Polar bear attack investigated

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The polar bear attack on a group of British tourists on the Svalbard archipelago last Friday – which left one dead and four moderately or severely wounded – is still being investigated by local authorities, as the majority of survivors of the attack returned home over the weekend.

The polar bear responsible for the attack was being examined by authorities. PHOTO: Lars Erik Alfheim / Sysselmannen på Svalbard (Governor of Svalbard)

The attack took place at a tourist camp run by the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES) at the Von Postbreen glacier on the remote island of Spitsbergen, the only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago, which is found north of mainland Norway. The deceased person has been named as 17 year-old Horatio Chapple, while those injured are camp leaders Michael “Spike” Reid (29) and Andrew Ruck (27), and 17 year-old Scott Bennell-Smith and 16 year-old Patrick Flinders.

Came ‘unnoticed’ into camp
Police revealed that the bear was able to break through the “Tripflare” surrounding the camp, which utilizes a system of tripwires to set off flares in the event of an intrusion, without setting off the flares. The local police superintendent, Erik Nygaard, informed newspaper Aftenposten that “the bear therefore came completely unnoticed into the camp and went right towards one of the tents.” The bear attacked Flinders and Chapple in their tent, with Chapple trying to fight the bear as he was dragged outside and eventually killed. When some of the other youths emerged from their tents on hearing a commotion, the bear attacked those that moved, leaving alone those who stood still and remained calm. Flinders had apparently tried to hit the bear in the face while under attack. His father told the BBC that he had received a fractured skull and needed to have bear teeth removed from his head.

Chapple attended the private school Eton, whose alumni include current British Prime Minister David Cameron. In a statement to the BBC from his family, they described him as “strong, fearless and kind.” The trip with the BSES, which counts Prime Minister Cameron among their patrons, costs around £4,000 according to British newspaper The Daily Mail.

‘Extensive’ injuries
The injured were first carried to the main hospital on Svalbard, where a number of immediate surgical procedures had to be carried out, according to Doctor Finn Krohn, simply to “sew together” the deep cuts that many had suffered. A surgeon from the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø, which oversees the facility on Svalbard, was able to assist the procedures using videoconferencing from the mainland. The injured were then taken by hospital plane to Tromsø.

Krohn told newspaper VG that the injuries he treated were “very extensive,” with only two of the injured able to talk with medical personnel at first. One in particular “had 10 to 15 centimeter long cuts to the head,” in addition to “deep claw marks along the back.” He concluded that “several of the injured must certainly expect to go through several face and jaw operations.” The two expedition leaders were felt to have the most serious injuries.

‘Hero’ killed bear
One of the expedition leaders, 29 year-old Michael “Spike” Reid, managed to kill the bear with one shot despite suffering serious head and neck injuries. Reid’s father, Peter Reid, told the BBC that his son had to “get away” and “run in order to fetch a rifle” after being struck by the bear, stating that many had described his son, who works as an events coordinator for the Royal Geographic Society, as a “hero.” Superintendent Nygaard praised Reid’s efforts when speaking to Aftenposten, stating that in such a “difficult situation” it was “commendable that he managed to kill the bear with one shot while 13 young people were around him.” “If he had not managed to kill it then and there, this could have been much worse,” Nygaard concluded.

The office of the local governor of Svalbard or Sysselmann revealed that the polar bear involved in the attack was particularly lean, having an empty stomach and missing normal layers of fat. The bear will now be tested for rabies or other illnesses.

The remaining members of the group had stayed in Svalbard over the weekend, attending a memorial service for Chapple at the church in the city of Longyearbyen before flying home on Sunday. A worker at the local church, Torunn Sørensen, told VG that the church was helping to look after the other expedition members who were “in shock, but taking good care of each other.” “This is a very serious and dramatic situation that touches the whole of the local society,” Sørensen said, adding that it had brought home the “real threat” posed by polar bears.

Security errors
The security set-up of the expedition is now being investigated locally. The head of security at the University of Svalbard, John Ingen Karlsen, told Aftenposten that although the British expedition had correctly pitched their tents at higher altitude and away from the water’s edge, they had made two mistakes, namely that they did not have members on continuous watch for bears, and that the “Tripflare” system they had used had clearly not been set up properly. He revealed that BSES had consulted with university authorities on security matters in the past but had stopped doing so for the most recent trips. As those on university expeditions have only been forced to shoot one bear in the last 15 years, Karlsen commented that, “if you get into a situation where you have to shoot a bear, then you have done something wrong.” Karlsen said, “perhaps it ought to be a demand that all visitors meet up at the Sysselmann‘s office in order to get information” before beginning their trips, particularly those who operate in “Area 10,” which is the area in which the British expedition was based and where it is not required that expeditions report their activities to the Sysselmann.

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.

Local authorities have noticed that more polar bears are coming to or even living permanently in populated areas of Spitsbergen, partly because drift ice has moved closer towards the islands over recent years. Assistant Sysselmann Lars Eirik Alfheim told Aftenposten, “it seems as if polar bears appear more often in areas they have not been previously,” stressing that visitors must therefore be particularly attentive to safety concerns.

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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