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Killing of polar bear sparks debate on tourism

Associated Press A dead polar bear lies on a beach Saturday. The polar bear was killed after it attacked and injured a guard who was leading tourists off a cruise ship on the Svalbard archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Published Jul. 30, 2018

Norwegian authorities on Monday defended the actions of guards from a German cruise ship that killed a polar bear that had attacked and injured a crew member, saying they at first tried to scare it away.

Police spokesman Ole Jakob Malmo said two members of the 12-man crew from the MS Bremen that set foot on the northern-most island of the Svalbard archipelago ahead of tourists on Saturday first tried to ward off the bear "by shouting and making loud noises as well as firing a signal pistol, but to no effect."

A 42-year-old German man, who was not identified, sustained minor head injuries from the attack, Malmo said.

The incident sparked international outrage, with animal rights activists saying that it was wrong to begin with to let tourists from the cruise ship encroach upon territory known as a habitat for the vulnerable species.

Svalbard is dotted with warnings about polar bears. Currently, about 3,000 polar bears call the islands home. For scale, Svalbard's human population is around 2,400. Visitors who choose to sleep outdoors receive stern warnings from authorities that people must carry firearms while moving outside of settlements.

The German cruise ship operator Hapag Lloyd Cruises said on its Facebook page that the purpose of the landing on Svalbard was not "to serve the purpose of polar bear observation, on the contrary: polar bears are only observed from aboard ships, from a safe distance."

Polar bears are classified as vulnerable by the World Wildlife Fund. Climate change is threatening their sea ice habitat and their current global population ranges from 22,000 to 31,000, according to the WWF.

The image of the dead polar bear provoked fierce outcry on social media, with many criticizing the cruise line for intruding on the bear in its natural habitat and calling for boycotts. The bear's death, which some have called "heartbreaking" and "needless," has reignited concerns over tourism and its potential to disrupt the environments of remote areas.

"?'Let's get too close to a polar bear in its natural environment and then kill it if it gets too close.' Morons," English comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted.

"Here's a thought. Why not look at the bears from afar and leave them alone," biologist Daniel Schneider wrote on Twitter.

Others, however, argued that killing the bear was the right thing to do because it saved the man's life. One Twitter user wrote that people who are taking the bear's side "need to have their heads examined."

While polar bear attacks are generally rare, this is not the first time a person has been injured by the bears in the Svalbard islands. It is also not unusual for the bear to be killed as a result.

In 2015, a polar bear dragged a Czech tourist out of his tent as he and others were camping north of Longyearbyen — Svalbard's the main settlement — clawing his back before being driven away by gunshots. Jakub Moravec, who was slightly injured, was among a group of six on a combined ski and snow scooter trip on the remote islands. The bear was eventually found and killed by local authorities.

The animal killed Saturday was transported to Longyearbyen to be routinely examined, Malmo said.

The Washington Post contributed to this story.

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