Of bears and men

Of bears and men

Alun Anderson
Published: 01/18/2010

Up in the Arctic a polar bear can end up as a skin on a washing line. Indigenous communities rely on hunting animals, and to avoid conflict we need close cooperation between hunters, scientists and enviromentalists.

The very first time I arrived at a small Inuit community in the far north of the Arctic I went into a state of shock. Walking along the beach at Grise Fiord, Canada’s most northerly community, I came across the head of a narwhal, sitting in a pool of its own blood, with its long, spiral tusk pointing ten feet up into the sky. I had always wanted to see a narwhal, the inspiration for the mythical unicorn, but had never expected my first encounter to be like this.

Narwhal and tusk, Grise Fiord. Photo by Alun Anderson

Elsewhere on the shore, the head of a walrus sat on its fat, wrinkled neck, its dark, liquid eyes almost closed and staring up at the sky. Dead seals were left out everywhere in what is, after all, a giant freezer. A little later, I traveled on to a nearby community at Resolute, arriving soon after a beluga whale hunt had ended. The whales were hauled up on the beach. Their white outer skin had been peeled off, leaving only the white head and the beluga’s famous smile intact.


Hunted beluga whale, Resolute. Photo by Alun Anderson

Just a couple of days earlier, I had been sitting in a tiny boat in a shallow cove on Baffin Island, watching the white shapes of beluga streak around and under my boat as they rubbed themselves along the gravel bottom to renew their pure white skin. That day was pure magic, so to meet them again, dead on the beach, was a shock to this southerner, used to buying food in a supermarket.

Those Arctic travels led me to write a book, “After the Ice: Life, Death and Geopolitics in the New Arctic,” about the changes coming to the animals, ecosystems, and lives of indigenous people of the North. I learned a great respect for the Inuit and their culture but never stopped worrying about how to bring together hunters and conservationists. Just this week, I had an unexpected bit of good news. I heard that the main organization representing Canada’s Inuit (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) is launching its own Arctic research centre that aims to bridge gaps between science and Inuit traditional knowledge.

That is good news because some animals that Inuit hunt, including polar bears and narwhal, are under very great threat as the Arctic ice melts further and further away each summer. Others, including bowhead whales, walrus and beluga, will be in trouble soon, and in a few decades even seals may be struggling with climate change.

Inuit and environmental scientists and ordinary folk down south are united in wanting to see sustainable populations of these creatures live on in the Arctic. The trouble is that the hunters’ knowledge of mammal and bird populations (around 200,000 thick-billed murre are taken each year around Greenland, along with kittiwake, dovekie and razorbills. You can see them on sale in local markets from $2-$10 a bird) may not agree with that of scientists, and neither side is always right.

Thick-billed murre cliff, Svalbard. Photo by Alun Anderson

Hunters often have a very detailed local knowledge that may go back centuries, thanks to oral histories. Scientists can rarely obtain long-term funding so their records are short. They may be broad geographically, thanks to the use of aerial surveys, but sometimes they are too broad to capture local detail. As a result you can end up with hunters arguing there are more polar bears than ever, because they are seeing more near villages, while surveys across the Arctic show they are declining. Or scientists can worry that birds or whales have vanished, while local people know they have just moved away from the scientist’s study site, as they do now and again.

When indigenous people and scientists come together as partners, that is good news, especially as scientists used to think that traditional knowledge was just anecdote. Across the Arctic, scientists and Inuit are working together more and more. My hope is that these collaborations will not only help bring consensus on how much hunting is possible, but also help Inuit to adapt to change, for the evidence is that the Arctic’s iconic species, bear and whale, may vanish with frightening speed, along with many cliff nesting birds.

*The word "only" was added in this sentence  on 1/20/20: "My hope is that these collaborations will not only help bring consensus on how much hunting is possible, but also help Inuit to adapt to change, for the evidence is that the Arctic’s iconic species, bear and whale, may vanish with frightening speed, along with many cliff nesting birds."

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