Polar bear attacks man on Svalbard

Bookmark and Share

UPDATED: Both a man from the Netherlands and a polar bear that attacked him during the night in a populated area of Svalbard were confirmed dead on Friday. The shocking attack occurred at a campground near Svalbard’s airport in Longyearbyen, and therefore inside an area generally considered to be safe.

As the Barents Observer notes, a polar bear warning sign is the first thing people meet outside the terminal building of Svalbard’s airport in Longyearbyen. The campground where a man was attacked and killed early Friday is located just across from the airport’s parking lot and the road along the shore of the Adventfjord. PHOTO: Barents Observer/Thomas Nilsen

Officials on Svalbard were thus alarmed, reports the Barents Observer, which specializes in covering Arctic issues. It noted how the local governor’s office (Sysselmannen) has recently been using a helicopter to chase away a polar bear and her cub from a cabin across the fjord from Longyearbyen. It’s only outside Longyearbyen’s city limits that people are required to be armed or have armed escorts in case they encounter polar bears that have long been threatened because of melting ice and dwindling food supplies.

Svalbard’s assistant governor, Sølvi Elvedahl, explained the chain of dramatic events during the night in a press release Friday morning:

Police based at the governor’s office received a call for help at 3:50am that a person at the campground had been attacked and injured by a polar bear. The bear was shot by others at the campground but it continued to move towards the adjacent airport.

A police patrol responded and secured the area, while the injured man was rushed to the local hospital in Longyearbyen. He was confirmed dead by the doctor on duty, and the bear was later found dead in a parking lot at the airport.

The Longyearbyen campground is located along the shore of the Adventfjord, with the airport in the background. Its orange tents where the polar bears victim was sleeping can be seen in the center of the photo. PHOTO: Barents Observer/Markku Heikkilä

None of the others at the campground was physically injured, but six of them were also taken to the hospital and attended to by both health care personnel and a crisis team. The victim was later identified by local newspaper Svaldbard-posten as Johan Jacobus Kootte of the Netherlands, who’d been working at the campground referred to as Longyearbyen Camping. It remained unclear whether he’d been attacked inside his tent or outside it, and a police investigation is underway.

The governor’s office cordoned off the area and asked people to stay away from both the campground and airport area. Few tourists have been able to visit Svalbard during the Corona crisis, with Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reporting that some of those staying at the campground were experienced tour guides. Among the six people taken to the local hospital afterwards were three from Germany, while the other three were from Norway, Finland and Italy.

Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher at Norsk Polarinstitutt (the Norwegian Polar Institute) told NRK that little was known yet about the polar bear that attacked the man at the campground. He said, however, that it was most probable the bear was searching for food.

‘Stong reminder’ of polar bear danger on Svalbard
Elvedahl called the attack “tragic,” but added that it was also “a strong reminder that we’re in polar bear territory” on Svalbard, “and must take precautions to remain safe.” She wouldn’t say comment on precautions taken at the campground, or its routines, saying that would be part of the police investigation.

The Barents Observer, meanwhile, reported that the last polar bear attack on Svalbard occurred on islands north of Nordaustlandet in 2018, when a cruise ship guide was wounded but survived. The bear was shot and killed by crew members of the ship, and the incident sparked controversy over how tourism can provoke attacks by hungry polar bears responding to their own natural instincts. The bears have long been a protected species.

The last fatal attack was in 2011, against a group of students camping near Svalbard’s Von Post glacier. One 17-year-old British student was killed and four others injured.

Another polar bear was killed on January 1st this year, after it wandered into Longyearbyen and several attempts to chase it out of town had failed. Another bear also died under sedation while being airlifted out of Longyearbyen last winter to return it to a wilderness area.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund