One of the most important issues that Polar Bears International works on is coexistence: helping ensure that polar bears and people are able to occupy the same areas without either being threatened by the other. Although there are many different elements involved, much of the time coexistence is a case of people being aware of and alert to the presence of bears, knowing not to leave out attractants such as food waste that might entice polar bears into communities, and being prepared with deterrents if necessary (eg- bear spray, flares, etc.).

While dangerous encounters between polar bears and people are rare, they can of course be highly traumatic or even deadly, and so it is important to make every effort to limit or even, as much as possible, eliminate them. And it is a similar story with other bear species, many of which also find themselves in proximity with humans, creating the potential for conflict.

Sharing information on coexistence

This fall, Geoff York, our senior director of science and policy, will be attending the 28th conference of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA) in Edmonton, Alberta. Coexistence will be on the agenda and experts on all species of bears, along with Indigenous speakers from around the world, will be sharing information and knowledge. Registration is currently open for the gathering, which will be held September 13-20.

There are eight species of bears worldwide — brown, North American black, Asiatic black, sloth, spectacled, sun, panda, and polar — and most of them come into conflict with people at some point. In many cases, a bear attack is the result of a bear being frightened or protecting its cubs, or a human being unaware of a bear’s presence and straying into danger. For example, an Italian man who was killed by a brown bear in April 2023 was jogging alone in an area that until recently had only a handful of bears but now boasts more than 100 following repopulation efforts.

(The attack was the first bear fatality in Italy in modern times. As another indicator of how rare fatal bear attacks are, consider that black bears have killed only 61 people across North America since 1900; in contrast, lightning strikes claim the lives of an average of 28 Americans each year.)

Moms and 2 Cubs walking

Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer / Polar Bears International

Learning from other species 

York notes that the deadliest bear species per capita is the sloth bear. Despite numbering only 20,000 or so in the wild, sloth bears are responsible for roughly a dozen human deaths each year – even though they feed on ants and termites. Part of the reason, he explains, is that sloth bears are mainly found in India, the second most populous country on Earth. India’s population has doubled since 1980, and as humans expand into bear territory, the two species encounter each other much more frequently. And although the insectivorous sloth bear has no interest in starting a fight with a person, their natural instinct when surprised is to lash out with their long claws in self-defense.

“Because it evolved with large cats historically and tigers today, it's used to being around much larger predators and sees humans as just, you know, another potential predator and then responds accordingly,” he explains. “They're not going to successfully run away from a large cat. So, their best bet is just to be ferocious. And sometimes people get in the way of that.”

That is particularly the case when those people are alone, not making noise, or not equipped with any deterrents, he adds. In this respect, sloth bear attacks have a lot in common with many polar bear attacks, as well as attacks by other species.

Common threads

“I think when you look across where a lot of bears and people co-occur, whether that's in northern Japan, the Arctic, or Europe, you do see a lot of common threads,” York adds. “Things like attractants, habitat incursions, pressure from people -– whether that's fragmentation of traditional habitats or people pushing into bear habitats during important times of the year for them such as feeding times. And then the element that I think links all of them is: Are people prepared? Are people aware that there are bears in this area? Do people have any understanding of bear behavior? And are they prepared themselves with things like non-lethal deterrents? That is a strong common thread.”

York explains that being among scientific and Indigenous authorities on numerous bear species will provide a welcome opportunity to solicit opinions on some of the steps that Polar Bears International and partners are doing to promote coexistence with polar bears.

For example, he says, “We've been working closely with the Ontario government on getting modern polar bear live traps to communities so they can potentially relocate bears without sedation, without having to wait for people from the south to come up, which often requires waiting too long.”

A polar bear walking on the road with cars driving by near Churchill, Manitoba

Networking opportunity

In the process, however, “We’ve realized that there might not be a single best trap design for bears. And so, what we're hoping to do is wrap our arms around the collective community knowledge that's out there. We're currently drafting blueprints that we hope to make publicly available. The IBA conference will be a great chance to share those blueprints and ask, ‘Hey, brown bear people: what do you think? What about you, black bear people?’ As a result, hopefully, we can come up with some open-source designs that any bear community or manager can access, tweak, and adapt to their specific needs.” 

More generally, the conference will enable Polar Bears International’s experts to enjoy a rare opportunity to exchange information across topics.

“It's the first time since before the pandemic that bear biologists will convene in person,” York explains. “So just being able to get together face to face with colleagues across species is a fantastic opportunity to compare notes and be updated on the status of bear research and management globally — and coming home with new information that will help us learn more about what’s happening with polar bears.”