Last chance to see?

My big rubber boots are slick with sulphurous, black tundra mud. A thousand or so snow geese are cavorting  noisily a few hundred metres away, their feathers and guano all mingling in the sludge beneath.  I am eye to eye with a 600kg male polar bear.  He’s lying on his belly, four limbs splayed out, rug-like.  I am so close I can hear him breathing and I am able to follow the jagged line of a scar that runs from below his left eye down to just above his nostril. Tiny midges are hovering around his nose and eyes.

He is just 20 metres away. There is very little separating us, bar the odd tuft of grass and a few bits of driftwood…. If he were to stand up, he would be a little over 3 metres tall.

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Mimi leans towards my ear and whispers almost imperceptibly in a broad Idaho accent ,“He looks meaner than a junkyard dog”. I nod in agreement. It’s the scar that does it, I think. But right now, he’s completely chilled and apparently unphased by our presence.  And not showing any junkyard dog-like behaviour. He’s more like a giant sleepy pussy cat really.

I am part of a small group – 8 telephoto lens-wielding lodge guests and our two guides Andy and Albert. Andy is a burly, ginger haired Canadian with over thirty years of guiding to his name. Albert is a ‘First Nations’ Cree, ex-hunter. IMG_9190

I feel safe standing close to Albert. He’s built like a tank and clearly knows these animals and their behaviour. Both guides have loaded guns slung over their shoulders. And a few rocks in their pockets. These, we are told, will be used to bang together to make a noise should the bear become unhappy and make a move towards us.

The midges are starting to really piss our big bear off and he puts both paws over his eyes. He now has that Monday morning look. That or (I think to myself), he’s also had enough of our pesky paparazzi vibe and wants us to shove off and let him sleep.

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We are all standing in a seriously remote wilderness area 250 km southeast of Churchill on the Hudson Bay coastline in Manitoba, Canada.  Our big boy is one of about 1 600 bears in the wider Hudson Bay region. They’re all land-based for now and have been since the big July melt – foraging on the plentiful summer berries. That’s all they have to feed on though and it’s a pretty long wait until the November chill sets in and the bay ices over.  It could be a particularly long wait this year….and the next. And the year after that…

We are all painfully aware of this as we admire our bear….and wonder about his very tenuous future as it’s no secret the Arctic is changing.

We had arrived at the lodge on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Only an hour after flying in in our 10-seater single engine plane, a Black bear cruised right up to the lodge fence and we watched her foraging busily, completely unaware of our presence.

556A0131The lodge is surrounded by a sturdy, tall fence, so we’re on the inside looking out. It’s a truly unique wildlife encounter opportunity – to witness bears in a true wilderness context. We are lucky if they happen to pass by.

A few hours later we are indeed blessed with a polar bear female and her cub. It’s absolutely remarkable to see these creatures so close. It really does render one speechless. In the first two days, we see three mothers and cubs, and a handful of males. They are all in very good condition and, according to Andy, the population is thriving in the Hudson Bay region. So what unfolds before us on Day 4 is unsettling to say the least.

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We are cruising along on our morning drive – out to find bears. We are all seated up high atop what they call a Rhino – a purpose built vehicle, specially designed to withstand the thick slick mud, rocky river crossings and difficult terrain of the Tundra.

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The guides are absolutely brilliant spotters. From literally five or more kilometres away, they spot a bear. This spot was different though. Andy had his binoculars peeled on a very small dot – a speck on a shimmery, hazy horizon. He was unusually quiet. Albert – in the other vehicle also appeared stumped.

The dot was a polar bear cub.

What was immediately unsettling for Andy was that the cub was alone. They are never very far away from their mothers. For two to three years, they stick velcro- like to their mothers. So to see this little guy alone was alarming to say the least.556A0939

We bumped our way over some difficult terrain, inching ever closer and then Andy spotted something even more alarming. There was another bear lying down. He was clearly feeding on something. It was – on closer inspection – a very, very big male. The cub was bleating and circling the male, but never going too close.

The harsh reality of the situation dawned on us all, without having to put words to it. The male was eating the cub’s mother.

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Chances are, the mother would have been confronted by the big male., who may well have been after her cub. A mammoth fight would have ensued, and she would have been badly injured. He would have turned on her, killed her, and was now eating her.

This was nature playing out in all her raw, red, bloody, dangerous attire….and it was utterly shocking.

I have spent enough time in the wilds of Africa and seen enough kills to accept the rawness, the lack of dignity or empathy in the wild. But this was just too much to witness. We sat around and watched the train wreck of a situation for a little too long for my comfort levels, and before long, I began sobbing. I was embarrassed by my reaction in front of the other guests, so tried to stifle my sobs into my thick jacket and scarf but not very successfully.

The little cub did not know where to go, or what to do. In the seven months of his short little life, he had only known a warm teat and a constant presence. Just earlier that morning we had watched a mother and cub pass the lodge – heading in the same direction we were now sitting.

Could it be the same pair we wondered?

The bond had been so precious, so intense. Everything she did, he did. She showed him how to forage and he was attached to her like a limpet.  To see him so lost and hopeless now shredded my heart strings. I think the fact that I was so far away from my own son did little to calm the emotions.

556A1047It was terribly hard not to anthropomorphize the situation and as the guides eventually made a decision to drive away, I could not help look back at the little guy as we retreated…..and watch as he circled the male, bleating quietly.

That night back in the lodge was very difficult. The mood was desperately somber. One guest had to leave the dinner table as I could see she couldn’t control her emotions. The guides were equally stunned by it all, and I could tell they were battling to stay professional, and keep a consistent thread through it all for us paying guests.

Because the lodge is in a conservation area, and because we had come across the situation (as lodge guests). they were compelled to inform the conservation authorities. And that they did, immediately.

“Resources” we were told would arrive at first light the next day. I asked them what they thought the authorities could possibly do in this situation and was told that in all likelihood they would take the cub to a zoo in Winnipeg. The thought horrified me. I wept more.

That night I slept little…my heart broke for the little creature out on his own in the cold, dark night, so close to the big boy who was no doubt still feeding on is mother…

Part of me quietly prayed that wolves or indeed the big male would swiftly take him out – for nature to clean it up, finish it off, put him out of his misery….I could not bear the thought of this little creature being airlifted out of there and confined to a city zoo for the rest of his life – having tasted freedom and wilderness? No. No. NO.

The next morning we drove back to the scene, all of us VERY quiet in the back of the vehicle. Hearts sank as we came over the rise and saw both bears still in fairly close proximity….little cub still calling, circling, looking bewildered….big male now covered in blood and fat and still feeding.

556A0906“Resources” (based a two hour chopper flight away) in Churchill – had asked that the guides take us guests far away from the scene as they dealt with things.

We paid our respects to the little chap, gave them both a wide berth and drove off. Only after having a much closer look at what the male was eating with our binoculars. Yes indeed – paws, fur, and half-eaten carcass of an adult polar bear. It was big mamma alright.  I wept more, and felt quite barren emotionally as we drove off and got on with the day, only returning to the lodge quite a lot later that afternoon.

We had heard and seen the chopper come in from many miles away, but there was little talk of what could have/may have/ should have played out. The guides were quite tight-lipped and I soon picked up that perhaps they did not have the greatest respect for the methods adopted by “Resources”.

When we drove past much later in the day, we found her crumpled and bloody remains. No big male, no cub in sight.

On our return to the lodge, the manager informed us that “Resources” had found the cub had mercifully been “taken out by wolves” (after we had seen him that morning – in broad daylight).

That was all we were told.

My partner and I looked at one another and raised our eyebrows as we made our way back to our bedrooms. Likely story, we both agreed. We suspect, the cub would have been euthanized. My suspicion is that they probably also took out the big male. I could well be wrong on the latter, but I found it very odd that he was not back on the carcass after the chopper had vanished.

What was also a little disconcerting is that significant parts of the carcass (head and paws) had been removed. Research perhaps?

I am not entirely clear why the authorities, or the lodge for that matter felt the need to pull the wool over our eyes, but there we are.

It was an emotional experience all round, and none of us felt the need to probe or delve further and potentially compromise the professional integrity of the lodge staff. They had their reasons – perhaps lodge guests had muddied their name in the past with similarly emotional sightings, who knows…

I guess the really burning question for me was WHY was the male driven to cannibalism? How common is cannibalism in the area? The fact that both guides had never seen anything like it in all their years living here made me decidedly uneasy.

A bit of desktop research and reading a book called “On Thin Ice” by Richard Ellis immediately after the trip brought a few things to the surface for me.

It seems the jury is out on whether this phenomenon is climate change related, and judging by the tone of the literature, it is prone to being sensationalized by the media, but whatever the case, I have a sneaking suspicion it has a human element to it.

There is a 50% mortality rate in cubs in the first year or two, and it is unusual to find a mother with more than one cub at the age when they are ready to be completely weaned. Six out of ten cubs die in their first year – as a result of attacks, starvation, accidents or infanticide.

There has, it seems, been a noticeable increase in occurrences of cannibalism amongst polar bears. This seems to play out when polar bears are deprived of food for an extended period, which is particularly acute due to the delay in the build-up of sea ice as a result of climate change.

In 2009, up to eight males were found eating cubs in the Churchill area in one season. Previously these bears were able to travel the iced-over Hudson Bay to find food, but more recently, with it taking longer to ice over, they had resorted to killing and eating cubs.

Our mum-eater certainly didn’t look emaciated or weak – he was a big, healthy looking animal. So could it just be an opportunistic feed? A fight to the death (over the cub) ended in a free, fat and protein-rich meal?

We will never know. But it was a substantial eye-opener, and it definitely piqued my interest in the management of these magnificent animals, their future and our influence in all this…

More of this in my next blog as I explore the rather unique and positively disturbing approach to human-wildlife conflict in the town of Churchill, where they make use of what they proudly call a “polar bear jail”…

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