Responsible bear watching vacations

The bear necessities of life will come to you the minute you embark on a bear watching vacation. First and foremost, bears like wilderness. They are solitary creatures and so the big rule is to respect that when possible. You are entering their territory here. And so, responsible bear watching vacations probably start before you leave home. We encourage you to do your research before you leave, so that you gain an early understanding of the species’ history on the planet, whether it is still endangered, whether it is still hunted, and conservation organisations that are striving to protect it if it is. By respecting bears, understanding how they live, you won’t have any problem in sticking to the other big rule. Be safe. Forget Winnie, Goldilocks and Baloo. You don’t mess with bears.

People & culture

Hunting: preserving culture or preserving species?

In Canada and North America, polar bear hunting is still legal for the indigenous people known as Alaska Natives in the USA and First Peoples in Canada. The more specific tribal names are the Inuit of northern Alaska and Canada, or the Yupik of Central Alaska. This is regulated by the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (the Oslo Agreement) and the allocation of hunting permits is based on regular monitoring of the populations, and quotas are then assigned to the communities. The hunting of polar bear – as well as of other species, including seals and whales – is a strong tradition for native populations, and every part of the animal is used – from the fur to the meat and the fat. And selling hides, for example, is a vital source of income for many people.
In Canada, communities are also permitted to sell on their quotas to non-native hunters which is, understandably, quite controversial. Permits are sold as part of a package – including several days’ food, transport and lodging – and the hunter must be accompanied by a native guide. With the experience costing tens of thousands of dollars, this is no small business for the Inuit, and many have come to depend on the income from hunters to remain in their ancestral lands, even as the sea ice melts and subsistence hunting becomes tougher. Although the hides are usually bagged by the hunters, the Inuit will still eat and preserve all the meat.
It is worth noting that approximately 75 percent of the polar bears legally killed in Canada are taken by hunters from the United States, due to the fact that the Inuit sell their hunting permits - and the taking of trophies, i.e. heads, paws, claws and skins was the norm. Until 2013, when the US government banned the importation of such trophies which was, hopefully, a step in the right direction to putting a stop to trophy hunting.
Hunting is also part of the ongoing management of the polar bear populations which are straying ever closer to inhabited areas. And just to face reality, hunting brown and black bears is still a big way of life, and money earner, for many people around the world, from sausage makers to taxidermists.

What you can do
We don’t advocate trophy hunting for tourists, but visitors should be aware that it is a traditional way of life in many parts of the world, and particularly for the indigenous people of the Arctic regions – and one which has been sustainable for thousands of years. Consequently, as a visitor to an Inuit community, you should travel with an open mind, and engage with your hosts to learn more about subsistence living in the Arctic. And also, know that by taking a polar bear watching vacation, you are part of that process that reminds people that polar bears are worth more alive than dead.
Mary Curry, from our supplier Adventure Life, shares her responsible travel advice for people visiting local communities in Canada: “For some people it can be very upsetting to see a skinned polar bear or a skull hanging up on someone’s doorstep – but that’s a common sight. Hunting wildlife that we would consider to be borderline endangered is legal by native people in some of these regions – narwhal, polar bear, even bowhead whales. So it’s important that people are aware that this is a subsistence culture and that hunting is very much key to their life.”

Tom Brown from our supplier, Natural World Safaris:
“Hunting isn’t a risk to polar bear population numbers anymore. The biggest risk to the polar bear is global warming and the loss of ice.”

Environment & wildlife

Bear baiting (not the blood sport)

Let’s be clear. We are not talking about the blood sport of bear baiting, when bears were tied up and left to be torn to shred by dogs. Now banned throughout the world, it does still happen illegally. Such as in the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan, with Asiatic black bears and brown bears being poached for this purpose and wildlife organisations such as World Animal Protection are working on putting a stop to these horrific practices.
We are talking about, literally, leaving bait for bears, in order that they are enticed out of the woods to be observed more closely by us humans, who are waiting in our warm hides to see them in action. Mostly used in Finland and Romania for tourism purposes, it has been the traditional practice of hunters for centuries of course, and still is – albeit regulated. In Finland, however, the use of carrion for hunting purposes has been banned. It still allows the use of wild carrion, such as from racoons or foxes, for wildlife watching purposes, as the bears would not come out into the open without this bait and it is believed that this growth market of seeing bears alive and thriving, has decreased illegal poaching of bears. However, using bait is controversial, as it interferes with the natural behaviour and feeding patterns, and may lead to more conflict with humans, as bears go in search of food ‘left out’ by people.
What you can do
Talk to your tour operator about the practice of leaving bait, if it has decreased the amount of local poaching, if it has resulted in more bear-human conflict. The statistics are hard to find, and so often it is only through discussion and engagement that we can gain more understanding, and improve our practices, as responsible travelers. You can also keep an eye Wild Taiga, a Finnish organisation endeavouring to create a Code of Conduct for responsible wildlife watching, which is still a work in progress.

Responsible tourism tips

Safety is really one of the key issues when it comes to being a responsible bear watcher. Polar bears are very dangerous. Just look at the polar vehicles that take tourists out across the tundra in Churchill, Canada, and you will see that no risks are being taken. Similarly, it is up to tourists to not take any risks either. And this applies to brown, black or polar bear watching. Always listen to your guides. They are experts. Do not dawdle to get a good photograph. It is not worth it. And if you are hiking in bear country, follow all the rules too. You can read more about these on Yellowstone National Park’s website, a font of information on how to be safe around bears. The main ones are: keep all food hidden, concealed and locked away when possible; walk in groups and make plenty of noise in bear country; do not turn your back on a bear and run but back away slowly; carry pepper spray for emergencies. Support the work of the WWF, which is campaigning to stop the building of pipelines from the Alberta tar sands to the British Columbia coast. This would not only bisect the Great Bear Rainforest, transporting toxic oil sands bitumen across the precious salmon streams where not only salmon but bears thrive, but also necessitate the presence of hundreds of oil tankers off this coastline. Cruise ships have been an issue to date in the Arctic waters, not uncommon when rare wildlife can be seen in abundance. However, progress has been made on that front in the Svalbard archipelago, Norway, where they have woken up to the fact that excess cruising can only mean a bruising. From this year, only small cruise boats, or ribbed inflatables will be able to access the wilder spots, thanks to a heavy fuel ban (HFO) coming into effect. Around Svalbard there is also a lot of coastal debris washed up from all over the place, and there are trips that you can do to pick up litter – that is the aim of the trip. Ask your tour operator if they can look into this on a tailor made basis as they will generally know about them. In Svalbard, cruise companies should be working with and following guidelines laid down by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). Talk to your tour operator about this before booking. If they aren’t members of AECO, it is most likely that they work with organisations on the ground that are members. But it is worth visiting the AECO website anyway, as it has a lot of useful information and videos.
Tom Brown from Natural World Safaris:
“It isn’t scary when you go grizzly or black bear watching. They aren’t scary animals. The key thing is that you are always with expert guides who are so fully aware of the bears’ movements, what they are likely to do and when they are likely to do it, you are always in safe hands. And to be honest, brown and black bears are not massively interested in humans. Guides do have pepper spray just in case, but with these bears it isn’t the same as with the polar bears, where the guides have rifles.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Katmai National Park and Preserve] [Inuit hunter: Polar Cruises] [Bear feeding: Arend]