Four polar bears have been illegally killed near Arviat, Nunavut, following the tragic death of a young father who was killed by a bear while protecting his children, according to Nunavut’s Department of Environment.Their meat and hides were not harvested; instead, they were left to rot.A government spokesperson told VICE News the “illegal” killings are under investigation. Conservation officers are working with the local Hunters and Trappers Organization to prevent further bear deaths, said Jonathan Pynn, a senior policy analyst with the department.
Locals are legally allowed to shoot polar bears as part of the annual polar bear hunt, which has a set quota, or in defense of life or property. This year’s hunt is over, and the four bears were not reported as defense kills.The community of Arviat, an Inuit hamlet of 2,600, is still grieving the July 3 death of 31-year-old Aaron Grant Gibbons. He was with his children on Sentry Island, about 10 kilometres outside of Arviat, when a bear surprised them. The brave father, who was unarmed, put himself between the bear and his children so they could run. His children escaped unscathed, but Gibbons was pronounced dead at the scene. The bear was shot to prevent it from harming anyone else.Since that sad day, five bears have been shot and killed near Arviat.The same week, someone found a decomposing bear that had been shot and left on the land, Gordy Kidlapik, Gibbons’ uncle, told VICE News. Following that incident, three bears were shot dead on Sentry Island, where Gibbons died. In an unrelated event, a bear wandered too close to a children’s summer camp and was undeterred by warning shots, so it was killed in defense, Kidlapik said. That incident was legal because it was reported as a defense kill.Locals believe the bear killings are in reaction to Gibbons’ death, but no one knows who is doing it, Kidlapik said.“People are only finding out about it as they travel to places where it’s been happening,” he explained. “The general talk around town is it’s more of a revenge thing, that someone must be hurt or angry to start doing that.”
He said the community condemns illegal bear killings.“It’s not a normal process of healing. It’s the very first time we’re going through this. …The very act itself of unreported kills, it’s not being accepted by many.”Whoever it is, they are not acting for Gibbons’ family, they are acting on their own, he said.Conflict between bears and humans has been increasing in the Arctic, but incidents ending in loss of human life are rare. The last time a bear killed a human in Nunavut was in July 1999.In the coming weeks, there are plans brewing for a community discussion on local radio, with the Hunters and Trappers Organization and Arviat’s bear monitors discussing the recent tragedy and bear killings. Locals will be able to call in and voice their opinions.Arviat and other coastal towns in Nunavut sit along a polar bear migration route. As the climate warms, they are grappling with more polar bear sightings, and more bears wandering near town in search of food. Experts have pointed to loss of sea ice, an increasing reliance on garbage dumps for food, and polar bear tourism as factors that lead to more polar bear-human conflict in the region.Gibbons’ family has been speaking with counsellors following his death, and they are more active and leaving the house. The community is still in disbelief, but they are going about their lives without fear — hunting belugas, berry picking, riding ATVs.“I will always respect the bears and I will continue to. I don’t see them as enemies, they are part of all life,” Kidlapik said.“The only way to look at it is, it’s part of life for people up here.”Photo by Gordy Kidlapik.