Sunday, November 20, 2011
Churchill Polar Bears 12th November 2011: Regrets
Today a small group of us took a private trip to the old dump, fuelled by antipathy to shopping and an obsession about photography. Our justification for this spur of the moment decision was to find out more about the situation there, and discover whether the chaos we had observed from the bus a couple of days earlier was typical. It’s important to note that this second visit was not sanctioned by The Great Bear Foundation, who always ensure that viewing is ethical and low impact (indeed this is the reason why you should use this organisation above all others if you decide to view polar bears).
The taxi driver who took us there, a long standing Churchill resident, did at least have concern for our safety, asking us to stay in car, and he didn’t harass any bears. However we saw a considerable number of tourists at the dump, many unguided, and witnessed one incident that we strongly suspected was bear bating (an animal approached a vehicle very closely after apparently being offered food). I saw stress responses from bears, and some vehicles appeared to have no appreciation of the need to give the bears space, driving right up to them rather than giving the bears the choice of whether to approach.
I regret this second visit to the dump deeply, and it would even have preferable to go out on tundra buggy trip, despite my reservations about that industry. There is no supervision or signage at the dump, and if this situation continues, it is only a matter of time until a tragedy occurs. Unfortunately it is in the economic interests of some in Churchill for even unethical polar bear tourism to continue, and so it is the responsibility of outsiders to urge the authorities to take action to control this sad situation. This may sound hypocritical advice, but if you go to Churchill yourself, do not support this unofficial tourist trade by going there yourself.
Earlier today we saw bears waiting to get out on the ice, as Chuck put it ‘lined up like cigars in a box on the kelp bed dreaming about hunting seals’. There is still no ice, and instead of hunting, the bears were sleeping in willows, walking up and down the beach, or foraging for grain at the dump site. This year there have been reports of bating throughout town, including at Bird Cove, and there is much work still to be done to increase awareness and galvanise the Manitoba authorities into action.
As we left the Northern Studies Centre for the last time, and then boarded the train south, I felt deep sadness that the trip was ending, comforted only by the fact that the adventure with the Great Bear will not be my last.
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