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Climate Casualties: The Three Bears an Arctic Tragedy

CLIMATE CASUALTIES: The Three Bears and Arctic Tragedy

By Jason Matthews

An “Aha!” moment, my climate change awakening.

I was working in the arctic for National Geographic, filming Polar Bears near the Inupiat village of Kaktovik. We had seen more than 40 bears in a two-week period. One morning I went out early to walk the coast, as I crested a small dune- I saw this Mother bear with two cubs, walking the beach towards me. I stopped, took a few photos and then walked back to the village- the three bears followed me.

All that day, the mom and cubs tried to enter the village. The village police officer and the Polar Bear Patrol worked relentlessly hazing the bears with ATV’s and shotgun cracker rounds trying to keep the bears from coming into town. It finally worked, the three bears turned away and walked back to the coast and headed towards the whale-carcass that attracts bears to the area.

Later that night, at around 2:00am the three bears decided to come back to town. They were starving- the whale carcass was picked over, there was no meat left, and due to the lack of ice-floes, and the great distance between the land and pack ice, the bears had essentially become land-locked and unable to hunt.

So, they took to scavenging and raiding the village. First, they went to a small bin that stored whale meat for a family- it had an electric fence around it. They crashed through the fence, raided the container, and ate the little meat that was there. Next, they headed deeper into the village, and ended up at a whaling captains house. Inside his meat locker was a winters supply of whale meat for the captain and his family. The locker was adjoining the house, the door to the meat supply was right below his bedroom window.

It must be an incredibly loud and scary moment, when three polar bears crash through the door just below your bedroom window.

I can’t imagine the fear and panic that the captain and his family must have felt when they were awoken by the noise of three bears ransacking their home. The captain did what any father, and family guardian would do- he jumped out of bed, grabbed his gun and shot the intruding bear. Sadly, after stopping the first bear, he realized that the two other bears were cubs, and that without their mother’s guidance and protection they would never make it in the wild, so he quickly dispatched them as well. It was a tragic ending to three beautiful bears.

The next morning the town was abuzz with the news of the three bears death. My co-workers and I quickly ran over to see what had happened. Walking up on the scene will always be burned into my memory. The stark contrast between the blood and the snow, the weather-beaten blue church in the background, the sound of the seagulls, the smell of gunpowder and death, it is an image you don’t easily forget.

Standing there- I was speechless, upset, and outraged. These three bears, that just the day before, I had shared this wild, once-in-a-lifetime moment with, were now right in front of me dead, and skinned out. I was furious.

At first, I wanted to blame the captain- then the village, then myself for leading them into town, but then- ”A-Ha!” I realized that warmer temperatures, changing ice conditions, and habitat loss (climate change) have consequences and casualties and we are all in this together. We all share the blame.

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