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Walking With Polar Bears

Walking With Polar Bears

Getting up close and personal with the world’s largest carnivores warmed Geetika Jain’s heart in the freezing north of Hudson Bay, Canada. Along with adventure, and sheer joy, she is left with reflections and anxiety for the fragility of their harsh, but exquisite world.

These many years Sanctuary has focused its articles almost exclusively on Asia, but clearly the world is getting smaller and hotter, and climate change issues are best exemplified by the fate of the Arctic and Antarctic. This is why we requested author Geetika Jain to send us this piece, to remind us of the beauty and the fragility of the only planet capable of hosting life as we know it.

The exemplary diversity of wildlife along Canada’s Hudson Bay includes a population of almost 800 polar bears and more than 500,000 of their staple prey, the ringed seals. Photo: Anjali Singh 

I am on the western edge of Canada’s Hudson Bay, an enormous semi-enclosed sea that freezes up each winter. It is early November; last year this week the temperature hovered around 50 C, but this year it’s exceptionally cold and I’m discovering what minus 350 C feels like. The wind, they say, is the fiercest creature of the north. I feel its ferocious malintent as it roars and yowls; it feels as if it is out to snuff my candle. I’m strait-jacketed by layers of cladding, my fogged ski-goggles are blinding me and my extremities have learnt to scream silently in pain. Yet, my excitement is unabated. We are on the lookout for the earth’s largest land carnivore, a charismatic hunter evolved perfectly to thrive in the Arctic winter – Ursus maritimus, the polar bear.

There are around 25,000 polar bears in the circumpolar region according to Polar Bear International, and 60 per cent of them have locational fidelity to Canadian lands. Right here, at 57 degrees north, the Hudson Bay is the world’s most southerly home to a population of around 800 bears. We counted 28 of them flying low in a bush plane from the town of Churchill to Nanuk, a remote lodge run by Churchill Wild. We saw giant solitary males kicking up snow dust as they ran, sparring sub-adults and gently padding females with cubs, all along the edge of the bay, heading north, waiting for it to freeze so they can hunt seals that haul up on to the ice.

IN CANADA’S WILDERNESS

This region of Canada is replete with wildlife; there are over 800 ringed seals in Hudson Bay, as well as bearded seals. In the summer, enormous pods of beluga whales and even orcas arrive to feed on the ample fish. On the land surrounding the bay, where we are, the boreal forests of spruce and larch harbour wildlife such as caribou, moose, black bears, red foxes, beavers and wolves. Its meadows are nesting grounds of tens of thousands of Canada Geese. More often than not a grizzly makes an appearance. Further north, where I’m headed next, the treeless tundra is home to arctic foxes, blue foxes, wolverines, innumerable lemmings, squirrel-like sik-siks, ermine, Ptarmigans and Snowy Owls. Canada was first populated with the lure of hunting and trapping, and even today, a local can acquire a hunting licence with ease. The Inuit, whose livelihood once depended on hunting, are given around 400 polar bear tags each year, many of which are sold to wealthy American hunters from across the border. Although polar bears are not on the ‘endangered’ list, they’re officially labelled ‘threatened‘ and thankfully the USA won’t allow the import of their pelts, which helps dampen the enthusiasm for garnering trophies.

This stretch of the Bay has gotten ever friendlier towards bears. The once busy York Factory (a fur trading company) shut down as synthetics replaced furs. The Inuit and Cree Indians moved inland, and the Canadian army departed, leaving the bears undisturbed. Enter Churchill Wild and their family-run lodges that have created a hugely successful safari experience. Owner Mike Reimer realised a long time ago that these polar bears were not aggressive, just plain curious. With this dawning began the unlikely business of ‘engaging’ with the bears. On foot. This is the only place in the world this is known to happen. I could’t wait.

Nanuk Lodge, an intimate eight-room, sienna coloured, wood clad abode is 300 km. from the nearest dirt road. The lounge is a cosy affair with a roaring fire where one can enjoy impossibly delicious meals and post dinner presentations by vibrant, young guides.Through the giant windows that span the entire lodge we constantly spot birds: Whiskey Jacks, ravens and flocks of Ptarmigans in their snow-white winter pelage. Sunsets, the colour of mulled wine, linger for hours, and the theatrical northern lights set the sky ablaze on clear, cloudless nights. In front of the lodge, the bay heaves gently, its edges crusted with hummocks and dunes of ice.  A running lace of burgundy willow bushes shelters a herd of willow coloured moose with enormous antlers. Behind me, beyond the open compound protected with a mesh wire are freshwater rivers, now frozen, and a forest of spruce trees, their laden branches nodding with the falling snow. One of my most memorable moments is spent standing on the lookout tower, watching a pack of 24 wolves, black, grey and tawny, running straight towards us.

Yesterday’s drives on a wagon behind quad-bike and a taller custom-built contraption called a ‘rhino’ had taken us across white, snow-covered flats where we shattered the ice loudly as we crossed the semi-frozen, growling rivers. The challenge was getting unstuck from masses of granular ice pits (a common Canadian pass-time, I’m told) and the reward, a sighting of a butter coloured bear in the distance between the low willow and the taller trees, whose enormous heft and pigeon-toed walk were the first things I noticed.

A nimble-footed Arctic fox makes its way around mounds of ice. Photo: Anjali Singh 

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH A CHARISMATIC PREDATOR

My friends, Anjali Singh and Tara Lal, and I are rushing to get our layers on, for Derek, the head guide had just announced that a bear is bedded down a short walk away, and we’re going over to see it. Three guides are accompanying a dozen guests, equipped with a series of bear deterrents; two rocks to bang together, pepper spray, bangers and screamers and 12-gauge guns. We are to stick together and obey instructions, and they add with a wink, “we really are in no mood to do the masses of paperwork in case of an incident”. Before long my boots are crunching the snow, and within 20 minutes we pause. A snow-dune with black eyes and nose lifts its head to whiff at us, a line-up of humans a hundred metres away. Tripods are lowered, cameras are set, and rapid-fire volley of clicks ensue each time the huge mass of white moves. Our bear rests his massive head gently on his folded paws and closes his eyes. Derrick waves us in closer each time his head is down. Now we’re within 50 m. of him, and we wait patiently, observing him. The bear they recognise from his battle-scars as ‘Sumo’ yawns, then languidly rolls on his back, slow-paddles with his arms and legs, stretches, turns and slides on his chest before standing up and starting to walk towards us. The three guides step forward, communicating that we are not prey by not acting like prey. “Good morning, Mister Bear!” says Derrick loudly and confidently. “Don’t you look handsome today!” Then pointing towards us – “Here’s that hunk of meat you ordered. Which one of them takes your fancy?” Derrick’s voice is enough to stop all 550 kg. of Sumo in his tracks. I’m enthralled, and completely unafraid as there’s nothing predatory about his body language; no irascible expression or irate vocalisation despite us encroaching his cosy space in the tangle of willow. Sumo’s ultra-slow and comical movements are rapidly endearing him to me, and his padded, cuddly form belies his ferocity and agility. As he comes closer, we’re herded to the side. I notice the long guard hairs on his elbows, the balls of snow entangled in his feet, his long dark tongue, and his muscular chest and forearms. Sumo smells the air and ground where we stood a few moments ago, and then collapses his front legs and begins slithering towards us, on his chest. Under his loose garb, he’s turned into a seal. Inuit lore is replete with creatures changing form, and I can see how such notions take hold. A stern barrage from Derrick, and Sumo gets up, and slowly walks away.

The treeless tundra poses its own desert charm and fierceness with temperatures falling below minus 35o C and bone-chilling winds reminding us why the north pole is among the harshest of landscapes. Photo: Anjali Singh

A couple of days later, we fly to Seal River Lodge, 30 minutes north of Churchill. This time we’re in a different biome, the treeless tundra. From the enormous windows of the lodge, located on a peninsula right besides Hudson Bay we see a series of polar bears come and go through the buckled ice over a handful of days. They often walk along the periphery of the lodge, relishing the scent from the kitchen, even standing straight up to take a good look inside. Nimble-footed arctic foxes zig-zag through the mounds of snow-coated rocks and wave-pounded pressure-ridges of ice. An explosion in the numbers of these foxes reflects a strong lemming population this year. For most of the season, June to October, these areas are ice-free, and the same wildlife is viewed with a backdrop of grasses, flowers and berry bushes. The arctic foxes and Ptarmigans are brown then, so they meld easily with the undergrowth.

Andy McPherson leads us on long walks over crunchy snow fields, slippery lakes and the water’s scrunched up edge. Here too, we stop and observe bears and they regularly walk up to us, veering away when Andy speaks to them. He’s never had to deploy the gun. Smacking two stones together is the most he does when a female hovers too close, and that sound is enough to get her moving.

I asked Andy if the bears behave differently in the hunting areas further north. “Yes,” he said, “they do behave differently depending on how they’re treated by the local people. Where they are still hunted, feared and misunderstood, which is most of the Arctic, the bears will go to great lengths to avoid people. I’ve worked in areas where the sound of a snowmobile or a machine sends them running for the floe edge and safety.”

In some of the other places I’ve visited, such as Svalbard, Iceland and Greenland, people are ready to shoot polar bears if they come ashore. The idea of polar bear tourism, other than from the safety of cruise ships, hasn’t taken hold.

The polar bears of Hudson Bay remind me of other anomalies; grey whales that crave human contact in the San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, California, yet completely avoid people in boats once they leave it, and the leopards of Jawai, Rajasthan, that have peacefully co-existed alongside the villagers for centuries (although without engaging with them).

This year, the freeze happened early, ensuring food for the famished bears that have been in a state of ‘walking hibernation’ since June, when they came off the melting floes. With the warming, the summers have grown longer, and if the ice were to be delayed much longer, they wouldn’t make it. The unravelling at the seam has started, and less ice inevitably means blacker Arctic waters that trap more heat from the sun, leading to faster melting ice that leads to blacker Arctic waters…

‘Sumo’, the 550 kg. polar bear identified by the scars on its body, was the one the author had the privilege to see upclose on foot in the presence of expert guides. Photo: Anjali Singh

To have come away falling in love with Sumo was inevitable, as was the realisation of the fragility of his world. The north is so much richer for him.

POLAR BEARS VS. CLIMATE CHANGE

As atmospheric temperatures continue to rise, snow lines will continue to shift toward high altitudes. Glaciers will receive more liquid precipitation and less snow. This will cause glacial retreat. Scientists say that climate change is a result of human activity and is responsible for the loss of at least 75 per cent of the summer sea ice volume at rates never before witnessed in human history. This means that the Arctic Ocean will become open water like other oceans for a majority of the year. This will result in catastrophic climate impacts across the globe.  It is time that politicians and planners display greater responsibility and lend protection to this fragile habitat and the endangered species that cling on to survival therein.

* The polar bear Ursus maritimus is the only species of bear and one of only five animal species under the Order Carnivora to be designated as a marine mammal.

* Polar bears have adapted to their ice-laden North Pole environment by relying largely on sea ice to hunt, locomote and disperse. The rapid melting and a sharp decline of Arctic sea ice is the biggest threat to their survival. According to some estimates, by 2050, the polar bear population could drop by over 60 per cent.

Such intimate polar bear tourism, as the author points out, hasn’t yet caught on but has great potential. However, it must be strictly monitored and sustainable so it can benefit wildlife conservation. Photo: Anjali Singh

FACT FILE

The Hudson Bay is the second largest Bay after the Bay of Bengal.

Polar bears are found in five countries – Canada, USSR, USA (Alaska), Norway (Svalbard) and Denmark (Greenland).

To experience polar bears on foot, book with one of Churchill Wild’s lodges. Churchill Wild – www.churchillwild.com (Tel.: 1 866 846 9453)

The enthralling northern lights in the sky dance over a lodge in Churchill Wild where family-run lodges provide tourists with a unique wildlife safari experience, the only place in the world where you can walk on foot in the vicinity of polar bears. Photo: Anjali Singh

Author: Geetika Jain, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 2, February 2018.

 
 
 

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