While most photos taken in the remote islands, located more than 1,200 miles north of Norway, show idyllic scenes of walruses napping on ice floes or reindeer grazing in the middle of town, a picture of a polar bear taken during the weekend has sparked widespread anger.
The bear is seen lying on its side on a gray sand beach. Its mouth is slightly open and a dark crimson smear stains the white fur around its neck. It’s dead — shot “for reasons of self-defense” after attacking a Hapag-Lloyd Cruises employee who went ashore to survey the land, the German cruise line said in a statement posted to Facebook on Saturday.
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises said its ship, the MS Bremen, was docked at one of the archipelago’s islands preparing for shore leave when the attack happened. The ship can carry up to 155 passengers and has been awarded four stars by the 2018 Berlitz Cruise Guide, according to the company’s website.
Part of the preparations included sending a four-person team of “polar bear guards,” experts assigned to expedition cruises by law, to “set up a land station and check the area again to make sure that there are no polar bears in sight,” the statement said. If polar bears are spotted, shore leave is not allowed.
While on shore, one member of the team was “unexpectedly attacked by a polar bear that had not been spotted and he was unable to react himself,” according to the statement.
“As the attempts of the other guards to evict the animal, unfortunately, were not successful, there had to be intervention for reasons of self-defense and to protect the life of the attacked person,” the statement said.
The Joint Rescue Coordination for Northern Norway tweeted confirming an attack had taken place and the polar bear was shot and killed.
The guard suffered injuries to his head, Negar Etminan, a spokeswoman for the cruise line, told the Associated Press. According to the company’s statement, the man was airlifted by rescue helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he is in stable condition and “remains responsive.”
“We very much regret this incident,” the statement said. “Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is very aware of its responsibility when traveling in environmentally-sensitive areas and respects all nature and wildlife.”
Polar bears are classified as vulnerable by the World Wildlife Fund. Climate change is threatening their sea ice habitat, and their current global population ranges from 22,000 to 31,000, according to the WWF.
The image of the dead polar bear provoked fierce outcry on social media, with many criticizing the cruise line for intruding on the bear in its natural habitat and calling for boycotts. The bear’s death, which some have called “heartbreaking” and “needless,” has reignited concerns over tourism and its potential to disrupt the environments of remote areas.
“‘Let’s get too close to a polar bear in its natural environment and then kill it if it gets too close.’ Morons,” English comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted.
“This #polarbear home was invaded from tourists from the Cruise Ship MS Bremen,” biologist Daniel Schneider wrote on Twitter. “Here’s a thought. Why not look at the bears from afar and leave them alone.”
Others, however, argued that killing the bear was the right thing to do because it saved the man’s life.
One Twitter user wrote that people who are taking the bear’s side “need to have their heads examined.”
“The life of a person is more important than a polar bear,” another person tweeted.
While polar bear attacks are rare, this is not the first time a person has been injured by the bears in the Svalbard islands. It is also not unusual for the animals to be killed as a result.
“This great predator has little respect for humans and dangerous situations can easily arise if people get too close,” according to the Norwegian Polar Institute, a government institution charged with researching the Arctic. “Almost every year a polar bear is killed in Svalbard after confrontations with humans or because of safety perspective in the settlements.”
In 1995, there were at least two deaths in the Svalbard islands caused by polar bear attacks. More recently, a group of students was attacked in 2011 while on an adventure trip sponsored by the British Exploring Society, a U.K.-based youth development charity. A 17-year-old was killed and four others were injured.
The archipelago’s polar bear population has increased significantly since 1973, when hunting them was banned after a century of over-exploitation, according to the Norwegian Polar Institute.
About 3,000 polar bears call the islands home. By comparison, Svalbard’s human population is around 2,400.
Given the large number of bears, seeing one is not uncommon. Various visitors’ websites and cruise guides feature prominent safety warnings and lengthy precautions people should take.
On its polar bear information page, the Svalbard’s visitors site has an all-caps caution that reads, “POLAR BEARS ATTACK EXTREMELY QUICKLY WITHOUT WARNING. BE ACCOMPANIED BY A GUIDE OR A LOCAL WITH A FIREARM WHEN LEAVING THE SETTLEMENTS.”
Similarly, the Norwegian Polar Institute also recommends being prepared with everything ranging from flare guns to big-game rifles.
When encountering a polar bear, people should make themselves visible and try to scare it away by making loud noises, such as shouting or clapping, the visitors’ site advises. If the bear is within 50 meters, a warning shot from a signal pistol or rifle should be fired.
In a Q&A for Polar Bears International, a nonprofit conservation group, Tom Smith, a professor of biological sciences at Brigham Young University, said while the odds of an attack are low, “they aren’t zero” and taking the proper precautions could mean the difference between life and death.
“It’s important to remember that polar bears are very curious,” Smith said. “In a world of ice blocks and ice holes, anything else gets their attention.”