Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Polar Bears!

A helicopter brought a rumor that somewhere between 10 and 100 miles away from my tent, a polar bear was seen and possibly shot (this last point was unclear). As if the wind and 24 hours of light didn’t make it hard enough to sleep.

Polar bears are extremely rare to this part of Greenland. The sea ice the bears hunt from doesn’t ever come this far south and East Greenland, where there are bears and ice, is a few hundred miles away across the ice sheet. But that doesn’t mean bears never come here.

Human encounters with polar bears are almost always deadly for the bear.

In 1997 a bear walked over the Greenland Ice Sheet from East Greenland (possibly through our current camp’s location) and ended up at a radio tower bunkhouse not three miles from my tent. Two men were working there when one sighted the polar bear. He ran into the bunkhouse and in a huge panic, started yelling about a bear. His buddy, probably used to pranks and jokes, laughed and refused to be duped into looking out the window. After a lot of hysterical yelling he did get up to look outside and made what I’m sure was a priceless facial expression. The polar bear was staring at him just outside through a thin pane of glass. The men called for help and the bear was promptly shot.

In 1957, a bear was seen outside of the town of Kangerlussuaq (about 10 miles as the crow flies from camp). Apparently very hungry, it approached a man working outside. The man didn’t have a gun and the bear charged. In some sort of heroic adrenaline packed moment, the man picked up a piece of rebar and smashed the bear over the head as it came at him. The big bear stumbled away, its skull was fractured and it was dying. The man ran home, got his rifle and put the bear out of its misery.

The skins of these bears are on display at the Kangerlussuaq museum along with the piece of rebar used to kill the 1957 bear.

While this daring seems extraordinary, for Greenland’s traditional hunters bravery is just another job requirement.

Here, men and women hunting from kayaks and (unbelievably) dogsleds throw harpoons by hand to kill seals, bears, walruses and whales. For thousands of years, Greenland’s dogsleds have been made twice as long as dogsleds in Alaska or Canada so that hunters can bridge gaps in broken sea ice. Without life jackets or any other sort of floatation device or safety precaution, dog sleds are driven onto the moving sea ice in the dark of winter. The hunters chase pods of narwhals, sometimes several thousand strong, and harpoon them as they breath through gaps in the ice. Men and women wearing polar bear pants pull whales out of the ocean with the help of their dogs.

The wild animals of Greenland are treated with great respect when killed and many Inuit traditions are still followed. Heads of animals are pointed towards the sea and given fresh water so that their spirits can find their way home and be reborn. From what I’ve read, overhunting has rarely if ever been a problem as communities do as they have always done—decide beforehand how many animals can be killed without hurting the population. Other Inuit practices such as not killing polar bears with cubs help ensure there will be enough animals to eat the next season. The fact that all the marine mammals surrounding Greenland have never been extirpated (except by commercial whaling by Europeans and Americans) is in itself a testament to the sustainability of the native hunters.

Incidentally, the main threat to the marine environment in Greenland and the traditional hunters comes from the rest of the world. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have convinced Europe and the U.S. to ban the trade of the skins or meat from sea mammals from Greenland. According to one of our books on Greenland, the price of furs is now so low that one can make more on government handouts being unemployed than by hunting. Adding insult to injury, the world’s air pollution rains out of the sky in the cold arctic air. Mercury, PCBs and DDT are found in alarming amounts in arctic marine mammals, and mercury has been found in horrifying quantities in the breast milk of Inuit mothers. These toxins build in concentration going up the food chain and as the Inuit are at the top of this chain, these people take in the worst of the pollution they are the least responsible for.

A great way to help is to simply use less electricity. Most of the mercury in the atmosphere comes from burring coal, which is how the vast majority of electricity is produced. So turning off the lights after leaving a room is actually something very real everyone can do to help kids in Greenland!

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