Arctic polar bear attacks: protect your head
“A crushing head blow is a lethal injury for seals”
It happened 11 years ago outside Kimmirut, six years ago in Ivujivik and just last December in Igloolik.
This past July it happened again in Nunavik: a polar bear nearly tore someone’s head off.
Alice Annanack and her husband, Tommy Baron, were camping near Kangiqsualujjuaq in late July when a young polar bear jumped on Annanack’s back and bit through the top of her head.
The bear slashed open her scalp and came just millimetres away from piercing her skull and entering her brain.
“When I turned around there was a polar bear,” said Annanack, from her hospital bed at the Montreal General Hospital, in a video posted on the Montreal Gazette website. “He only had to walk two steps to reach me, that’s how close he was.”
“My husband couldn’t shoot the bear when he wanted because the polar bear’s head was always around my head,” added Annanack.
Eventually, Baron managed to fire a shot into the bear’s hind leg, causing the animal to release his wife. He then shot the polar bear in the head and killed it.
As shocking as this story is, it’s a familiar one in the North, where every few years there seems to be an incident of someone narrowly surviving a polar bear attack.
In Igloolik last December, a group of hunters looking for their cache of aged walrus meat were attacked by a polar bear with cubs.
The scene could have ended badly for the men but 58-year-old John Arnatsiaq shoved a hammer in the mother bear’s mouth, giving another member of the group time to shoot the menacing bears.
There is the famous 2006 story from Ivujivik, when tiny Lydia Angyiou tackled a polar bear that was threatening her son and his two friends playing hockey outside the community’s youth center.
And in July 1999, a polar mauled an elderly woman to death at a camp near Baker Lake. Her grandson received severe lacerations to his head and face but survived.
Attacks are not limited to Nunavut and Nunavik. Gruesome pictures from a 2006 polar bear attack in the Yukon show a man’s scalp split apart like an opened book.
Why do polar bears always go for the head?
“A crushing head blow is a lethal injury for seals,” said Geoff York, a polar bear expert with the World Wildlife Fund. “But seals have fairly thin skulls that are easy to crush. Fortunately, ours are a bit thicker.”
Despite these ferocious attacks, polar bears aren’t nearly as aggressive as other bears, said York. “There are far more attacks and far more attacks with significant human negative outcomes with brown and black bears than there are with polar bears,” he explained.
Brown and black bears in North America typically kill a handful of people each year, while in the United States there has only been one polar bear death in the last 100 years, said York.
Part of the reason is brown and black bears are more territorial than polar bears, which live on shifting ice floes that are always moving and changing, explained York.
Brown and black bears also show up on popular trails and in suburban backyards, where people are not as accustomed to dealing with large predatory animals.
But York worries that with more people headed to the Arctic for mining and tourism, polar bear attacks could be on the rise across Nunavut. “There will be more people,” said York, “and they will be less knowledgeable.”
In the summer of 2001, four tourists from Quebec were attacked by a polar bear while camping in Katannilik Territorial Park outside Kimmirut.
But these were medical professionals with significant outdoor experience.
One man jabbed a tiny knife, just 10 centimetres long, into the bear’s neck. Even though one of their group nearly had his jugular severed by the bear, all four were able to canoe back to Kimmirut for help.
Not all polar bear stories end so well. Last year, on the island of Svalbard, off the coast of Norway, a group of British teenagers on a camping trip were attacked by a polar bear.
It grabbed one by his head and killed another before a guide could finally get a shot off and kill the bear. The tour company was later criticized for their negligence: the explosive trip wire meant to warn people of bears failed and there was no night watchman on duty.
Another pressing question is whether climate change and reduced sea ice conditions in the Arctic are causing polar bears to attack more.
York explained that less ice does not mean a wave of hungry bears will be coming ashore, but there will be more incidents of hungry bears wandering around communities.
“There is every reason to believe given what’s happening with sea ice in the summertime that we’re likely to see more polar bears showing up around human settlements and for longer periods of time,” said York.
With more tourists headed to the Arctic this could pose a problem, but there is a bright side.
“You have this well of traditional knowledge on polar bear behavior that people can draw on,” said York.
“Tour operators should be looking to communities to make sure their tour guides have discussions with hunters prior to starting up their tour season. Or better yet, they should hire local hunters to be their tour guides.”