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When Polar Bear Becomes a Threat

Exhibition in the Arctic can be dangerous. Cold, ice and predators leave little room for human errors. Seeing a polar bear is something many hopes when traveling to arctic but an encounter with one might be your last. A typical scientist won't ever see a polar bear live, especially if working at towns, like Longyearbyen. Yet, the climate change and the diminishing ice sheets are driving polar bears closer to human habitats - and those bears are curios animals. Sometimes encounters cannot be avoided.

Before going further, let it be made clear that polar bears are highly endangered species and hunting them is considered a crime. Clearly, we humans are the bigger threat to polar bears than they to us. Still, if you cannot avoid them, distract them or scare them away, you'll have to be able to protect your life. Scientists working outside villages need a dedicated polar bear watcher who knows how to handle a riffle. We, who operate aircraft instruments in the arctic, cannot spare precious seats for a specialised hunter, so when needed (in the case of an emergency landing to ice sheet) one of us needs to be able to deal with any polar bear threats.

A polar bear in considered a threat to your life if its 30 m or closer to you and not showing any intentions to back out. Only in such situation shooting is allowed. But to shoot, you need to know how to handle a riffle and how to aim. Both exercises we practised on a two-day polar bear safety course organised by the Alfred-Wegener-Institut.

I've never shot anything bigger than a small hand gun before and certainly nothing firing bullets with calibers needed to bring down a bear. With shaking legs I took the riffle in my hand and loaded it with hard ammunition. The target was a painted real-size polar bear standing 30 m away on a military shooting range. I was told to aim at the nose, which would lead the bullet to reach the heard, as attacking polar bear tend to lover their head. I took the first shot, reloaded, the second shoot. Eleven shots all together, eight kills, two severe injuries and one miss. I guess the point of the exercise was to show that 30 meters away you rarely miss a target as big as a polar bear. After the 11 shots, I'm no hunter but I could protect my crew. Though I really hope that the target bear is the only bear I'll be shooting.

Thanks Elen for the photos!

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