“Once, the bears were our food. Now we’ve become the food.”
– Naujaat elder Donat Milortok
To kill a polar bear
The fate and ferocity of the North’s greatest predator has pitted the Inuit against southern scientists, leading to an extraordinary moment in a Nunavut court
Excerpts from a fascinating article by Aaron Hutchins
Published: April 15, 2019
It was about one hour before sunset on Sept. 8 when one local looked out toward the waters of Repulse Bay, at the northwestern edge of Hudson Bay. Almost immediately, anyone within earshot of a CB radio—most hunters keep theirs on all the time—heard the one word spoken aloud far too often as of late: Nanuk. Polar bear.
The animal was just a couple of hundred metres from town when another voice came over the airwaves, that of respected elder and once-active hunter Charlie Tinashlu: “Kill that polar bear before it gets too close,” he broadcast. “Kill it before it kills one of us—again.”
It had been only 10 days since Naujaat buried one of its own, Darryl Kaunak, a father in his early 30s who was mauled by a polar bear while out on a hunting trip. It had been two months since the people of Arviat, down the western shore of Hudson Bay, had to do the same for 31-year-old Aaron Gibbons.
There are several ways to try to chase off polar bears, rifle shots in the air and devices known as “bear bangers” among them. But over the years, residents say, these scare tactics have become less effective; the bears often return within a couple of hours, or a few days.
So the people of Naujaat were scared and angry. There was no guarantee that when this bear returned it wouldn’t come at night—a prospect all the more dangerous in a town of about 1,100 people, where 40 per cent are under the age of 15 and it’s not unusual to see kids playing street hockey at 2 a.m. There is one wildlife conservation ofﬁcer in Naujaat, Peterloosie Papatsie, whose job is to protect the town but also safeguard the bears by enforcing the Wildlife Act, which ideally means scaring bears away and not killing them. It doesn’t make him the most popular ﬁgure in the community.
Now, whether Papatsie approved or not, the town’s hunters were headed for the shoreline of Repulse Bay with an elder’s authorization to kill. It was approaching 7 p.m. when a gunshot went off. The bear collapsed, shot dead. The town was safe—for now. But the heart of the problem was still very much unresolved.
“(Polar bears are) increasing in numbers,” says Laimmiki Malliki, a hunter and culture teacher at Naujaat’s Tuugaalik High School, but the biologists, he adds ruefully, aren’t around to see them: “Scientists live down south. They come here a week or two and are back down again. They don’t know anything about the North.”
This sentiment is not exclusive to those living above the Arctic Circle. The Inuit along western Hudson Bay say the polar bear population is increasing there, too. In Arviat—the southernmost mainland community of Nunavut, located north of the self-described Polar Bear Capital of the World in Churchill, Man.—it’s gotten to the point where bears walk right through town or up to campsites without fear. “It’s scary,” says local hunter Brian Aglukark. “It’s no longer a safe environment.”
It is the Inuit who are most vulnerable. “The local Inuit have been saying for years and years that the polar bear population is too big,” says Paul Irngaut, director of wildlife and environment for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., an organization that speaks for the territory’s Inuit. “We can’t deal with them, especially the ones close to communities that put human life in danger.”
Chesterﬁeld Inlet, a Nunavut community on western Hudson Bay, has hired two people to carry rifles and watch over kids’ outdoor camps during the summer. “It’s getting worse every year,” says Mayor Simionie Sammurtok. “People don’t go for a walk anymore because there are too many polar bears. You have to carry a rifle all the time.”
“Some scientists identify that they believe polar bears are declining because of the impacts of climate change,” says Drikus Gissing, director of wildlife management for Nunavut’s Department of Environment. “Fortunately for polar bears, and unfortunately for some scientists, we have not observed those steep declines.”
The Inuit say they aren’t oblivious to changes in sea ice; many can see it from their kitchen windows each year. And they’re not denying climate change, says Irngaut: “It’s happening. But we’re saying the impact on polar bears is not that great.” If anything, he argues, the bears have revealed their adaptability. They can swim to catch their prey; they can eat berries and hunt caribou, among other species that come their way. They remain the Kings of the North.
In late August, Darryl Kaunak went on a caribou hunting trip in nearby Lyon Inlet with two other hunters, Leo Ijjangiaq and Laurent Junior Uttak, but they were marooned when their boat motor broke down. Kaunak was asleep on the second morning after their departure when, as the others made tea, a female polar bear and her cub snuck up on their tent. Kaunak woke to the sound of screaming. As Ijjangiaq tried desperately to steady his rifle, Kaunak ran, only for the mother bear to turn her attention on him. Ijjangiaq got one shot off at the bear before his gun jammed. One shot wasn’t enough; Kaunak was being mauled.
Ijjangiaq rushed to grab another rifle and pulled the trigger several times more until both mother bear and cub were dead—too late to save his friend. Kaunak’s body now lies next to his father’s in a cemetery that overlooks Naujaat.
“If I kill a polar bear, and there’s no tags, I get punished. If the polar bear kills me, who’s going to punish them?” asks Laimmiki Malliki, Naujaat’s high school culture teacher. “The owner has to be punished. Because it’s murder.” By “owner,” he says, he means the territorial government. “If you own something, you can tell somebody what to do or not to do. That’s what the government is saying: ‘Don’t kill my polar bear.’ ”
The government seems to be more interested in protecting the bears—and not mindful of the people who are in need of protection, says Naujaat elder Donat Milortok, speaking in Inuktitut through a translator. The people of Nunavut often will avoid killing a bear because they’re afraid of the law, Milortok adds, concluding: “Once, the bears were our food. Now we’ve become the food.”
See entire article and learn the outcome of the trial.
Includes several photos, including one of