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Polar Bear
Bear behaviour

Avoiding bear problems
Bear around camp
Bear away from camp
Playing dead
Shooting a bear
A wounded bear
Hunting regulations
Camp maintenance
Camp location
Camp layout
Food preparation
Food storage

Waste disposal
Detection systems
Trip-wire fence
Chili-con-carne alarm
Bear deterrents
Types of deterrents

Encountering walruses
Hunting regulations

Encountering muskoxen
Types of deterrents
Hunting regulations

Arctic wolf
Encountering wolves
Hunting regulations

Arctic fox
Encountering foxes
Hunting regulations

Choosing firearms
Firearm regulations

Cited literature
Technical specifications
Selected wildlife links


Encounters with Wildlife in Greenland, part 1

Animal - Human Interactions

by Henning Thing, Danish Polar Center

Whether you are living, working, or travelling in Greenland you are likely to experience some close encounters with various species of wild birds and mammals around inhabited areas or in the wilderness. Viewing wildlife at close range in a pristine environment is a highly valued experience and may be some of your most appreciated memories from the Arctic.

However, you should always keep in mind that you are a visitor in the home of the animals - and accordingly strongly advised to

  • not to disturb birds at their nesting sites
  • not to disturb flightless, moulting ducks and geese
  • not to disturb mammals accompanied by juveniles
  • not to harass animals with aircrafts, vehicles or boats
  • not to feed any animal.

In Greenland you may meet various species of large mammals of which Polar Bear, Walrus, Muskox, Arctic Wolf, and Arctic Fox may all present a potential hazard to people at close range.

An encounter with a large mammal at close range may result in problems for both animal and human if the necessary
precautions are not taken.

In order to reduce possible conflicts it is recommended that you focus on alertness, avoidance, attractants, detection, and deterrents.

For your own safety and the continued welfare of the animals you should therefore be aware of the following essentials while staying in the Greenland wilderness.

Despite its size and awesome strength the polar bear is swift and agile, moves easily on rough ice and steep slopes, and is an excellent swimmer. Polar bears are curious, and often investigate any strange object, smell, or noise. They have an acute sense of smell that will lead any bear to a food source many kilometers away. Its eyesight is thought to equal that of a human. Therefore do not underestimate the ability of bears to find carelessly stored food.

Polar bears are meat eaters. Ringed seals constitute the major part of their diet; however, any animal, including humans, is potential prey. They often find attractive many of the goodswhich accompany humans in Greenland, such as rubber, plastic, rope, canvas, engine oil, groceries, and garbage.

Polar bear distribution is influenced by sea ice movements and patterns of break-up and freeze-up. From early March until about mid October bears are active and may be observed in the coastal and drift ice regions.

Between October and March almost all polar bears stay in winter hibernation dens in snow banks. Males may den for shorter periods whereas females will remain in the den throughout the period.

The behaviour of a polar bear can be as individual as in individual people. Keep in mind that our understanding of their behaviour is limited; bears can therefore seem unpredictable.

Normally, bears are solitary animals (except females with cubs), and only temporarily they meet for mating or at concentrated food sources.

It is not possible to predict exactly how a bear will react to you in an encounter.

The bear may

charge, or
remain, trying to pick up your scent by sniffing the air and / or swaying its head from side to side, sometimes erect on its hind legs.

If the bear remains it may show various threat displays as it would towards another bear, such as

huffing, panting, hissing, or growling,
looking directly at you with lowered head,
turning sideways to display its size,
slapping front paws on the ground / ice,
rapidly opening and closing its mouth, or
charging to within a few meters, then suddenly stopping or veering to the side.

The purpose of these displays is to establish dominance without fighting, display behaviours being part of a bear's normal reaction to an encounter.

Unprovoked attacks on people are extremely rare. Predatory behaviour is different from threat behaviour. A hunting bear does not bother with displays. It may make a direct approach at a fast walk or run, follow you, or circle carefully, making cautious approaches. The bear will show no fear, but rather intense interest.

Upon your encounter with a polar bear the animal's reaction will depend on various factors, such as:

* Your position in the bear's dominance hierarchy
Unfortunately, it is hard to know where people fit into the bear's social system. Your "status" will depend on e.g. your body size, the number of people with you, and the bear's sex, age, reproductive status, and its familiarity with humans.

* Your behaviour
If you run or make sudden movements this may cause the bear to attack. Backing away slowly or standing your ground, depending on the situation, is more likely to result in the bear leaving.

* The individual bear
Very old or wounded bears can be dangerous. They may be starving or in pain and may, therefore, aggressively seek food from humans. Bears who are encountered in coastal waters or on land in South and West Greenland have travelled on the drift ice far away from their usual haunts and will probably be very hungry. If they detect food they may be aggressive in obtaining it.
Any bear which has previously eaten food from human sources and become accustomed to people is dangerous. Such a bear has learned to associate food with people and often becomes aggressive in its effort to obtain human food. But remember, all bears are potentially dangerous.

* The bear's perception of threat
The bear will react according to how threatening it perceives the encounter with people to be. It will actively defend its immediate surroundings, its cubs, and its food. If any of these seem endangered, the bear's natural behaviour is to remove the threat by scaring it off with displays or by attacking.

Take advantage of the fact that humans, like other Apes, investigate and explore their surroundings visually (by eyesight) whereas polar bears rely heavily on their sense of smell. Be alert and look around every now and then exploring your near and distant surroundings. This will most often bring you in the advance to prepare avoidance because bears first need to pick up your scent to detect and locate you.

The best defense against polar bears is to avoid the encounter. However, if you do get a bear in sight the following reactions are recommended in the these scenarios:

* A polar bear is sighted at a distance, approaching camp
Walk to the nearest safe shelter. Make sure everyone in the area is aware of the bear. Try to drive the bear away using an appropriate deterrent method. Continue using the deterrent until the bear is far away. Keep track of the bear's movement and direction of travelling as long as possible. Be aware that a bear can stay in the vicinity for several days, hiding in order to approach your camp later. Always keep a loaded firearm ready as a back-up. Time permitting, try a different deterrent if the bear continues to approach. Fire warning shots. Give the bear a chance. It may leave once its curiosity is satisfied. Shooting the bear should always be considered the very last resort.

* A polar bear is in camp
If camp occupants are not in immediate danger, try to scare the bear away. You may have to act quickly if a bear is attempting to enter an occupied tent or building. If people are in immediate danger, shooting the bear may be your only option.

See the polar bear contingency plans for Zackenberg station in Northeast Greenland

In the scenarios below the following response is recommended:

* The polar bear is unaware of you and feeding
If you can do so undetected, leave the area. Quietly go back the way you came. Move only when the bear is not facing you and stop when it raises its head to look around. Stay downwind. When you are a safe distance away, wait until the bear leaves or make a wide detour around it. If you cannot leave undetected, let the bear sense you by smell first. Quietly move upwind. If possible, keep the bear in sight. The bear may leave when it smells a person nearby.

* The bear is unaware of you, but approaching
Give the bear the right-of-way. Try to get out of the way without being noticed. If this is impossible, announce your presence by shouting. Give the bear a chance to leave.

* The bear is aware of you, but distant
Stay calm. Continue walking slowly, but in a direction away from the bear. Do not run unless you are sure you can reach safety. A bear is fast and can outdistance you in a short time if so inclined. If the bear follows, leave behind a pack or other personal gear to distract it. Leave food only as a last resort.

* The bear is aware of you and close
In close confrontations, the bear is likely to feel threatened. Its natural tendency is to reduce or remove the threat. Help the bear by acting as non-threatening as possible. Do not make sudden movements and avoid direct eye contact with the bear. Help the bear identify you as a person. It may leave. Stay upwind if possible. Talk in low tones and slowly wave your arms. Give the bear the opportunity to leave. Make sure it has an open escape route. Back away slowly and/or climb a big rock if appropriate. Try to deter the bear if you are in a safe position.

* The bear is close to you and threatening
Try to scare the bear off with an appropriate deterrent if you are equipped to do so. If you have no deterrent, or if the attempt is unsuccessful, act as non-threatening as possible. Talk in a calm, but authoritative voice. Do not make fast or sudden movements which might startle or provoke the bear. Do not imitate a bear's aggressive sounds, signals, or postures. Back off slowly, dropping a pack or other article to distract the bear. Drop food only as a last resort.

* The bear is within 30 meters and approaching
If the bear does not respond to a deterrent, stand your ground, and make sure you have a good aim. If the bear continues to approach and act aggressively, you may have to shoot.

* The bear is hunting and you are the prey
If the bear is treating you as potential food and you do not have a gun, DO NOT play dead. Act instead aggressively and defend yourself with whatever means available. You want to appear dominant and frighten the bear. Jump up and down, shout, wave your arms. Fight back. It may help to raise your jacket or pack to make you look bigger. Fighting back does not apply in situations when you have surprised a bear at close range. Fighting back applies only when a bear is stalking you and shows clear signs that it considers you prey.

* The bear charges
A polar bear charges at high speed, on all four legs. It does not charge on its hind legs. Many charges are bluffs. Bears often stop or veer to the side at the last moment. However, it may be difficult to know if a charge is a bluff until the bear is very close. If you are faced with a charging polar bear, you have two options: shoot to kill if you have a gun; or play dead if you are unarmed.

Playing dead may prevent serious injury if a surprise encounter brings on an attack, and you are unable to kill the bear. Do not play dead if the bear appears to consider you prey.

Playing dead may reduce the threat you represent to the bear. If you appear harmless, the bear may leave. If the bear attacks, playing dead will help protect your vital areas. Lie on your side, curled up into a ball with your legs drawn to your chest and your head buried in your knees. Clasp your hands behind your neck. Keep your legs tightly together. Try to stay in this position even if the bear moves you. Try not to resist or struggle as this may intensify the attack.

Look cautiously and be sure the bear is gone before moving.

The decision to shoot a polar bear is a personal decision, and has to be made quickly. The "right" moment for you to squeeze the trigger depends on your experience and confidence with a gun, how fast the bear is approaching, - and your nerve.

We all have different thresholds, or imaginary lines, at which we shoot. It is recommended to wait until the bear is within 10-15 m before shooting. You may feel confident enough to wait and see if the charge was a bluff.

The decision to shoot can be made only by the person facing the charging bear. Remember that an accurate shot fired at close range has a greater chance of killing a bear than one fired from further away.


The first shot is the most important one. If you must kill a bear, kneel down and aim for

low neck if the bear is broadside,
low centre neck between shoulders if the bear is facing you
front shoulder area to knock the bear down and disable it.

Avoid head shots, as they often will not kill a bear. Do not stop to check the results of your shot. If the bear goes down, keep shooting at vital areas until it is still. Make sure it is dead.

Be aware that a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle at close range may penetrate the bear and injure people standing behind or lying under the bear.

Try to kill the bear cleanly and quickly. A wounded polar bear is indeed dangerous. Tracking a wounded polar bear is a task most people prefer to avoid.

If you injure a bear, it is your responsibility to find it and kill it. At least two armed and organized people are needed to track down a wounded polar bear. Stay together, keep guns ready, and communicate. Be prepared for a close encounter with an angry polar bear.

In all of Greenland and its territorial waters polar bear hunting is legal only for permanent residents holding a valid full time subsistence hunter's permit. Thus no visitor to Greenland is eligible to hunt or kill polar bears.

There is a general open season from September 1 through June (from October 1 through July in Tasiilaq municipality); adult females with accompanying cubs are protected all year round. Adult males may be hunted legally year round.

It is illegal to disturb or excavate polar bears in dens.

If you could not avoid killing a polar bear in self-defense, and you do not qualify legally as a hunter or the killing took place in a protected area or in the closed season, you must report the incident immediately to the police and to the Greenland Home Rule, Ministry of Health and the Environment.

It remains your responsibility to salvage the hide and see that it is taken to the nearest storage facility from where it will eventually be forwarded by action of the authorities.

A polar bear killed in alleged self-defense can not be claimed by the "hunter".

The submitted report of the killing will be scrutinized by the authorities who also decide whether an official indictment for illegal hunting should be issued.


When setting up camp, you can reduce the risk of bear visits by avoiding the following areas:

* close to an active glacier front,
* heavily pressured ridges of sea ice,
* coastal crevasses or canions,
* along sea shore lines,
* near den sites,
* locations where bear tracks or fresh droppings are evident, or
* locations where noise from a river would drown out bear sounds

A proper arrangement of the tents, cabins, or other facilities makes your camp safer if a bear does come to investigate. The guidelines below should be followed when setting up camp:

A few big tents are better than several small ones. A polar bear surrounded by unfamiliar structures may feel trapped and confused and may charge.

Keep tents or cabins well spaced but not scattered, and place them in a line or semi-circle, not a circle. This gives the bear an avenue of escape.

Cooking, food storage, and latrine should be at least 50 m away from, but in view of, sleeping quarters.

Garbage should be burned well away from camp (at least 200 m), but in an area visible from camp. Solid waste should be stored at the burn site until it can be brought to the nearest official registered dump.

Sleeping quarters should preferably be upwind (based on prevailing wind direction) from cooking and waste disposal areas.


Special care is needed for food preparation and storage if you are camping in polar bear country. Do not underestimate the acuteness of the bear's nose for finding food.

These rules apply to all situations in polar bear country:

* Keep a clean camp.
* Produce few food wastes.
* Eliminate or reduce food odours.
* Restrict food to special areas for cooking and storage.
* Do not keep food in sleeping or working quarters.
* Store food leftovers in airtight containers.
* Use up leftovers as soon as possible.
* Cook non-greasy foods as much as possible.
* Store grease in an airtight container.

Careless handling of garbage is a major cause of polar bear problems. Bears make no distinction between the dump and the kitchen tent, and will seek meals from either one. Because polar bears are initially attracted by odours, it is odours which must be eliminated.

Garbage smells can be controlled by:

* complete incineration of all wastes on a daily basis,
* daily removal of garbage from camp,
* pack garbage out in a plastic bag if you are moving camp,
* send garbage out with your supply flights,
* greasy dishwater should be dumped in a pit away from camp.

Burying garbage does not eliminate smells. Polar bears can easily dig into the ground to find buried garbage.

If you have a semi-permanent or long-term camp your latrine products should be covered with gravel (or earth) and, preferably, also lime on a regular basis.

Surprise is a common factor in polar bear encounters. Polar bears have been shot in defence because their approach went unnoticed until they were in camp, right outside a tent, or in the process of devouring the camp's food supply. Close encounters can be prevented by using detection systems to warn of a polar bear's approach.

The purpose of a detection system is to sound an alarm when a polar bear enters a camp. An effective detection system warns people of a bear's approach early enough for them to take action to prevent a serious problem. It is much easier to stay calm and use common sense when the noise that wakes you is an alarm and not the growl of a bear.

A detection system will not necessarily deter the polar bear. The alarm is intended to warn people in camp. Remember that the warning will not improve safety unless people respond to it every time it is triggered. Moreover, detection systems are effective only if properly installed and maintained, and even well - maintained systems may unexpectedly fail to operate.


A basic trip-wire system consists of two or three parts:

  1. electrical wire (or monofilament fishing line) long enough to construct a fence (preferably 2-strand) around the camp,
  2. an alarm activating device (or terminal board) to which the wires are attached, and sometimes
  3. a battery powered alarm unit connected to a terminal board by a cable.

The cable allows placement of the alarm in a tent away from the terminal board and fence.

The bear walks through the fence, breaking the wire (or pushing the line), and setting off the alarm. The alarm must be loud and easily heard in camp.

Numerous modifications of the trip-wire system are possible. For instance, a system can be designed which eliminates the cable between the alarm unit and the terminal board. A multi-tone alarm can be used to indicate which section of the fence has been activated, or a sirene can be added to warn of a polar bear.

Similarly, the displacement of the fence line can be set to trigger the activation of flares or thunder-flashes mounted on the fence posts.

A trip-wire fence does not provide a 100% effective 24-hour warning system. However, if it is constructed and implemented according to specifications and tended to very frequently by you, the fence system will have a detection reliability that most people can accept. The system has the definite advantage of being small, lightweight, portable, inexpensive, and easy to use.

The trip-wire fence should surround the entire camp. First and foremost, it should enclose sleeping and working tents and sites with food and other polar bear attractants. The fence perimeter should be large enough to allow people time to respond to a warning. A minimum distance of 10 m from all sides of camp is recommended. If the fence is too large, it will be difficult to keep the wire (line) tight.

The trip-wire system is easy to set up and operate and requires little equipment. The wire may be strung through any convenient supports such as extra tent poles, jerry cans, makeshift posts, or posts designed for the fence. Protection increases with the number of strands of wire used. Although one strand offers minimum protection, two or more are recommended. A polar bear is less likely to go over or under a fence of two or more strands.

Whenever a wire strand is broken, the fence must be manually reset by splicing the broken wire. In addition, the wire can be broken, and the alarm triggered, by other animals such as muskox, Arctic wolf, Arctic fox, or Arctic hare.

You may construct a trip-wire system yourself, or have it constructed, using this electronic circuitry diagram.

In stead of a trip-wire fence or preferably as a supplement to the fence you may want to set up one or more baited alarms at the periphery of your camp - about 50 m away from the tents.

The Chili-con-Carne alarm is constructed of cheap and simple materials and should be reliable. The bait is on open can of chili con carne (or similar food with a very potent smell) put on the top platform holding down a switch deactivating a sirene.

When an approaching polar bear is lured to the can by the strong odeur of chili it will eventually turn over the can to investigate the contents; the alarm is then activated and a 110 dB loud sirene will sound, scrambling people in the tents soon enough to start deterring the bear or take other appropriate steps of protection.

This alarm has been used in many field camps in Northeast Greenland and can be recommended as an inexpensive, but quite reliable polar bear detection device. Technical specifications for the Chili con Carne alarm.

Instead of or in addition to a trip-wire fence you may want to have one or more dogs chained up close to your camp to warn of an approaching bear. It is recommended to use only Greenland huskies, and it is important to use dogs which are known to be alert, experienced with bears, and trained to bark if bears approach. Such dogs are, however, exceedingly difficult to get hold of.

Inexperienced dogs which fail to warn of a polar bear's approach or show other unexpected and inappropriate behaviour will be a hazard to you so don't rely on any untrained, inexperienced dog for your protection. Dogs should have an experienced handler to whom they are responsive at all times, even when excited.

One or more dogs in camp may not provide consistent 24-hour protection. Even an experienced dog may fail to detect a bear. Dogs may sleep through a polar bear's approach and wake up too late to provide sufficient warning. However, dogs are a simple and cheap method of detection and can be used as long as you realize their limitations. Dogs are also very efficient in recycling all the organic waste from your cooking.

However, having dogs around camp may actually attract some polar bears and as the dogs should remain chained up, you cannot rely on the dogs to chase away a bear. A polar bear which has approached your camp should be scared away by you using the appropriate deterrents available.

A deterrent is a device or method designed to chase away hazardous wildlife such as polar bears.

A deterrent is successful if it chases a polar bear from the area. Sometimes a bear may return after it has been deterred. If a bear has previously obtained food from human sources it may be quite difficult to deter. However, a polar bear which is not familiar with people and their food might be chased away permanently after just one exposure to a deterrent.

Whatever deterrent you may choose to use, it is very important that you have practiced with them before you need them in an encounter, so that you know them, are familiar with their range, and know where to aim.

The following deterrent types can be recommended for deterring polar bears in Greenland:

* Pencil flare gun
Portable, pencil-size devices which shoot small flares or cracker shells. Useful and effective in most cases. Flares produce a loud hissing noise and a bright light when fired, one type of flare explodes with a loud bang. Flares have a range of about 30 m fired vertically and about 40 m fired horizontally. To obtain the optimal response you should aim your pencil flare gun directly at the polar bear, trying to hit it or the ground in front of it with the flare.

* Thunderflash
Look like large fire crackers or small road flares. Very portable, easy to handle, and quite effective in most cases. They are lit like a flare and thrown by hand. They explode with a loud noise. When throwing, try to hit the bear or the ground in front of it, but remember that the range is limited by the strength of your arm, and by wind conditions.

* Cracker shell / Bird scaring cartridge
These deterrents require a 12-gauge shotgun available. They are not always effective in scaring away polar bears which also may habituate to the explosions. The deterrents travel in an arc for about 80 m before exploding with a loud noise and / or flash. Remember to fire the gun at a 45 angle in the air to the side of the bear. Do not fire directly at the bear as the shot may injure or kill it.

* Warning shot
Requires a firearm available. Firing warning shots with a rifle or a shotgun is a commonly used method of scaring away polar bears. However, this method is not always effective. Avoid hitting the bear, shoot in the air to the side of the
animal or in the ground or ice. Remember that bullets will ricochet off frozen ground, rocks, or ice, - and may therefore accidentally hit and wound the bear.

Keep in mind that each shot fired means one shot less in the gun. Warning shots may become less effective with repetition as the bear grows accustomed to the noise.