In a rare event, a father was killed by a polar bear in a small northern community in Canada’s Arctic while trying to protect his children.It happened on Tuesday, on Sentry Island, about 10 kilometres/six miles outside of Arviat, an Inuit hamlet of 2,600 people in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. The father, 31-year-old Aaron Grant Gibbons, and his children were unarmed at the time of the encounter.
“My qangiaq (nephew) died a hero today,” his uncle, Gordy Kidlapik, tweeted. “The bear surprised him and his children, so he put himself between them and the bear to let them escape. The bear had no fear.”Medical professionals and police responded to the attack, but Gibbons was pronounced dead at the scene. His children weren’t injured and the bear was killed shortly after to prevent it from harming others.Kidlapik described hearing Gibbons’ young daughter calling on CB radio and crying to her grandmother immediately after the mauling. “We were very helpless,” he tweeted.The incident comes as the community, along with other northern Canadian towns that sit along polar bear migration routes, grapple with more sightings of the animals as they stroll into towns in search of food. Experts have pointed to numerous factors including climate change driving loss of sea ice which forces the bears to spend more time on land, an increasing reliance on garbage dumps for food, and even polar bear tourism, which is making bears less afraid of humans.
Dan Pimentel, director of policy for Nunavut’s department of environment, said he could not say the age or sex of the bear, or whether it was malnourished or not, pending the outcome of the department’s investigation.“It’s very uncommon, it doesn’t happen often,” he said of cases of humans being killed by polar bears.Interactions between polar bears and humans have been increasing across the Arctic, but incidents like this one — ending in loss of human life — are rare. The last time that happened in Nunavut was in Rankin Inlet, north of Arviat, in July 1999. In that case, according to CBC, a man tried to scare a polar bear away by throwing rocks, but the bear attacked and injured him and his 10-year-old nephew. The bear then attacked and killed a 64-year-old woman.
The increase in polar bear-human conflict has led northern Canadian towns to start polar bear alert programs. Locals call wildlife officers and polar bear guards to report a bear sighting. Then bear guards, riding ATVs or snowmobiles, scare the bear away.In reaction to a high number of bears coming into Arviat, and the high number of defense kills of the bears, the WWF and the hamlet started the Arviat Human-Polar Bear Conflict Reduction Project, hiring its first polar bear guard, Leo Ikakhik in 2011. The number of polar bear guards has since increased to four, who work in shifts to protect the town 24/7 during the busiest months of October/November.According to the government of Nunavut, the number of bear defense kills decreased from eight in 2010-11 to four in 2011-12, and zero defense kills in 2012-13, leading WWF to celebrate the program as a success.But the latest numbers show that celebration may have been premature.In 2014-15, there was one defense kill, and in 2015-16, there were four bears killed in defense of life or property, suggesting the program is not entirely thwarting the bears from approaching the town.Why are bears increasingly venturing into towns?Across the Arctic, scientists say polar bears, which use sea ice to hunt, are struggling with the loss of ice due to climate change.In Arviat, perched on the western edge of the Hudson’s Bay, the sea ice is breaking up earlier in the spring and forming later in the fall, meaning the local polar bear population is spending more time on land. They will often come into Arviat in search of food, and are frequently spotted at the town’s garbage dump.
"It’s very uncommon, it doesn’t happen often."
Arviat also sits smack in the middle of a polar bear migration route.The bears migrate north to Arviat from Churchill, Manitoba — an international destination for polar bear tourism.People from all over the world flock to Churchill to see the bears, often embarking on giant tundra buggies that will drive them right up to the bears, while keeping humans out of reach of the animals. Some tourist companies bring the bears into close proximity with humans.As he tweeted his grief over his nephew’s death, Gordy Kidlapik criticised tourism company Churchill Wild, suggesting that the company bringing tourists into close contact with polar bears in Churchill makes them a greater danger to people when they migrate north to Arviat and other northern towns. Unlike Churchill, which has a robust polar bear management program and even a polar bear jail, these small towns do not have the same level of resources to defend themselves.“‘Walk with bears tour’ leaves Inuit having to defend against approaching bears that lost their fear of humans,” Kidlapik tweeted, along with a photo showing tourists separated from the bears by only a thin wire fence.
“Walk With Bears Tours, we are just north of Churchill and the same bears you allow to approach close to the tourists migrate through our town when coming from [the] south.”“Making a wild dangerous bear accustomed to getting close to humans without deterrent. It could have been one of these bears that killed my qangiaq,” he tweeted.
Churchill Wild says it has nothing to do with Gibbons’ death.“This incident didn’t happen near Churchill or near any Churchill Wild properties and didn’t involve the company in any way and so we are unable to comment on it,” the company’s CEO Toni Morberg told VICE News.
While Morberg extended her condolences to the family, she does not believe the incident is linked to polar bears becoming habituated to contact with people.“Polar bears have never been fearful of people, in our experience. We’ve learned over the years that specific precautions and actions need to be taken to avoid too-personal polar bear encounters.“Thus far, research suggests that polar bear attacks are typically associated with nutritional stress in the animal. We don’t know yet the circumstances surrounding this incident nor the motivation for the attack so we aren’t in a position to provide an educated comment as to the cause.”Arviat bear guard Leo Ikakhik, tasked with scaring bears away from the town, has seen more bears entering Arviat in recent years, leading him to call for more resources for the polar bear program.“If you get too close to a bear or if you spook them, they can become more dangerous," he told VICE News over the phone Thursday. “When I do my patrol, I approach a bear really cautiously. They’re dangerous animals, we all know that.”
“I can’t really point fingers. It’s happening because we’re right on their migration route.”
“It seems like every year they’re hanging out more close to the community. You can spot them pretty much from anywhere.”
But he is not convinced tourism programs in Churchill are making bears more dangerous.“You’ve got guides that know what they’re doing. They know to keep their distance,” he said.“I can’t really point fingers. It’s happening because we’re right on their migration route.”It will be a few weeks before the small community gets more answers.The RCMP and office of the chief coroner are investigating the incident, and the department of the environment expects to conclude its own investigation in the next two weeks.Cover image of a bear guard chasing away a polar bear in Arviat, Nunavut in 2016. All images in story by Gordy Kidlapik. This story has been updated with additional comments from Churchill Wild CEO Toni Morberg.