but also on the 713 polar bears he had killed in the forty years between 1908 and 1948.
While the trappers pursued their commercial interest in polar bear hunting, another threat to the polar bear arrived in the region from the end of the 19th century onwards with the emergence of tourism around Svalbard: the lustful shooting during afternoon tea from the deck of the cruise ship, for fun and amusement.
As early as the 1920s, a new type of hunter group appeared in Spitsbergen, for whom social prestige and a strong need for recognition were the main reasons for shooting polar bears: the trophy hunters had reached the Arctic.
The hunt for the trophy called polar bear even increased on Spitsbergen after the Second World War and only ended when Norway put the polar bear under full protection from 1973 onwards. No wonder, the number of bears had shrunk dramatically by then.
But it was not only in the European Arctic, such as Spitsbergen and other regions, that polar bears were early targets, for example in Russia.
Polar bear hunting in Spitsbergen, in numbers:
1905: 638 / 1906: 644 / 1907: 888 / 1908: 659 / 1909: 696 / 1910: 511 / 1919: 662 / 1920: 578 / 1924: 901 / 1925: 598, thereafter each time below 600.
Since 1973, bears have only been shot on Svalbard in self-defence, for safety reasons, because of the risk of damage to property or for humane reasons. The number varied from zero (1997, 1999 and 2012) to 9 (1987). Since 2004, fewer than 2 bears have been shot each year, except in 2013, when 3 bears had to be killed, and in 2016 and 2020, with 4 killed each. Science also takes its toll: complications sometimes arise during research and polar bear tagging that lead to the death of the bear.
Shooting across Siberia
In huge Russia, people began to pursue the polar bear especially in the east and northeast of Siberia in the late 18th century. A century later, the persecution had already become rampant, with sometimes hundreds of ships, mostly from America, slaughtering marine mammals in the Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea. In addition, there were those polar bears that were traditionally hunted for their livelihood by indigenous communities on the Chukchi Peninsula.
At the turn of the 20th century, as many as 150 polar bears were killed annually in the Russian Arctic; by the Second World War, this number had swelled to 250 animals, settling at around 100 bears per year until the imposition of Russia’s rigorous protection status in 1956. – Mind you, these figures only concern the region in the extreme east of Siberia.
Polar bears are found in Russia but also in other areas of the far north. While less than a hundred polar bears were shot per year along the Polar coast of central Siberia (Laptev Sea, northern coast of Yakutia), the number of bears shot along the western Siberian coast increased from the 18th century to 200 bears or more per year in the 1920s and 1930s. Also in Western Siberia, as in many other Arctic destinations, polar bear hunting began as a “sideline” for walrus hunters, sometimes as a pure pastime, often for self-protection and later for money.
That leaves the High Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land, also Russia and also the northernmost land area in Eurasia. There the polar bears lived unmolested – until the discovery of the archipelago in 1873. After that, hunters, researchers and military and research station personnel began to shoot bears, at first sporadically, until the number of victims reached 200 to 250 animals annually. It was only after the Second World War that polar bear hunting in Russia decreased markedly, not only on Franz Josef Land, but also in the other Siberian distribution areas of the “King of the Arctic”.
“Taking from nature…”
The Soviet Union at that time enacted the first hunting restrictions to protect the polar bear as early as 1938. For example, shooting from the deck of a ship was prohibited, as was stalking from polar research stations. The screw in favour of the bear was tightened again in 1950 and finally banned altogether by a decree of the Soviet Council of Ministers, dated 21 November 1956.
Such a total ban on hunting was an exemplary measure by the Soviet Union; it has certainly given several thousand polar bears a longer life since then. But the 1956 protection order was not without loopholes: polar bears were still allowed to be “taken from the wild” for scientific purposes and for zoos and circuses. However, fewer than twenty animals per year were affected, mainly from Wrangel Island and Franz Josef Land – both of which are now strict nature reserves (Russian: zapovedniks).
Today’s Russia is in a relatively good position with its protection concept for polar bears, which the country inherited and adopted from the old Soviet Union – if it weren’t for poaching and the lax application of laws by lazy or incompetent authorities in many places. Poachers make the vast country the world record holder for unlawful polar bear kills.
Such hunting offences – as well as shooting for self-protection out of conflicts when humans and polar bears meet – result in an unknown number of victims. Estimates vary widely, ranging from about 100 to 400 bears per year. The Russian branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare IFAW cited an April 2021 estimate of about 200 polar bears now poached in the Russian Arctic each year. This is a dangerously high number that would severely endanger the already dwindling polar bear population in the Chukotka-Alaska area, he said.
Poaching of polar bears is concentrated in the Chukotka Peninsula in the east and in the region around the town of Dikson on the western Taimyr Peninsula in the north, but is also practiced elsewhere in the polar bear’s Siberian range.
Russia’s poaching – thanks to Canada’s fur trade
Meanwhile, the problem of poaching – not only on polar bears, but also on several other animals on Russia’s Red List of Endangered Species, including the snow leopard and Amur tiger – has reached the government and parliament. At the beginning of 2021, the chairman of the parliamentary committee for nature conservation and environmental protection criticized that the extent of poaching had exceeded the scope of legal hunting; it was now time to take appropriate measures, for example, to increase the number of state hunting inspectors. At the same time, the age limit for the purchase of hunting weapons in Russia was raised to 21.
Shortly afterwards, the parliament reacted: In May 2021, the speaker of the State Duma announced that the increasing poaching of animal species on the Red List is to be countered by stricter hunting laws. It said that because of the hunting of animals in need of special protection, between 2015 and 2017 alone, close to 3500 violations were reported and consequently 2000 people were convicted. The draft toughening of the law now raises the maximum penalty for hunting offences against protected species to 6 to 8 years in prison. Anyone who trades in animals that are particularly worthy of protection, for example polar bear skins via the media or the Internet, now faces 5 years in prison instead of the previous 4.
Such trade in pelts from poached polar bears in the Russian Arctic is fueled by the legally sanctioned fur trade in Canada. Many Russian poachers, who often operate in groups or even work as conservation officers and rangers in protected areas, obtain fake certificates to sell their illegal loot. Such forgeries pretend a legal acquisition of a legal Canadian trophy… For the equivalent of not even 400 francs such a fake certificate can be had. Certified” in this way, the poachers are not afraid to offer their supposedly “Canadian” pelts for sale via the Internet, even in Ukraine, Azerbaijan and other CIS states.
The fur of a polar bear brings the poacher on the spot, for example on the small island Waigatsch in the southern Kara Sea, converted to about 3500 francs. Once a fur has reached one of the big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg, the price on the black market skyrockets to about 18,000 to 25,000 francs, as WWF Russia determined a few years ago.
Greenland’s national quota
Again, the polar bear on Greenland has a completely different situation. On this largest island in the world, a quota system has regulated the hunting of polar bears since January 2006. Only Greenlanders receive a quota, the total for the whole island is currently 156 polar bears. The latest hunting statistics for 2020 show that the legal quota was almost exhausted with 153 animals actually killed, 69 of which were the result of Inuit hunters on the East Coast. But still: Even if the Greenlanders “only” shoot 153 instead of the allowed 156 polar bears – it is about 15 percent of the polar bears killed annually!
Cubs and female polar bears accompanied by cubs are exempt from the quota system – and thus from hunting. The export of young animals is also prohibited.
In the two months between 1 July and 31 August, polar bear hunting is prohibited throughout Greenland, with the exception of the two inhabited areas on the otherwise deserted east coast: in Ittoqqortoormiit and Tasiilaq/Ammassalik, the hunting ban also applies for two months, but slightly delayed, between 1 August and 30 September.
Quota for sale
A similar approach to Greenland is being taken in Canada, where around two thirds of all polar bears live. No other “polar bear country” reports such high numbers of culls as Canada, thanks to generously calculated hunting quotas – but despite rigorous protection measures in other countries.
About 300 polar bear (skins) alone enter the international market legally each year – about 2 percent of Canada’s polar bear population. The government emphasizes that these bears are not being shot for commercial reasons, but are being hunted for subsistence purposes by the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic. But how can it be explained then that furs are allowed to be traded, which would actually be important for subsistence, for the livelihood, for the own needs of an Inuit family…?
Even more questionable is the fact that an indigenous license holder is allowed to sell his allotted quota to an outsider (read: trophy hunter), but must accompany him on the hunt.
The level of the hunting quota is regulated regionally – the hunting region in Nunavut alone, which is approved for polar bear hunting, comprises 12 areas, each with different quotas. Depending on the quota allocated, the holder of a hunting license receives a certain number of tags. Such a “tag” must be applied to the fur of the killed polar bear for identification purposes. To hunt polar bears, a local pays 10 Canada dollars per tag and a $25 hunting fee, while a foreigner pays $50 for the tag and a $1200 fee.
According to the Wildlife Act, the wildlife law of the province of Nunavut, only a native, an Inuk, is allowed to hunt polar bears. For hunting, only “a sled pulled by dogs” may be used as a means of transportation. Because a complete hunting arrangement can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, the authorities like to point to the economic value of such trophy hunts and the associated high income for the Inuit involved. But if you look closer, only a third of all Inuit settlements offer such hunts on a regular basis – and not even half of the money that polar bear hunters pay for a trophy hunt reaches the villages. Converted to an average income of a resident in an Inuit settlement that offers trophy hunts, the income from this hunt accounts for only about 5 percent.
Alaska: inaccurately protected
In the US state of Alaska, polar bear hunting continued on a rather grand scale even after the 1973 Pan-Arctic Conservation Convention. Meanwhile, the Marine Mammal Protection Act governs the “management” of polar bears. While the law generally prohibits the hunting of polar bears, it makes a rather unspecific, generous exception: locals from the coast are allowed to hunt these bears, for their own use only, but in virtually unlimited numbers – as long as the “take” is not wasteful. Even parts of hunted polar bears may be sold, once they have been processed and transformed into handicrafts, and do not go abroad.
Hunted despite threats
It is clear to the world that the dramatic decline in the overall polar bear population over the last two hundred years or so has been triggered by excessive hunting use. Today, a wide range of “modern” hazards are added to this, such as global warming or the input of toxic substances into the Arctic or the increase in industrial activities.
Finally, this massive hunting pressure, to which the polar bear was exposed in its entire range until the 1970s, led to a pan-Arctic protection concept, which today, however, is circumvented by poachers from Russia.
The strictest measures were imposed by Russia and Norway; both countries banned polar bear hunting completely, Russia already in 1956, Norway followed suit in Spitsbergen in 1973. Greenland invented a quota system (only in force from January 2006) allowing limited hunting by locals at set times.
Most of the threats to the polar bear can only be eliminated in the long term and only by the global community. Global warming cannot be stopped immediately, and with it the rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. The large number of toxins that are transported from the world’s heavily populated regions to the Arctic cannot be reduced overnight. In the case of hunting, however, rapid intervention would be quite possible, as the decisions of Russia and Norway clearly show. Polar bear hunting, even in Canada, could stop pretty soon with bold political decisions. Canada, however, is heaven for trophy hunters who have their sights set on a polar bear. Only here can strangers legally shoot a white bear and then proudly display it – lovingly styled by taxidermists – in the trophy room at home.
Killing for pleasure
Trophy hunters, who target not only polar bears but dozens of mostly rare and often protected species worldwide, are engaged in a hobby that is increasingly coming under fire.
The Czech website “Stolen Wildlife” describes the reasons for trophy hunting in clear terms: “Trophy hunting is not about food – it is only a hobby and for pleasure. Few people, however, would claim out loud that they like to kill – others might think them odd. Rather, trophy hunters speak of their love of nature and animals, of their care for wildlife, of the struggle between them as hunters and their prey. Modern man, on the other hand, has become a domesticated, rather indolent creature, with dulled senses, so that the postulated “fight with the prey” nowadays takes place from a safe distance – with the help of a gun and with little risk for the hunter. The attractiveness of hunting is based on the fact that the hunter is no longer just an observer, but can exercise power and feel adventure or feel like an active part of nature.
The hunting community is always quick to find a factual reason to defend their hunt: preserving game populations, eliminating pests, killing old and “useless” individuals, using hunting funds to promote conservation, hunting as protection for endangered species, etc. A tried and true method of hunters for centuries has also been to incite fear of dangerous animals (the Little Red Riding Hood effect).”
The bigger the better
If you take a closer look at the arguments used by the trophy industry to justify their actions, you will come across many question marks. A glance at an imposing collection of trophies already reveals the essentials: all the animal parts that stare lifelessly at you from the walls and from the display cases through their gleaming glass eyes were among the largest and most beautiful in their lifetime. If an animal has unusual physical features, is larger than the others and a male to boot, its teeth are longer than average, its horns stronger – or is it considered dangerous: all these attributes contribute to the fact that such a magnificent specimen will soon decorate the trophy room of a hunting tourist, dead and stuffed.
Clearly, we’re not talking hedgehogs, beavers or bats here. The cult of the trophy is about the big, the risky, for example in Africa about the “Big Five”, the five big ones – they alone promise adventure, adrenaline and prestige: elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard. Every year about 18’000 armed tourists (so-called big game hunters; mainly from the USA, Spain and Germany) kill more than 100’000 animals in Africa, among them many species that are considered internationally protected.
In the decade between 2004 and 2014, close to 1.7 million animals fell victim to trophy hunters worldwide, the majority of which now stand or hang in American trophy collections.
Swiss hunters shoot with
But you don’t even have to go all the way to America. Around 1500 Swiss hunters take the opportunity to kill around fifty protected animals in faraway countries every year. Every year, as many as 15,000 hunters from Germany travel abroad to hunt trophies.
According to the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office FSVO, only one application was made in Switzerland between 2010 and 2020 to import hunting trophies of polar bears (e.g. Germany: 6 imports between 2018 and 2020). On the other hand, many other internationally protected animals are on Switzerland’s import list, such as 40 brown bears, 24 lions and leopards each, even 2 white rhinos and 7 cheetahs. The federal government readily issues import permits, while many other European countries have banned the import of hunting trophies of several species.
However, hunters’ dreams do not only come true in Africa; numerous other countries allow trophy hunting and offer attractive species to kill in wild environments, such as Canada, the USA (Alaska), Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Greenland, Mongolia, etc. Even New Zealand is not too far for hunting tourism.
Critical hunting circles are shaking their heads at the fact that it may not be the hunting experience alone that counts in the end, as trophy hunters like to put forward as an argument in their defence. Why is it more expensive to kill an elephant with imposing tusks than one with smaller teeth? Does “smaller” mean an inferior adventure, less to tell at home? For example, the ibex in the Swiss Alps, actually protected, but shooting to “regulate” the population is allowed under federal supervision. In Valais, Swiss hunters as well as foreign hunters can obtain a day permit (around one hundred permits per year!) to shoot an ibex – depending on the size of the horn, this costs between CHF 10,000 and CHF 20,000. Smaller horn therefore smaller hunting adventure?
Countless travel agencies in Europe specialize in hunting adventures in distant lands. Their tenders are not for hunting-critical minds… There the hundred percent successful polar bear hunt is guaranteed in spring by dog sled, or in autumn by boat along the coast – also this a total hunting success and only still combinable “with Atlantic walrus, that is hunted likewise along the shore”. Off to Canada, the “only country where you can hunt polar bears…, and where there is an opportunity for the Inuit to market their so-called quota to other hunters”, it says very clumsily on the websites.
Jane Goodall, the world-renowned behaviorist, sums up what is so decadent about trophy hunting in an interview with a British magazine, “I just can’t put myself in the shoes of a person who pays thousands of pounds to kill beautiful animals just to boast about their skills as a hunter.
In the early days of the “White Hunter” there was sometimes an element of danger. But today, when animals can be shot from a distance with a high-powered rifle, things are very different. How can anyone take pride in killing these magnificent creatures? Magnificent in life, that is: in death they are only the sad victims of a sadistic desire to excite the admiration of friends. If the hunter is overwhelmed with excitement after the kill and shares that emotion on Facebook, it must surely be the joy of a sick mind.” Numbers to conclude: an estimated one thousand polar bears – legally protected, threatened, endangered – still lose their lives at the hands of humans each year, about 800 of them die from “legal” hunting, and just over 200 are killed by poachers. That makes about 3 polar bears less every day!