A film team working for the BBC on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is being fined NOK 50,000 (nearly USD 10,000) for allegedly disturbing a polar bear mother and her two cubs. Local officials are concerned about the increasing number of film crews, both Norwegian and from abroad, that are perhaps too keen to film the protected polar bears in action.
Newpaper Svalbardposten has reported that filming interest on Svalbard is especially high at this time of year, when the polar bears emerge from hibernation, often with two or three cubs. Several crews and television production firms from the UK, Germany, Italy and Japan are among those applying for permission to film in Svalbard’s national park and nature preserve areas where the bears are a highly protected species.
The team behind the program filmed for the BBC and about to be aired in the US, entitled “The Polar Bear Family and Me,” used a specially built plexiglass cage of sorts that attracted the interest of a mother bear and her cubs, and, reports newspaper Aftenposten, allegedly broke laws against harassing the bears, according to local authorities on Svalbard.
“The cage was used to lure the bears and therefore disturb them, while they film the incident at the same time,” wrote Lars Erik Alfheim, sysselmann (district governor) on Svalbard, wrote in the citation papers, as reported by newspaper Aftenposten.
The film crew was assisted by researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute and reported on the environmental challenges facing the polar bears, but some local commentators had pointed to laws against close contact with the bears, and filming methods that some equate to harassment. Birger Amundsen, editor of Svalbardposten, recently wrote that many who have seen the films “felt strong discomfort” watching how the mother bear reacted to the plexiglass cage, and, in another film sequence, when a mother bear and her cubs appear to be chased by a helicopter filming as they emerged from their den.
Alfheim decided it was time to crack down on filming methods that the authorities claim provoked the bears and thus added to their stress. He noted that if the bear had managed to break into the plexiglass cage used by the BBC crew, it would have been in danger of being shot before it injured the crew members. Alfheim also claimed the violation of environmental laws protecting the bears involved commercial interests.
The film crew is refusing to pay the fine. “I love (the polar bears) and have never plagued, disturbed or injured polar bears,” producer Jason Roberts told Aftenposten. He claimed the law demands use of protective devices that wouldn’t injure the bears, and that’s why they used the cage. The fact that the polar bear mother and her cubs were “curious and roamed 50 meters” towards the cage can’t be construed as plaguing them, Roberts argued.
Jon Aars of the Norwegian Polar Institute worked with Roberts, supports the film crew’s work and clearly thinks the institute benefits from the publicity that TV programs and documentaries can bring. “We know, the BBC knows and everyone else knows that all activity around polar bears can add to their stress,” Aars told Svalbardposten. “For the Norwegian Polar Institute, it’s positive to show the work we’re doing. I know that some people don’t like what we’re doing, but others think it’s fine.”
Roberts was given 14 days to respond to the authorities’ warning of the citation and fine, but made it clear to Aftenposten.no that the fine would not be accepted.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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