The fourth polar bear in three years landed in Iceland last month. This one swam ashore in Iceland’s remote Westfjord region and was spotted roaming the countryside of Hælavík. Much like its predecessors, the bear was promptly shot and killed.
While polar bears have never been welcome in Iceland, they have until recently been a rare visitor. When the pair arrived in 2008, it had been two decades since a polar bear stepped foot in the country. As the polar ice cap melts, however, an increasing number of polar bears are drifting south via iceberg and inevitably some of them wind up swimming ashore to Iceland. Given that these majestic creatures are now considered an endangered species by countries like the United States and Canada, Iceland’s actions have been quite controversial.
In response to the latest killing, members of The Best Party stepped up their private campaign to bring a polar bear to the zoo. The government, however, has left many wondering about the official game plan. In the following interview, Minister for the Environment Svandís Svavarsdóttir explains Iceland’s polar bear policy and discusses the viability of alternatives.
Iceland killed another polar bear last month. Can you explain the rationale behind killing the bears that wind up swimming ashore to Iceland?
The law says that polar bears are protected unless they pose a threat to humans or livestock. That threat has been cited in cases of polar bears that have been shot. Polar bear landings in Iceland have been rare in recent decades; when a bear was spotted in Skagi in 2008 there had not been a sighting on land for over 20 years. It is therefore not a common occurrence, and always causes a stir and calls for quick action by local authorities.
Who has the final say when it comes down to it? Who says, okay we have to kill this polar bear’?
It is in the hands of local authorities responsible for people’s safety. Three of the four bears killed in Iceland this century have been shot by local police, which have the authority to do that if they judge it to be a threat. One was shot by a local farmer, which spotted an animal near a small town, before authorities arrived on the scene.
What about international pressure to stop killing polar bears? For instance, the US has put the polar bear on an endangered species list. How do you feel about that?
Polar bears are endangered, mainly because of the long-term threat to their sea-ice habitat due to climate change. The conservation of polar bears is governed by the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which is administered by the five nations whose territory is inhabited by polar bears: Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the USA. There are some estimated 22.000 wild polar bears in the world; yet, hundreds are killed every year in a legal way under the confines of that agreement. In that context it is clear that the fate of stray polar bears in Iceland has no effect on the survival of the species, although we can and should have concern over the individual animals that come ashore here.
Some argue that they should be tranquillised and shipped off to Greenland. Is that an option? Have Iceland and Greenland communicated on this?
The Ministry for the Environment has contacted authorities in Greenland regarding this option and commissioned an expert group to study that option, as well as others. Greenlandic authorities allow the hunting of about 50 polar bears in East Greenland each year, which they deem to be a safe limit for the stock. They have told us that they fail to see the rationale behind shipping stray polar bears alive from Iceland to Greenland, given that this is a rare occurrence and has no effect on the species and its survival. Less than 1% of the bears of the East Greenland stock that have been shot in the last decade have been killed in Iceland. If stray bears are shipped back alive, we would have to ensure that they would be transported away from a threat of being legally shot in Greenland.
The expert group concluded that the chances of catching a polar bear alive were highly uncertain due to a number of circumstances. It requires that the bear can be quickly contained so it poses no threat, that a trained crew with a tranquiliser gun arrives quickly on the scene in a helicopter, that the bear does not enter the sea after being hit with a tranquiliser, and that it can be quickly put in a robust cage. Then it needs to be checked if the bear is healthy enough for a long transport (two of the three bears did not fit that bill) and then it needs to be transported quickly over a long distance.
What’s the plan for the next polar bear landing then?
The local authorities will make the first call. People’s safety must come first. An action team of relevant authorities will be called together in the event of a bear sighting to coordinate efforts. If local authorities deem the bear not to be a threat and the animal is contained alive within a safe parameter, attempts can be made to catch it alive and ship it to Greenland. It must be noted, of course, that the expert team concluded that the chances of a successful rescue operation are highly uncertain.
What do you think of ‘The Reykjavík Polar Bear Project’, which is against killing the bears and claims to target yourself and Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir?
I welcome grassroots movements that show concern for the environment and wild animals. We need more of them and we need stronger environmental NGOs in Iceland. Of course, I would like them to study the context and challenges that a successful polar bear rescue operation faces.
So do you think Jón Gnarr can successfully bring a polar bear to the zoo?
He can if he wants to. The logical way to go about this is to ask one of the five countries that have polar bear populations, or foreign zoos, about the animal and then prepare a spacious and safe den for it. It seems like an odd way to get an animal for a zoo to wait for a stray bear that could come next month but perhaps not for another decade or two. And then hope that a mission to catch it alive succeeds. And then start preparing a decent den—nobody wants to see a majestic animal like a polar bear confined in a small cage.
But of course the Mayor of Reykjavík also promised to break his campaign promises. He will be a man of his word in one way or another.
The Reykjavík Polar Bear Project
The Reykjavík Polar Bear Project is a non-profit headed by Best Party Mayor Jón Gnarr, Best Party Manager Heiða Kristín Helgadóttir and arctic law expert Húni Hallsson. While Jón Gnarr campaigned on the promise to bring a polar bear to the zoo, the group officially launched the project, www.reykjavikpolarbearproject.org/ after the latest polar bear was shot and killed in Iceland’s remote Westfjord region two weeks ago.
The goal is raise 300 million ISK to build a polar bear sanctuary at The Reykjavík Zoo & Family Park and arctic research centre to study the impact that global warming is having on the area. “As polar ice melts, the polar bear’s habitat shrinks and older bears are ousted”, Best Party Manager Heiða Kristín Helgadóttir said. “The bear that came this May, however, was far younger than usual, which speaks to the gravity of the situation. This one could definitely have been rehabilitated”.