Polar bear kills one on Svalbard

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UPDATED: A polar bear has killed a 17-year-old British tourist and moderately or seriously injured four others who were part of a British school trip at the Von Postbreen glacier on the remote island of Spitsbergen, the only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago.

The attack site was being cleared with helicopter over the weekend. PHOTO: Lars Erik Alfheim, Governor of Svalbard

Staff at the governor of Svalbard's office examined the polar bear over the weekend, finding it was a very meager male with little stomach content. PHOTO: Lars Erik Alfheim, Governor of Svalbard

The bear attacked the youths, estimated to be aged between 16 at 20, in their camp, and was shortly after shot by those other members of the 13-member travelling group. Two of the injured were adult leaders of the trip. News agency NTB reports that the authorities under the district governor of Svalbard (or Sysselmann) were informed by satellite telephone of the attack, after which a helicopter was dispatched to take the injured to a hospital in Svalbard’s largest settlement, Longyearbyen.

The injured will then be taken by a hospital plane staffed by a doctor, nurse and neurosurgeon to a facility in Tromsø. The situation was described as “demanding” by Jon Mathisen of the emergency medical clinic at the University Hospital of North Norway when he spoke to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He confirmed that some of the injured had head injuries but stressed that none of them were in danger of losing their lives.

The group of tourists is believed to have come to Svalbard as part of an annual trip organized by the British Schools Exploring Society, NRK reports. A local tour operator, Jon Sandmo, told newspaper VG that the area the group had camped in was “rough and difficult.”

Kjersti Norås, who operates in the tourist industry on Svalbard, described Von Postbreen to VG as a place that is popular with tourists. She added that polar bears were generally “not particularly aggressive” as long as they have enough food, and will not usually seek to eat human beings as “we are too meager.” A researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, Jon Aars, also told VG that “it is very seldom that a polar bear manages to do so much damage before they are shot,” adding that “starved or young bears” are those most likely to attack humans.

Around 3,000 polar bears are believed to live on Svalbard. The last time a polar bear was involved in fatalities on Svalbard was in 1995, when two were killed. Four people have been killed and a further four have been injured by polar bears on Svalbard since 1971. Since 1993, around three polar bears have been killed each year in situations where they had aggressively approached groups of people.

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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