A young female chases a reindeer buck into the icy water, catches and drowns it, and then pulls it ashore to eat it.
A research team filmed it all:
– The whole situation was so fantastic. It was like watching a documentary. You could almost hear the voice of a narrator saying that you absolutely must see this event because we will most likely never see anything like it again.
Izabela Kulaszewicz, a biologist at the University of Gdansk, told AFP.
The dramatic spectacle took place on Svalbard on 21 August 2020, but was only now made known through a research article.
Summer is the time of year when there is at least sea ice. With the ice, the seals, which are the polar bear’s most important food, also disappear.
Claims the polar bear changes diet
So unusual was the incident that it became an article in the scientific journal Polar Biology.
In it, the researchers claim that the incident is one of several observations that indicate that polar bears have started hunting for land animals.
Reindeer can be important, at least for some polar bears, when they have to be on land for long periods. That’s what Jon Aars at the Norwegian Polar Institute says. He is one of the co-authors of the article.
The lean summer period has become longer with climate change. Eating reindeer is a matter of survival, the researchers argue.
Two days after the researchers filmed the incident, the same polar bear was observed eating another reindeer carcass.
According to the authors of the article, there are indications that polar bears have hunted reindeer more frequently in recent decades.
Two factors come into play: The polar bear is stranded on land for long periods when the ice disappears in the summer. And the number of reindeer has risen steadily since reindeer hunting was banned in 1925.
Not enough to save the polar bears
However, other experts warn against reading too much into the incident:
– If polar bears killed reindeer in the 50s and 60s, it would probably not have been observed by anyone, since there were few people, few polar bears and few reindeer on Svalbard at the time, says Professor Andrew Derocher at the University of Alberta.
But the reindeer diet will probably not help increase the polar bear population, experts warn. Polar bears are skilled swimmers, but can not keep up with reindeer over long distances on land.
– Although an occasional successful increase in reindeer hunting can be good in the short term for a single bear, or two, and the media, I think it has little significance at the population level, neither for polar bears nor reindeer, says Professor Ian Stirlin, from Canadian Wildlife Service.
– There is not enough ice to maintain the polar bear population. Given the trend, I suspect that the polar bear population in the Barents Sea, which includes Svalbard, will disappear during this century, Derocher believes.